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Ludmila in Cleveland, Fall 1997:
(L to R) Sheila Daley (CTA), Ludmila Javarova, Dan Daley (CTA), Miriam Therese Winter, Christine Schenk (FutureChurch).

Out of the Depths:The Story of Ludmila Javarova, Ordained Roman Catholic Priest

Review by Fran De Chant

Sister Miriam Therese Winter's remarkable book, Out of the Depths, details the first complete account of a piece of history destined to shake the allegedly immutable foundation of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Circumstances that led a bishop of the Czech underground Church to secretly ordain a woman is the story eagerly awaited by many who had gleaned only parts of it. At the center is the learned, intensely private, deeply spiritual and duly ordained Ludmila Javorova. I count myself among those who were fortunate to meet this extraordinary woman when she visited FutureChurch leaders in a private meeting in Cleveland in 1997.

How this book came to be written is itself an odyssey. In 1992 a delegation from Women's Ordination Conference and the Quixote Center undertook a visit to the Czech Republic. They had read a 1991 New York Times article reporting that women and married priests and deacons had been ordained to serve the Czech underground church suffering under communism. With the help of a Czech priest, they traveled to Brno and met about 20 members of the underground church who questioned them about the purpose of their visit. After the meeting a woman invited the Americans to visit her apartment to continue the discussion. It was Ludmila Javorova. Over the next 48 hours, she shared her story on the condition that her name be kept confidential. After another visit to Brno in 1996, Ludmila cautiously agreed to visit the U.S. on the condition that her visit would be private.

In the course of Ludmila's travels in this country, the late Bishop Francis Murphy from Baltimore listened to her account with warmth and support. Sister Chris Schenk was instrumental in bringing Sister Miriam Therese Winter and Ludmila together in Cleveland. A few nights after a random meeting of the two across the aisle of a train to New York, Winter experienced a sudden awakening from her sleep and knew she would write Ludmila's story.

Winter then journeyed to Brno and with the help of translators, unraveled an unusual sequence of events. In the process, a friendship was forged between the American Medical Mission Sister and the gifted, reticent woman whose life's story would turn a world of established notions upside down.

Ludmila's family traces its origins to Monrovia in Czechoslovakia. Born in 1932, her early life in a family of eight girls and two boys was hard-working, faith-filled, and marked by devotion to home and duty. The German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 transformed daily life into a struggle for survival. Following the end of World War II, Communist domination imposed civic and religious oppression so severe that the region still struggles to recover after more than a decade of freedom.

Against this background of religious repression (known as the Totality), Felix Maria Davidek experienced his call to priesthood and was ordained in 1945. Later imprisoned by Communist authorities for 14 years, he was consecrated bishop of the underground Church by Bishop Jan Blaha in 1967. These facts are well documented, approved and recognized by the Vatican, under Pope Paul VI, as part of a complex effort to preserve an autonomous Church behind the Iron Curtain.

Likewise, there are facts supporting the Vatican's knowledge and approval of numerous ordinations of married men among the underground Church, a branch of which was known as "the Koinotes" during this period. Unfortunately, secrecy necessitated by the harshness of the Communist regime has blurred documentation of ordinations of several women. At last, Ludmila has revealed her story of a nighttime rite of laying on of hands, witnessed only by Davidek's brother, followed by a private first mass and the new priest's first blessing. A priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek....

The remainder of Ludmila's story is marked with dignity and sadness. When he ordained Ludmila, Davidek intended that she would serve women inmates in Communist prisons who were deprived of sacramental ministry. Although she waited daily for her arrest, Ludmila never was taken to prison, leaving her in a marginalized situation. She was a priest, yet not known as one, even to her own parents. Ludmila could exercise her ordained calling only in private or by keeping her priestly faculties unknown to those she ministered to - an unbearable tragedy.

In Out of the Depths Miriam Therese Winter simply and elegantly relates a remarkable story, often in Ludmila's own words. By book's end, I sensed that I was looking for, but did not find openly stated what Ludmila would say to women who presently seek priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Would she encourage them to follow in her footsteps? Would she point them down a path that would subject them to the humiliations she suffered and the ostracism that stills shadows her? Or might she advise them to wait for the sea-change in the Church's world-view that surely must come?

This reader views Ludmila's sacrifice as virtual interior martyrdom. I am certain that she would want to make smooth the way of women who will come after her. In her own words, "I didn't aspire to power, I didn't do it to compete, I just wanted to serve. I wanted only to make the life of others lighter. I believe that the essence of the Gospel is to make the yoke light for people and I wanted to help."

She has helped. The repercussions of her ordination are profound. In the official Church, resistant as it may seem, her life and her words must make a difference. Surely her witness will bear the fruit of a host of other easier witnesses.

May she, Ludmila Javorova, experience in her lifetime the recognition of her ordained calling This book, most truly written "out of the depths" of a priestly woman's striving and suffering, is a landmark beginning.

 



 

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