Former Leader in Czech Revolution Now an Activist Bishop

From Associated Press

The boyish-looking dissident who was a leading voice of the 1989 Velvet Revolution is now the newest bishop of the Czech Roman Catholic church. But that doesn't mean Vaclav Maly has become any more conventional.

As a bishop, he keeps in touch with ordinary folk. Maly, 46, wears street clothes instead of clerical garb, prefers public transportation to his church-provided car and occasionally visits pubs.

"I'm in a position now where I really have to think whether I should go to a pub," he said, referring to his consecration last January. "But I go from time to time with friends and have a glass of wine."

From his office in a seminary that used to house a communist propaganda magazine and stands opposite a building once used for secret police interrogation, the tousle-haired bishop hopes to persuade more Czechs to address problems of their society, and its Catholic church.

Democracy has come and capitalism is blossoming. But post-communist maladies include corruption, xenophobia and general apathy. Maly complains that Czech businessmen are greedy, intellectuals indifferent, politicians timid and even the Roman Catholic church too meek.

"I think the church should deal with issues such as ethics in business, housing and treating foreigners well. I'm looking for ways for the church to address such questions," Maly said.

Maly was an unusual figure in the Charter 77 dissident movement that eventually overthrew communist rule. In a crowd of largely agnostic intellectuals who enjoyed a raucous evening, he was a priest. While others stoked boilers to survive, Maly--formally banned from practicing religious office--spent nearly 11 years covertly preaching and performing religious rites in people's homes.

When the revolution began, Maly ran the massive anti-communist rallies, introducing Vaclav Havel and other speakers. He was hugely popular.

Then, at the biggest rally of all, he made a fleeting but direct reference to God. Others saw it as an attempt to make a pitch for Roman Catholicism, and Maly was pushed from the limelight.

He eschewed the high office gained by fellow dissidents. For Maly, the end of communism meant once again being a priest out in the open, at St. Anthony's Church in Prague.

Maly likes to share and hone his views on what should be done--hence the pub visits and rides on public trolleys.

"It's good to show that a bishop is a normal person," he said.

Some Czechs wonder why Maly doesn't just go into politics, where he might be more broadly heard. Of the 10 million Czechs, fewer than half are Catholics and many no longer go to church.

"Vaclav Maly is a totally atypical priest. He continues to be a dissident who, for reasons unknown to me, became a church official," said Jefim Fistejn, editor in chief of Lidove Noviny, a respected Prague daily.

But Maly insists: "I am above all a priest. And I wouldn't be a good priest if I had political passions."

Czech Roman Catholics are grateful for him.

"Because of who he is, Vaclav Maly can persuade people that a believer is not necessarily a raving enthusiast but can be an intelligent person who knows what's going on in the world," said Zdenek Kosina, a parishioner at St. Anthony's.

Back in 1979, Havel, Maly and eight others were thrown into prison without charge. Maly was released after seven months; Havel was tried, convicted and jailed for nearly four years.

Communist authorities banned Maly from being a priest. He was arrested frequently, held for several days, then released. On one occasion, his jailers beat him until he bled.

Maly is disappointed that so many fellow ex-dissidents are now at odds with each other over politics.

"Some are radicals. Some have ideas that belong in the past. Some are bitter," he said.

He was apprehensive about a 20th anniversary bash for Charter 77 in Havel's presidential Prague Castle in January.

"But it was excellent," he said with a smile. "There wasn't one single quarrel."

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