THE PASSING OF JOZEF TOMKO
by Jozef Rydlo, Slovak historian, politician and university educator.
The current interest in the personality of Cardinal Jozef Tomko is understandable. Even less understandable is the apparent superficiality of the information reflected in both print and electronic media. Various analysts, commentators and news reporters and their guests focus almost exclusively on the activities of Jozef Tomko only when he was a „cardinal“. They approach his activities only in the context of the Catholic Church at the international level. Of course, the activities of the Slovak Cardinal had a worldwide impact and we Slovaks are obviously continually feeling a sense of pride that „one of us“ has achieved such success in the world and lived such a long life. In our national history, Jozef Tomko is the first Slovak to achieve such a high position in the world that he literally moved the destinies of millions of believers as papa rosso (the red pope). [Papa rosso refers to the cardinal who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The term reflects the fact that cardinals wear scarlet robes and exerts their greatest influence in missionary countries. – Editor]
However, it is of great importance for Slovakia not to forget, map and remember Tomko’s „pre-Cardinal period“. Have we heard or read anything these days about why Slovak priests who studied in Rome after the Second World War could not return home? After all, apart from Jozef Tomko, there were among them such personalities as Dominik Hrušovský, Štefan Vrablec, Jozef Zlatňanský and František Škoda. Later, the „people’s democratic“ [the communist regime] persecution of the faithful forced people to safeguard their very lives, such as the priests Anton Botek, Štefan Náhalka, Pavol Hnilica, Anton Hlinka, František Reves, Félix Litva, and many others, Salesians, Jesuits, Verbists (Verbisti -Spoločnosť Božieho Slova – The Society of the Divine Word), Franciscans…
Has anyone mentioned the realities of the Slovak post-war diaspora? The suffering of thousands of Slovak women and men, or even millions of Eastern European refugees fleeing the spectre of communism seizing that part of Europe that the Allies had left at the mercy of the Soviet Union? Have we heard anything about Jozef Tomko and the Society of Slovak Writers and Artists Abroad? Has anyone mentioned the five Slovak expatriate priests (Michal Lacko, Félix Litva, Ľudovít Macák, Štefan Náhalka, Jozef Tomko) who in 1959 founded the Cyrilometodianum project, the project of the Slovak Center in the Eternal City? In 1963, from the „pennies of a poor widow“, it became today’s Pontifical Slovak Institute of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Or that Jozef Tomko was a founding member of the Slovak Institute in Rome, an academic institution of Slovak cultural, especially scientific, workers, and that he was one of its first full members and was at the cradle of the annual academic journal Slovak Studies, which is still published today, almost half a century later?
Silence has also shrouded his collaboration with ÚSKI, the Centre of Slovak Catholic Intellectuals, which awarded him its highest honour: the Great Cyril and Methodius Gold Medal with Chain. And did anyone evaluate his writing activity? His first books of theological literature were published by the Slovak Institute of SS. Cyril and Methodius. Has anyone remembered that during the first 25 years of its existence this Institute published three million copies of books, which during the years of totalitarianism were intensively smuggled into Slovakia, the Czecho-Slovak Socialist Republic, and the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic? And Tomko’s contacts with Slovak America were crucial: fraternal organizations, the Slovak League in America, the Slovak Catholics Association (SSK), the Slovak Institute in Cleveland, the World Congress of Slovaks…
Has anyone pointed out all the struggles that Jozef Tomko and with him all the Slovak priests in Rome, such as Štefan Náhalka, the Jesuit Michal Lacko, or the Salesian Ľudovít Macák, had to fight and successfully overcome in the Eternal City in order to achieve recognition of the national and political individuality of the Slovaks in the most influential circles of the Roman Curia? When the Slovak Institute of St. Cyril and Methodius, not only the Czech clergy in Rome opposed its establishment, but also Hungarian prelates who were obsessed with the nostalgia [of resurrecting the old Hungarian borders. (Editor)]. Plots were hatched not only by the Czech communists in Prague and their proconsul in Bratislava but also by their accomplices in Budapest and Rome. The enemies of the Slovaks could not prevent the establishment of the Institute, but like polecats, they symbolically achieved something at the consecration of its foundation stone to Pope John XXIII. They struck out the nouns and adjectives Slovakia, Slovaks, Slovak… from the speech.
Several books from the pen of Jozef Tomko were published in Slovakia after 1989, unfortunately not all of them. They are mostly memoirs. His key theological writings are waiting for their translator and publisher. Unfortunately, this is not only his fate, but the fate of all Slovak exiles, be it the legendary Dilong, the unique Strmeň, the outstanding Pelikán, the forgotten Henrich Bartek, the neglected Gorazd Zvonický, the unappreciated Šprinc, but also the „uranium king“ Štefan Roman or Eugen Löbl, whose dozens of books have been published everywhere in the world, but not a single one has been published in Slovakia since 1989 to this day. Was it because he was a Jew, a communist, who in the trial of Slánský and company did not get hanged, but was „only“ sentenced to life imprisonment, and in exile clearly stood up for the independence of Slovakia?
In 2000 at Lúč Publisher, I penned a representative book about the 75-year-old Cardinal Jozef Tomko. It was exquisitely prepared by the academic artist Ladislav Vančo, yet few people noticed it, even though it was published under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Slovakia and presented in the Hall of Mirrors of the Primate’s Palace in Bratislava, which was attended by the political, intellectual, and ecclesiastical elite of our restored state. The same fate awaits the two huge volumes of Cardinal Jozef Tomko, “Life in the Service of the Gospel” (2018) and “From the Desk of Cardinal Jozef Tomko” (2022), prepared by a priest from Košice, ThDr. Marián Čižmár.
Whoever has had the opportunity to know Cardinal Jozef Tomko personally and had the privilege of working with him at various stages of his exile life knows that today it is still too early for the narrative of his life to be objective and comprehensive: the Slovaks liked to live and live a life shrouded in fairy tales and legends… Jozef Tomko is not only an example which shows that the symbiosis of the national, the international and the supranational do not contradict each other but also an immanent example that an integral part of the Christian worldview of the Slovaks is conscious national awareness, i.e. that an integral part of the national consciousness of the Slovaks is the Christian worldview. If only Slovak contemporaries also understood this…
Translated by Dr Michael J. Kopanic, Jr., editor, The First Catholic Slovak Union of the United States and Canada