Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"But reflect, I beg you, what it means to accept this world"

In 1971, well before anyone could foresee the day when the Berlin Wall would be torn down and the subsequent fall of the empire of evil, established by the Soviet Union, events that happened as a direct result of human desire being trampled on for far too long, Josef Zvěřina, a Czech Roman Catholic priest and theologian, wrote A Letter to the Christians of the West. Not long ago, a dear friend of mine, who is also a steadfast companion, Fred, sent an e-mail to what I can best describe as our little group, which, in addition to Fred and I, consists of Sharon and Suzanne, with a copy of Zvěřina's letter attached.

In other times many have specualted that Zvěřina would have been at least a bishop, if not a cardinal of Holy Roman Church. His excellence stood out from a very young age and was recoginzed especially when, as a young priest, he studied in Rome. "Instead," as his fellow priest and theologian, Odo Madra, wrote, in accord with the calling the Lord placed on him, "his life became a model of a directly downward career." Fr. Zvěřina was imprisoned by the Czech communist régime from 1952-1965. He said of his experience in prison, "In prison you learn about living the Gospel, that God sends rain and light on the good and bad." Below is the letter he sent, which remains very relevant during this age of ideology that seeks even to revise, reform, revolutionize something as basic as the family and which is resurgent after the fall of the great evil known as Marxist-Leninism:

Fr. Josef Zvěřina


You have the presumption of being useful to the Kingdom of God assuming as far as possible the saeculum, its life, its words, its slogans, its way of thinking. But reflect, I beg you, what it means to accept this world. Perhaps it means that you have gradually lost yourselves in it? Sadly, it seems you are doing just that. It [is] difficult these days to find you and recognize you in this strange world of yours. Probably we still recognize you because in this process you are taking your time, because you are being assimilated by the world, whether quickly or slowly, but late all the same. We thank you for many things, or rather for almost everything, but we must distinguish ourselves from you in one thing. We have much to admire in you, so we can and must send you this warning.

"Do not conform to this world, but transform yourselves by the renewal of your minds, so that you will be able to recognize the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing to him, what is perfect" (Rom. 12:2). Do not conform! Me syschematizesthe! How well this expression reveals the perennial root of the verb: schema. In a nutshell, all schemas, all exterior models are empty. We have to want more, the apostle makes it our duty, "change your way of thinking, reshape your minds" metamorfoùsthe tè anakainósei toù noós. Paul's Greek is so expressive and concrete! He opposes schèma or morphé – permanent form, to metamorphé – change in the creature. One is not to change according to any model that in any case is always out of fashion, but it is a total newness with all its wealth (anakainósei). [It's] not the vocabulary that changes but the meaning (noùs).

So not contestation, desacralization, secularization, because this is so little compared with Christian anakainósis. Reflect on these words and your naïve admiration for revolution, Maoism, and violence (of which, in any case you are incapable) will abandon you.

Your critical and prophetic enthusiasm has already borne fruit, and we cannot indiscriminately condemn you for this. We simply realize, and tell you sincerely, that we have more esteem for St. Paul's calm and discriminating invitation, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?" (2 Cor. 13:5).

We cannot imitate the world precisely because we have to judge it, not with pride and superiority, but with love, just as the Father loved the world (Jn. 3:16) and for this reason pronounced judgment on it.

Do not phroneîn – think, and in conclusion hyperphroneîn- but sophroneîn, think with wisdom (Cf. Rom. 12:13). Be wise, so that we can discern the signs of the will and the time of God. Not the fashion of the moment, but what is good, honest, and perfect.

We write as unwise to you who are wise, as weak men to you who are strong, as wretched men to you who are even more wretched! And this is stupid of us because there are certainly among you some excellent men and women. But precisely for this reason we need to write foolishly, as the Apostle Paul taught us when he took repeated Christ's words that the Father has hidden wisdom from those who know a lot about these things (Lk. 10:21).

This translation of Fr. Zvěřina's letter is taken from pages 110-112 of the book Generating Traces in the History of the World: New Traces of the Christian Experience, by Luigi Giussani, Stefano Alberto, Javier Prades.


  1. According to the Tablet, Fr. Josef Zvěřina was a Jesuit also.

  2. Fred, looking into his life more deeply, he was a Jesuit, indeed. Thanks for bringing him to my attention in the first place. Prior to your -email, I had never heard of him. Again, I'll be thinking about you guys in New York this weekend. Enjoy!


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