It is impossible to get used to the stories that tell of the suffering of the thousands of people who were persecuted in Czechoslovakia by the regimes that dominated and devastated it during the 20th century, first the Nazis and then the Communists. Some of these stories, more than others, surprise us and move us.
This is the case of the martyrdom of Fr. Josef Toufar, a priest who died on the 25th of February 1950, because of the month-long beatings suffered while inhumanely interrogated at the hands of StB agents, the secret police of the regime. His biography, As if we were to die today, edited by Miloš Doležal, came out in the Czech Republic in 2012 and has had much success: some of us were attracted at once by the story of a priest who, during the arc of his brief priesthood of just over ten years, was able to educate hundreds of youth, and to leave an imprint in the faith so deep that it still influences contemporary generations.
At the root of his arrest lies a miracle that took place on December 11, 1949, at his parish. During mass, the altar cross moved back and forth three times attracting the attention of the faithful and, in the following days, that of many pilgrims. Fr. Toufar was charged of setting stage to the phenomenon in order to bring increased attention to the Church and to discredit the regime’s antireligious propaganda. The Communist Party could not miss the occasion to weaken the trust that the Catholic Church still held amongst the faithful. Nevertheless, the priest’s confession of guilt, despite having been segregated and tortured, was never obtained. Still today, contemporary witnesses remember how, in a brief period of time through his total gift of self to Christ, the priest converted entire villages right when Leninist ideology lived its greatest expression, especially in the Czechoslovakian countryside.
What struck us most of Fr. Toufar, when we read his biography in 2012, was his faith, joyful and sure, that allowed him to encounter everyone: from children to the elderly, from diehard believers to the most convinced of atheists —and to leave a deep mark in them. Fr. Toufar did not have particular skills: he was neither a great preacher nor a fine theologian, nor was he particularly good at sports or at manual activities. It was clear that people did not follow him because of his talents, but because of the fire the burned in him for Christ, which brought him to spend himself completely for all without ever losing himself. The circumstances of his death confirm what was already visible in his life: Christ and the Truth before all else.
Starting last year, our community began to organize a pilgrimage to the sites where Fr. Toufar lived, including the church where his ministry was based when he was captured, and where he is now buried. We wanted to make this occasion widely known, and so we proposed it to all parishes in the city: a great missionary opportunity which even included the participation of non-believers, struck especially by the order and the beauty of the event, and by the communion among us, which allowed this beauty to become visible.
What still surprises us today about the life of Fr. Toufar is his love for the truth. What still moves us about his death is that he did not desire to bare false testimony, which, for him, would have meant betraying Christ.
In the photo: A moment after the Czech community’s recent pilgrimage to the Church where Fr. Toufar is buried.