The people at the Brno (Photo: Jakub Šnajdr/Meeting Brno)

Meeting Brno 2023: The possible embrace

The historic dialogue between the Czech and Slovak presidents, meetings at symbolic places of divisions, the Pilgrimage of Reconciliation. This is how the Czech festival became an instrument of the prophecy of peace.
David Macek

"The world is facing many crises and the only way to get through them is with cooperation. The only thing we need is our humanity. When we look at any other person, I am aware that you are me and I am you and that we are one. Therefore, let us have the courage to be human. We have no choice but to live together and that is impossible without understanding or mutual support.”

Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová welcomed Pope Francis to Bratislava two years ago with these words, and with these same words we opened the annual Reconciliation festival Meeting Brno 2023 (June 22-July 2), in the garden of the historic Tugendhat and Löw-Beer villas. This is where the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was decided on thirty years ago, and here, today, the Slovak leader and the new Czech president Petr Pavel accepted our invitation to meet and dialogue.

After all, since its beginning, the Brno Meeting has chosen places that have become symbols of pain and division because there "where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Romans 5:20). It is no coincidence, for example, that since 2015 we have organized the first Pilgrimage of Reconciliation on the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Brno Death March. That year, in fact, the newly formed Czechoslovak government violently expelled more than 30,000 women, children and elderly members of the German minority from Brno, pushing them towards Austria. There were thousands of dead. Once again this year's pilgrimage, attended by ministers, ambassadors and hundreds of people of different nationalities, ended in the Kaunic student dormitory where the Germans tortured and executed Czechs during the war, and where, four months after the end of the conflict, Czechs in turn executed Germans. At the end of the gesture an elderly gentleman approached us to tell us how his (German) grandfather was brought to safety from captivity with the help of a Czech neighbor. It was a small sign that showed that peacemaking, if it was possible even then, is even more possible today.

Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová and new Czech President Petr Pavel in a private meeting on the sidelines of the Brno Meeting (Photo: Tino Kratochvil)

The entire 2023 edition of the Meeting has been a journey in this direction. I will try to document its most significant moments. The first, as already mentioned, was certainly the dialogue between the two presidents of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who exchanged views on the great encounters that shaped their lives and their political choices, even to the point of reflecting together on Cardinal Pietro Parolin's homily, who celebrated a joint Czech-Slovak Mass in April to give thanks for the 30 years of independent existence of the two states of the former federation: "The Czech and Slovak Republics, once united in Czechoslovakia, separated peacefully on January 1, 1993, thus giving an eloquent lesson to the world of how the fundamental needs of self-determination and independence can be addressed in mutual respect, in peace and true fraternity. And today, in light of conflicts such as the war in Ukraine unleashed by Russia, the experience of these two nations 30 years ago continues to be a source of inspiration and a model for other states on how to resolve their differences peacefully, through dialogue and mutual respect."

The two leaders testified to what Parolin was referring to, recalling their joint trip to Kiev in search of a concrete solution to the conflict and opening up to an extraordinarily humane, frank discussion full of mutual esteem and friendship. A true contribution to the prophecy for peace on the part of the presidents.

The highlight of the first weekend was, as mentioned above, the traditional Pilgrimage of Reconciliation followed, on Sunday, by the Czech-German Mass and a meeting between Sudeten German spokesman Bernd Posselt, poet Miloš Doležal ,and artist Michal Kadleček on the importance of preserving memory. The dialogue, which was well-attended by the audience, took place in the Faculty of Law building at Masaryk University, a former Moravian Gestapo headquarters that now houses a statue of controversial Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš, the initiator of the violent expulsion of Germans after the war. In the following days, however, more than 200 students from different countries met for the Meeting in Brněnec, in the ruins of the factory where Oskar Schindler rescued 1,200 Jews from Auschwitz during the war. This is another significant place for us at the Meeting. In fact, before the war, the factory belonged to the Jewish Löw-Beer family of Brno and was the second largest textile company in Europe. Another significant moment was when students commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Auschwitz auxiliary concentration camp in the building that now houses the Brno Episcopal College.

The focus given to students at this Meeting was not accidental because education is a key aspect of peacebuilding, as Pope Francis reminded us in the Global Education Pact. So we came up with a panel entitled "The Czech Republic as a Village of Education," with a special focus on migrants. The impact of the integration of Ukrainian pupils has been strong in the Czech Republic this year – the Czechs have in fact taken in the largest number of war refugees per capita since the beginning of Russian aggression. Several Ukrainian teachers took to the stage, along with the star of Schindler's List, the "little girl in red," Oliwia Dabrowska (who today helps refugees in Poland); Education Minister Mikuláš Bek; his deputy Jiří Nantl, and then Hans van Mourik Broekman, Principal of Liverpool College in the United Kingdom, and Sofia Carozza, author of The Pilgrim Soul podcaster and researcher at Harvard University.

The second part of the festival was devoted to the role of women in the church. There was a very moving testimony of a woman, now over ninety, who during totalitarianism secretly provided spiritual assistance in women's prisons precluded to priests. Well attended at the same time were a workshop on Gregorian chant and a meditation led by Carmelite nuns.

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The festival culminated with the presentation of the new Czech edition of The Risk of Education in the garden of the ancient Augustinian abbey in Brno. Fr. Marco Basile, a priest from the St. Charles Borromeo Fraternity (on mission in Prague) intervened, along with the Benedictine abbess of the Czech-German Venio Abbey, Mother Francesca Šimuniová, who emphasized the affinites between Giussani’s text and the Rule of St. Benedict. To conclude, school headmaster Ezio Delfino offered a personal testimony of his meeting with Fr. Giussani and how the book was an incentive in his choice to start and follow new schools from Albania to Canada, while Bishop Pavel Konzbul of Brno invited those present to never stop asking questions exactly as suggested by St. Augustine.

The Meeting concluded with a performance starring Oldřich Smysl, an actor who played Christ in the Czech productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, and a very well attended final Mass. There would be much more to tell, but I would like to close by recounting a small episode. The premise is that none of the many people who helped make even this edition happen do so on a business or full-time basis, and it is a huge commitment. But it is worth it. Why? This was witnessed to us by a friend and colleague, a non-believer, who one evening at a bar – while we were wondering if it made sense to put so much effort into organizing everything – said yes, "because miracles happen here. That's why I am here." Listening to her enthusiastically list the meetings of past editions, I was reminded of a passage from the school of community that says that man's problem is to adhere to reality, to become aware of reality. And with this desire we set to work again. Ready for the Brno 2024 Meeting, June 21-30 next year, entitled From Trauma to Dreams.