Ludmila Javorova, one of several women ordained as Roman Catholic priests for the underground Church of Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, paid a private two-week visit to the United States late in 1997. She was accompanied by three Slovak women, one of whom, Magdalena Zahorska, served as an ordained deacon in the underground Church.
The visit, under the auspices of the Women’s Ordination Conference and Catholics Speak Out, brought Reverend Javorova into contact with approximately 200 American Catholics in four cities. She was able to share with them her story and the story of the underground Church in Czechoslovakia.
The 1948 Communist takeover of then Czechoslovakia brought vast social changes in education, health care, housing and employment. It also brought heavy persecution of Catholics, who constituted 66% of the population of 16 million. Thousands of people were imprisoned for practising their religion. Despite the threat of imprisonment, believers nourished a vibrant faith in an underground Church that paralleled the government-controlled parish structure.
Bishop Felix Davidek (1921-1988), a brilliant scholar, linguist and medical doctor, was consecrated with Vatican approval to serve the underground Church. When a need for sacramental ministry for women in prison emerged as a serious concern, it was clear that a male priesthood could not answer it. Davidek called a secret Synod composed of bishops, priests and laity to consider the ordination of women.
After heated debate, the decision was made to proceed. On December 28th., 1970, Davidek ordained the first woman priest, Ludmila Javorova, who served as Vicar General of the underground diocese for 20 years. In 1991, Cardinal Vlk of Prague confirmed that up to five or six women were ordained, but only Ludmila had come forward.
Following Vlk’s disclosure, reported in the New York Times, a Women’s Ordination Conference delegation travelled to Czechoslovakia to find and meet Ludmila in 1992. At first, they were warily received, but after hours of deep exchange, were warmly welcomed by representatives of the underground Church who had suffered and lived in deep secrecy for so many years.
The delegation, Ruth Fitzpatrick, Martha Ann Kirk, Carolyn Moynihan and Dolly Pomerleau, was successful in its search for Ludmila. On a second trip in 1996, Maureen Fiedler, Andrea Johnson and Dolly Pomerleau invited her to share her story and to hear the stories of American women called to priesthood.
Ludmila’s story and the story of her community is one of people being Church under the most oppressive of conditions. Felix Davidek, ordained a priest in 1946, was a man who recognised the scope of the danger to people’s spiritual, intellectual and physical lives with the Communist takeover. He acted immediately, organising an underground university and seminary. When discovered, he was imprisoned for fourteen years in 1950. Ludmila said that the very day he was released from prison, Davidek was busy rebuilding the system he had begun. He was a natural choice for leader of the underground diocese. Ludmila, a family friend since childhood, was asked to help and to assist in the rebirth of the persecuted Church.
Miraculously, Davidek and the underground Church had access to the smuggled-in documents of Vatican Council 11. They built a church community ‘for the future’, as Ludmila put it. It is remarkable that a church under such persecution, which needed to have strict security, was so determined and able to implement a model of church that was open and inclusive. Broad consultation in Synod was the hallmark of the underground Church’s decision-making process!
Felix Davidek led the underground Church from 1970 until 1988, the year of his death. Ludmila Javorova served as his Vicar General during the same years. She was responsible for communication and keeping the community’s records for posterity.
Davidek’s death in 1988 came just one year before the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Bishop Jan Blaha took his place as head of the diocese. In 1990, the underground Church surfaced. Ludmila felt responsible to communicate to Rome what had been happening during all those underground years. Bishop Blaha alone went to Rome, however, to report on everything.
Ludmila submitted a written report, including the information on all the ordinations, but never received a reply. Ultimately, the ordinations of the women and the married men were declared invalid by the Vatican, and both men and women were forbidden to function.
Ludmila accepts that she cannot function as a priest without the official Church’s mandate, but she clearly maintains the validity of her orders. We were privileged to have her here in the United States, and we are delighted that she has not ruled out the possibility of another visit in the future.
Ludmila has also committed herself to the setting down of her memoirs. She believes her story and the story of the underground Church must be told for the good of the Church.