Abandoned by the Vatican: My Clandestine Journey to Support Secret Priests Behind the Iron Curtain is the little known but true tale of the “Book Priest” and his project to secretly ship Catholic books to illegal priests in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania during the Cold War. You would think a tale such as this (Mission Impossible with banned books!) would be well known while ballads of its fearless leader canonized by the Vatican. Sadly, this incredible and true tale hasn’t been discussed in detail, until now. Createspace | September, 2016 | Paperback | 442 pp
“We Czechs are defiant.”
The state of these priests-in-hiding wasn’t the the fault of the Vatican. It was Russia’s smack down after World War II, cordoning itself and the countries under its control off from the rest of the world. The Cold War and extreme communism are terms that easily go hand in hand. Russia’s atheist government was tough on everyone within its territories, but they were especially tough on the Catholic Church.
In Czechoslovakia, as well as the other countries, the government took possession of all assets. All of their crops and products were shipped to Russia while the workers were left with the scraps. The bureaucrats got fat, the people – the majority – became lean. Anyone who spoke out against communism was considered a traitor and sent to the gulags. The government declared the Vatican to be an enemy country and, on that account, had most of the priests rounded up and sent to the camps for torture, interrogation, and pure suffering. The Vatican was powerless to do anything.
Many years later, the priests (those who survived) were released and sent home. Anxious to save face from the bad press of mock trials and false imprisonment, the government allowed the Catholic Church to continue under high surveillance and complete control. But there was a difference between the the “fake priests” who supported communism, and the “secret priests” who denounced it. What the old priests wanted was a connection to Rome, the new materials and guides from the Vatican – material that was contraband.
In comes Jack Doherty, a young American priest working toward his Ph.D. in theology. After obtaining a visa to enter Czechoslovakia, he meets with the secret priests, bringing badly needed books. He is the first, really, to see the state they live in. Old, in seclusion, hidden meetings, hidden services – always being watched by the StB (Czechoslovakia’s Secret Police).
“In 1950 Czechoslovakia had over 200 religious houses and over 2,800 priests and brothers. After twenty years of communist rule, a good estimate of the number of priests is that half survived. Of this number half are over sixty years of age. The older priests prefer to be left alone.”
When Jack returns to Germany, he begins his great book project. He finds publishers willing to donate Catholic books that were slated for destruction, he receives small donations, and he is able to get a huge shipment out to a few addresses. It works. The books aren’t sent back at customs, and his targets receive the desperately needed texts. He continues to visit with these secret priests, getting more names and addresses, and word of his project begins to grow when letters of appreciation coming from within communist territory are received. It becomes so popular – so huge! – the American military wants to take over. More funds are donated, more publishers excitedly donate – Jack’s great book project takes on a life of its own.
There is one important group that Jack doesn’t want involved: the Vatican. With spies everywhere and on both sides of the Cold War, there are known spies within the Vatican who would gladly pass the knowledge of this operation to the Russian government, and that juicy tidbit could lead to the deaths of his fellow brothers behind the Iron Curtain.
As Jack visits a few more times with more secret priests, with some mention of exciting evasion of the StB, he learns how they’ve managed to hide new priests (by being married – because who would suspect a married man?), and he records tales of torture they had endured in prison, although many didn’t want to talk about it. Still, he gathers some awful descriptions of how the priests were starved and tortured in the most inhumane conditions possible. These gulags (although no longer called gulags during this time period) were death camps. Jack continues his visits to get more addresses, until the day comes when he tries to enter Czechoslovakia and the guard says, “Sie sind night erwünscht.” (You are not wanted.) Something is wrong.
This story blows my mind. The absolute courage and determination Mr. Doherty displayed simply by walking through that Iron Curtain, bringing items that could have meant his death or imprisonment and torture if discovered, is inspiring. More than inspiring. I don’t think there is a word to define it. He didn’t walk in with guns, or a plan if things went south, or with a giant entourage of steely men to help him. HE JUST WALKED IN. Straight into the lion’s den.
One interesting note I want to mention: the author never mentions his own name, aside from his beloved nickname as the “Book Priest” – unless I missed it. Even flipping back, I couldn’t find it. I wonder if this was done as a small reminder that he felt humbled in front of those who suffered and martyred themselves. Even Jack asked why they had done it – why didn’t they give in and confess to avoid torture?
Another note: most memoirs make the main focus on the self. Most memoir authors will discuss themselves at length, trying to create a connection. This is not done at all. We know almost nothing about Jack, aside from the fact that he’s working on his Ph.D. In this case, the author puts all of the emphasis on the book project and on the priests behind enemy lines. He doesn’t glorify himself at all. Just the facts, ma’am.
We all know about the death camps in World War II where millions were executed. This is after World War II, and these camps weren’t much different. Descriptions of torture are revealed but not in gory depth. Most of the priests refused to talk about their times in the camps, not wanting to relive it. There was one story that stood out for me. When Jack asked if the priests had been able to gather at all to pray, one priest explained how they faked out the prison guards in the yard every single time. They would walk together and do the Stations of the Cross while making it look as if they were having idle conversation. It’s a passage you’ll have to read – let their defiance swell your heart.
I highly suggest this book to anyone with a Catholic background, a Czech background, to Christians, to Cold War historians, and to those bibliophiles who have a penchant for banned books.
Abandoned by the Vatican is the ultimate “banned books” true tale. Fans of People of the Book by Pulitzer Prize–winning Geraldine Brooks will want to read this one.