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Sep 5 Joseph Beran - Courage in front of totalitarianism


Today in 1942 the Czech priest Joseph Beran was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He was given number 25844 after the Nazis had targeted him for "subversive and dangerous" behaviour. He would survive the death camp and he was freed in 1945 upon Allied liberation and Pope Pius XII nominated him to head the Prague archdiocese. Following the Communist coup in 1948 in then-Czechoslovakia, Beran publicly opposed the new regime and was put under house arrest and moved by the secret police from village to village. Authorities wanted to cut the ties between him and his flock.


He became a symbol of opposition to totalitarian regimes and In 1965, Pope Paul VI appointed Beran a cardinal. The Communist government let him leave for Rome. He was involved in the II Vatican Council and died in 1969 and was buried in the papal crypt of St Peter's; he is the only Czech person with such honor. "He is an example for you all," said Pope Paul VI over his death bed. "He is one of the reasons why I pray for the country called Czechoslovakia." However, he always wanted to be buried at home one day.


Josef Beran was born into a poor Catholic family in Pilsen, about 50 miles west of Prague in 1888. Pilsen is now famous for Pilsner beer, created by Bavarian brewer Josef Groll in the city in 1842. Beran’s father was a teacher but money was so short there was nothing to put on the table. Years later, Beran recalled reminding Communist officials that he probably came from a much more miserable background than them. He was a talented student who thought about studying medicine but went in 1907 to the Czech college in Rome. He was ordained in 1911 and a year later was awarded his doctorate in theology. He became a professor and later director of a teaching institute in the centre of Prague. He was a promoter of women’s education and was appointed director of all Catholic schools. When the acting Nazi ruler of Bohemia, Reinhard Heydrich, died following an audacious attack by Czechoslovaks parachuted in from Britain, Beran was one of the thousands rounded up by the Gestapo in June 1942. Today he ended up at the German concentration camp of Dachau on the outskirts of Munich, one of 122 Czechoslovak Catholic priests sent there. He was close to death at one point with typhus and later said every minute afterwards was a gift from God.


On liberation in May 1945, Beran and the survivors returned home in hastily adapted SS uniforms. There was nothing else for them to wear. He was immediately seen as a likely candidate for Archbishop who could bring prestige to the church and counter the rising Communist influence as he was perceived as a hero, as a person who took part in the anti-Nazi resistance. He was crowned with this glory as a victim of Nazi persecution. The communists pushed through land reform which again reduced Church property before 1948. And they also took steps to curb Church publications on the grounds that there was a shortage of paper after the war.” A series of negotiations began but the Communists wanted to tame the Catholic Church which they identified as the only real challenger to their power and demanded a clear declaration of loyalty from the church but Beran was not willing to give that endorsement. So the Communists tried to split the Church by using collaborators, both from the ranks of priests and lay people. The so-called Catholic Action movement was aimed at serving Communist goals by creating a schism in the Catholic Church and when Archbishop Beran began reading out a declaration denouncing Catholic Action in St. Vitus’ Cathedral on June 19, 1949. He was able to read the first sentence before his words were drowned out by secret police agitators packed into the Cathedral. He returned to the archbishop’s palace to find a handful of officers waiting for him. It was the start of a 16-year regime of house arrest and imprisonment at various sites around the country.


Relations with the Vatican and Communists began to improve in the 1960’s with talks launched in 1963. One of the key points was what to do about Archbishop Beran. In 1965 Beran was appointed Cardinal. The Communists spelled out that they would allow him to go to Rome, but only if he never returned. Beran was at first unwilling to accept the deal but the Vatican pointed out that it would at least allow the appointment of a new archbishop to better defend it. He flew to Rome on February 19, 1965, never to return to his homeland.