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The Central European Pentecost in Olomouc

Late autumn in 2019 I was invited to a conference in Olomouc in the Czech Republic to hold a presentation on the Catholic college and charity work. I happily accepted the invitation, since this time the program included some time for sightseeing. As I passed the monumental Holy Trinity Column, which was erected to express the gratefulness of the locals to God for ending a plague in 1716, a familiar writing caught my eyes in the window of an antiques store. “EGY KORONA” (meaning one crown in Hungarian) was written with big capitals on the front side of a banknote and “EINE KRONE” right next to it. The store was open, so I went in straightaway and bought the banknote, a piece of history dating back to 1916.

The next day at the conference I had this banknote with me as I stepped on the pulpit. I looked around and started reading out loud the letters on it: “Eine Krone”, “Egy Korona”, “Jedna Koruna”, “Jedna Korona”, “Una Corona”, and so forth. Although the participants in the room came from seven different countries, from Croatia to Poland, everyone could hear the two words “one crown” in his own language. Somehow all participants were symbolically connected by this antique banknote.

 

Divisions and Connections

Central Europe has always been a region of divisions and connections. Our generation still has memories of grandparents, who could speak not only the language of their mother tongues, but could also make themselves understood with the neighbouring people. This was mostly for practical reasons, such as trade, education or religious practices. But for the next generations, born in the communist era, language was experienced as a dividing element. There were some exceptions, such as Poland and Hungary, where people learned each other’s language to experience a little bit of free culture and extra wealth – so far as culture was freer in Poland and Hungarians were better off than citizens of other communist countries. But in general, our generation was born into a world where the language and also the culture of our neighbours seemed much more alien to us than the language and culture of any German or American big city.

This was also true for theology. Rahner, Küng and Merton were the authors whose books filled the shelves of theological libraries in Central Europe, but theologians of neighbouring countries did not know much about what their colleagues were doing maybe just 30 kilometres across the border.

This started to change noticeably in the last decade. Not because theologians started to learn each other’s language, but primarily due to the discovery of what connects them: their shared history and experience of communism. It is not only the now seemingly peaceful times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, or the often repressed memories of World War II, but much more the experience of the Soviet occupation and socialism, in addition the Janus-faced character of the change of regime in 1989 which connects them.

 

The Central European Experience

Central Europe is a region with potentials we have only started to discover recently. People here have learnt in the last centuries how to overcome difficulties and also how to solve conflicts. But, as Emil Brix and Erhard Busek formulate, in Central Europe we failed in the last decades to bring off the “common potentials of creativity and historical experience between east and west”.[1] This is true for theology, too. We share the experience of isolation during communism, the necessity of creativity in doing theology in times of oppression, how hopes are overshadowed by disappointments in the times of change, and certainly the liberating power of the Gospel and the church.

Central European political visions reach back to some distant glorious past, a golden age or an invincible ruler, and are bound to individual nations. By contrast, the shared experiences mentioned above carry the chance for a common, future oriented vision. This entails neither the dissolution of national identities, nor turning ones back on the concept of a joint Europe. The negative experience of being torn away from Europe and from the neighboring countries should serve as the fuel for establishing and strengthening the bonds between Central European countries. Surprisingly these negative experiences might prove as a real contribution to the pan-European idea.

We not only need highways which lead from Central to Western Europe, but highways which connect neighboring countries from Romania to Poland. Similarly, we do not only need intellectual channels which transfer ideas from the West to Central Europe, but also networks in Central Europe supporting collaboration and exchange in thinking. We need forums to share and elaborate experiences in order to form a common narrative of Central Europe.

Catholic universities and academic networks do already serve this purpose – often unconsciously. They not only connect academics but people carrying the memories of these historical experiences. People, who are familiar with the narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition and are connected to the elephant memory of the church, to the “memoria passionis” (Metz) which may form a framework for a deeper and theological understanding of what it means to be a Central European. Moreover, these institutions and networks are able to connect different generations of Central Europeans, who can learn from the wrong-headed divisions of the past and conceive a future-oriented vision of the region.

 

The Central European Pentecost

The biblical (anti-)parallel for the Central European post-communist societies was the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3,8), pointing out the false hopes and disappointments of these countries after the fall of the iron curtain.[2] Today, 30 years after the change of regime, it is Pentecost which could embody the potentials of the Central European region: people speaking their own language and still understanding each other (Acts 2,6). This hope and potential was once printed on the one-crown banknote in 1916, which is today a memento of a failed endeavour to connect the different peoples of Central Europe. Yet, its message is still valid today: by using the creative potentials of the region it is possible to overcome the divisions caused by language, culture or history. By sharing our stories, by putting them on the same “banknote” it is possible to create a common understanding and to gain a common identity. Certainly, the one-crown note I bought at the antique shop is not worth much unless we invest it to connect us.

 

[1] Brix, Emil; Busek, Erhard: Mitteleuropa revisited: Warum Europas Zukunft in Mitteleuropa entschieden wird, Verlag Kremayr & Scheriau, Wien, 2018, 11.

[2] Vgl. Máté-Tóth, András; Mikluščák, Pavel: Nicht wie Milch und Honig : unterwegs zu einer Pastoraltheologie Ost(Mittel)Europas, Ostfildern : Schwabenverlag, 2000