Wollner, Petr, “Church as a Symbol of Reconciliation”

The Forum in Canterbury last year, where the European network for historic places of worship was established, joined people of different professions, experiences and knowledge from 24 countries of Europe and Canada, to think and talk about churches, or sacred space in general.

My rough estimate is 300 000 churches in all European countries, built in nearly 2000 years of history of Christianity in Europe. Meeting places with living God, also symbols of power of the Church in certain periods, in most cases important treasuries of art and architecture, important landmarks of every city or village, meeting points of people of all generations.

What a change at the beginning of 21st century! We realise that thousands of European churches are not used any more, standing as a silent witness of faith of our ancestors, for some reason forgotten and abandoned.

Suddenly we must organize conferences and discuss how to save these beautiful buildings, formerly standing as natural centres of the community life. Suddenly we must discuss whether it is acceptable to transform these buildings to concert halls, cultural centres or, in worse cases to family houses or restaurants. The answer is not easy, and it is impossible to find general unity in solutions.

It is fully legitimate to say, from the viewpoint of devoted Christians, that the church is the house of God, and it is better to shut the door and leave nature to transform the church into ruins if there is nobody to worship Him in this place any more. However, it is equally legitimate to say that the church is an important witness of history and culture of the place, and to give all effort to save it for future generations.

The chapel of St. Cross in winter, in front foundations of baroque 18th century church which was demolished by the communist army.

My native country, the Czech Republic, is one of the countries, where these questions are really important, with more than 8000 churches and chapels within the whole country, and maybe 25% from this number just empty and without use, many others used only occasionally. The majority of our inhabitants, like in many other European countries, lost their faith, or at least the need to live their faith in unity with the Church. In addition to this reality, the complicated history of central Europe in 20th century dramatically affected traditional communities in many areas. The former multicultural and multinational area of Austrian Empire, and also new countries, created after the year 1918, like Czechoslovakia, became witnesses of painful periods of WW II, holocaust, and finally the transfer of three million Germans, living for centuries in Sudeten (a large area of Bohemia and Moravia along the border with Germany), to their war destroyed motherland. In a very short time life disappeared from hundreds of villages, towns and their churches. The following period of the communist government completed the destruction, leaving a great number of these places without any care, or transforming it into military areas, in the best cases inviting new inhabitants without any relationship to the history and tradition of the land.

The period of democracy after the year 1989 was very promising and optimistic for the whole society as well as for the Church itself. In the first post- communist census in 1991 nearly 50% of the inhabitants in Bohemia and Moravia proclaimed themselves as members of the Church, mostly Roman Catholic. We could follow a great effort of renewal and reconstruction of destroyed or forgotten places, also with international help. Some of the stories were really moving, when the original inhabitants or their children were coming from Germany with old photos to show how the places looked like 50 years ago, to initiate and support the repairs.

Interior of the chapel of St. Cross, Sumava, West Bohemia, in 1997, photo V. Kudrlicka

One of my favourite places in my country is the chapel of St. Cross in Šumava mountains close to the German border in the Bavarian area. A simple building, built in 1820, with nothing else surviving from the former village and famous glass factory existing there for centuries. Till 1989 it was a prohibited military area. Houses of the village served as a training target for the army, the church survived for one special reason. It was high enough to serve as a military watchtower.

We came there for the first time in March 1990 and we found the church nearly without roof, vaults in ruins, just a few pieces of destroyed furniture left, including destroyed wooden and glass coffins in the crypt, once belonging to the members of a famous glass making family.

As a small miracle, after a long time of repairs, the chapel was reopened again a few years ago, with many pilgrims present from both countries, as a symbol of a long and difficult history, and reconciliation between the nations. A graveyard of the former inhabitants of the village was restored and a new symbolic grave installed, as a memory of 55 people who were shot on the border in this area during the communist era, trying to cross the iron curtain and escape to Germany. Once a year there is a Holy Mass service in the chapel to join all people of good will who are willing to make the one hour walk to the mountains, with some exemption for disabled and old people to use the car in the area of National Park.

The chapel of St. Cross repaired and reopened in 2005 after 57 years of deterioration

These are experiences of hope in a situation less optimistic than 20 years ago, with the number of people proclaiming themselves as Christians much lower again, with an estimate of people attending Sunday services less than 10% of the nation. It is a great challenge for all involved, and especially for the Roman Catholic Church as the owner of 90% of the churches in our country, to invite people again into these wonderful places as meeting points with God, or to join with the others who have a sense for dignity and beauty of the sacred places and find the way how to invite new life there.

Petr Wollner
Deputy Manager, Building and Restoration Department
The Archbishopric of Prague