Hopelessness in Prague 40 Years Ago Mirrors America Today

By Fr. Mark Pilon | June 5, 2017 | 8:08pm EDT
Czechoslovakia 1947 (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

There’s a lot of hopelessness in our society today. Polls show that huge numbers of people have concluded that the future of Western society is dark and that the future of this country is not bright for their children. There are a lot of factors involved in this hopelessness, including our societal moral decay, the political gridlock and growing hostility within and between political parties, and the collapse of a truly liberal education in the face of radical movements which substitute ideological propagandizing for the search for truth.

It reminds me of the general hopelessness I witnessed among friends in Prague, Czechoslovakia during my only visit to that country during its communist era, back in 1977. I was traveling with a priest friend whose parents were forced to flee for their lives after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. His parents came from the upper class, a very educated and politically influential class that took power after the fall of Nazism. Because they had been put on a death list by the new communist regime, they fled to West Germany where my friend was born in a displaced persons camp. Eventually, his family ended up in New York City where at last his parents both found employment somewhat commensurate with their education.

My priest friend and I had studied in the seminary together and came to be good friends. Only two years into our priesthood, he asked me if I would accompany him to Prague where he wanted to visit his dying grandmother. We entered the country with passports that omitted any evidence of our priesthood so as not to cause his family any problems. When we arrived in Prague late one evening, his elated grandmother quickly arranged for the extended family to gather immediately and spend time with her grandson and his American friend late into the early morning hours.

Father Peter, who spoke perfect Czech, did a lot of translating for me that night and for a few days afterwards down in the Black Forest where we retreated in order to have some privacy. His relatives told us they could not speak openly in the grandmother’s apartment because they were afraid that the walls had ears, and they wanted to have a frank and open discussion on all kinds of matters, political, philosophical, religious, sociological etc. His extended family members were all very well-educated people, and they were obviously starved for such an open discussion. 

Those days were an incredible experience, perhaps one of the most stimulating intellectual discussions I’ve ever had. But there was also a notable, underlying tone of depressing sadness as they, at times, displayed a deep lack of hope in their lives and, above all, their lack of hope for the future of their few children. At one point during a political discussion, one of his aunts brought this to the forefront when she said that most of the people she knew did not want to bring children into such a world like the one they were forced to live in every day. These were not naive intellectuals, and they told us openly that after 1968, when Russia crushed the so-called Prague Spring, they had little if any hope that the West would ever help them escape from communist rule. They were not bitter toward the West, but they really saw no way out without our help. And quite frankly neither did I. It was all so very depressing.

One evening, when my priest friend and I excused ourselves to pray evening prayer from the breviary, his family seemed fascinated by the fact that we would break off from some very interesting discussions to say our prayers. We retired to another room to pray, and when we returned to the dining room, a couple of members of his extended family actually had tears in their eyes. They told us frankly that if only they could believe, then they would have some hope. But other than the grandmother herself, the rest of his family, unfortunately, were unbelievers and had long ago abandoned any pretense of Christianity. They were good people, and I really admired and loved them all, but they were people without faith and thus without any hope given the circumstances of their lives.

That experience was in sharp contrast to another earlier experience in Prague when Peter and I went to celebrate Mass one morning at the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the home of the famous statue of the Infant of Prague. I have seen photos recently of that beautifully restored church, but when we visited it, the whole building was trashed and looked like an abandoned warehouse inside. After we celebrated Mass at the side altar, where the statue resides to this day, we made our way to the sacristy, which was off to the side of the abandoned sanctuary, where we would return our vestments.

While we were unvesting, a young married couple entered the sacristy and began a conversation with Peter. The man was a Czech national, and the lady was from West Germany. They met while working for their respective airlines, and since he wasn’t free to leave his country, after their marriage she returned with him to Prague. That is what love does. 

But the most striking thing was that, without a doubt, they were one of the happiest married couples I’d ever met. They were devout Catholics, and they wanted to talk to us about our faith and especially about any Marion apparitions that might’ve taken place recently in the West. They had heard some rumor that there were prophecies concerning the liberation of Czechoslovakia. We disabused them of the authenticity of at least one of the supposed apparitions, and the other one they mention we had not heard of ourselves. Nonetheless, they were not discouraged, and they told us how happy they were to meet young priests who were quite a rarity in Czechoslovakia.

In spite of the hardship of their lives, this was a hope-filled couple, unlike my friend’s secularized relatives. In fact, they had just welcomed their third child into the world, in spite of the fact that they were living in an apartment with two other families and were holding menial jobs, all because of their open practice of their faith by having the children baptized. Their children were, for them, the future, and they had a genuine hope that somehow they would one day be free. That hope came true only twelve years later, following the so-called velvet revolution. But at that time, this possibility seemed quite dim.

I had been feeling rather depressed after the discussions with my friend’s family, but the recent memory of the faith and joy of this couple really restored my spirits. When we left the country, I was filled with mixed emotions; sadness at leaving my new friends behind in the their darkness of their hopelessness in the Black Forest and a certain joyful hope for their eventual freedom based solely upon the faith of his beloved grandmother and the joy in the hearts of that young couple in the shambles of a Church in Prague.

It was one of those life learning experiences of the importance of faith in the lives of people. Without it, the darkness of this world becomes oppressive and hope disappears. But with faith, the light shines again, and people are capable not only of surviving great evils but they are capable of living meaningful and hopeful lives in the midst of the darkness that surrounds them. I learned this from that beautiful couple. I pray their children are good Catholics like their parents and are grateful for their gift of the Catholic faith.

Given the problems in our country today, including serious problems in the Church, it’s a lesson that the downcast in our own time need to learn. We won’t be able to change things without hope in the future, for hope is what enables one to live a joyful life right now in the midst of adversities. The most positive sign of that hope is the birth of children, as I saw in the faces of the couple in Prague that day so long ago. I learned from them that our hope and our joy in life can also be a great help to others who see the political and societal problems much the same way that we do, but whose lack of faith leaves them in a paralyzing hopelessness.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at


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