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The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The fortunes of the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia mirror those of these Central European states, which once formed a united Czechoslovakia. Church and state were born after the collapse of the multiethnic empire of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Both were controlled by Nazi occupiers during World War II and then by the Soviets, who commandeered leadership after the war. Both were revived after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and have since been affected by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia — the so-called Velvet Divorce — in 1993.

Though a relatively young community, and numbering only about 100,000 people, the Orthodox Church in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and the independent republic of Slovakia dates back more than a thousand years.

The Slav mission. In Europe’s Middle Ages, Latin missionaries worked among the Slavic peoples of the principality of Great Moravia. These missionaries (most of whom were Germanic) introduced the Latin rites of the Roman church in the ninth century and advocated closer ties with Moravia’s Germanic enemies. To counter these efforts, Moravia’s reigning prince, Rastislav, petitioned the emperor in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople to provide Slav-speaking missionaries to work among the prince’s subjects.

In 862, the emperor sent two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who devised an alphabet for the Slavonic vernacular, translated Scripture and the liturgies of the church (it remains unclear whether these liturgies were Byzantine or Latin in rite) into Slavonic, and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law. Despite support from the papacy, the brothers’ work generated hostility among the Latin Germanic bishops. They later drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia, engineered Rastislav’s removal and, in 886, banished their followers.

Two of their disciples, Clement and Naum, found refuge in the Balkans, where they furthered the works of Cyril and Methodius. They organized a church Byzantine in custom yet independent of the church of Constantinople and the church of Rome. This church, which supported the aspirations of the first Bulgarian tsar, Boris I, served as a model for similar autonomous churches later established in the Slavic states of Kievan Rus’ and Serbia.

Greater Moravia collapsed after 893. Its successor state, the Latin Catholic Kingdom of Bohemia, retained its Slavic “Czech” identity despite profound antagonisms and influences from neighboring Germanic principalities — a state of affairs that survived until the decades following World War II. This Czech tenacity impacted the culture in a number of ways.

In the early 15th century, Jan Hus, a Czech priest and rector of the famed Charles University in Prague, reacted to the schism in the church (there were three rival claimants to the papal throne) corruption and abuses that compromised the integrity of the church and the papal office. The popular preacher called for a number of reforms — the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the reception of the Eucharist under both species and the prohibition of clerics from assuming secular power.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Church history Slovakia Czech Republic