Interview With Jan Kříž, Deacon of Brno’s Iconic Petrov Cathedral

Jan Kříž is the deacon of Brno’s Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, known simply as “Petrov” to most in the city. It is difficult to imagine Brno’s skyline without the cathedral. Kříž showed Brno Daily’s Coline Béguet around the cathedral and answered some questions about the attachment of Brno’s residents to their “Petrov”, old legends of the cathedral, and his experience as a young deacon in this symbolic monument of the City of Brno. Photo credit: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

Written by Lou Kaemo and Coline Béguet

Jan Kříž, could you explain to us how one studies to become a priest in the Czech Republic? 

There are six years of studies. We have to finish a degree at the theological faculty and we also have a seminary, which is the place where we live. It is called formation and it is where we learn the style of life. We pray there a lot and we have some programs which help us become a priest. At university we study the basis of all religions and then we have some special lessons in ecumenical theology in order to learn about other Christian churches, but the most important part for us is Catholic teaching. 

So at university you have more theoretical classes and the seminary is more about practical lessons?

Yes. Studies at university are for five years, but before that we also have one year called the propaedeutic year. It is meant to help young people who want to go there decide if it is really the way that God is calling them. Some people decide during this year that it is not their path and it is great they are able to realise that. Also, some of these guys find out that they want to become priests, but not in a parish, they want to go to some monastic order or congregation. The biggest difference then is that they don’t go to the seminary, but live within their community. 

For example, in my propaedeutic year, at the beginning there were 18 of us and now five of us are deacons, with maybe two others who will become deacons. So, it is said that about half, or less, from those who begin usually make it to ordination.

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In the closet you can see the priest’s dresses, and in the other two images the room where the priest and the cathedral’s employees can prepare themselves or take a break. Photo credits: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

Did you choose Brno’s cathedral or were you chosen? 

I was chosen. The person who is responsible for all the parishes in the diocese is the bishop, and it’s him who makes the final decision about who will go where. I am very young, I don’t know all the parishes well enough to make the best decision myself. I am glad that I am here because it is a really nice parish here.

How long do you stay a deacon before becoming a priest?

Usually it is for one year. Me, personally, I was ordained as a deacon one year ago to serve in that seminary, so this is now my second year being a deacon. If everything goes as normal, I should be ordained as a priest this June. 

Photo credit: Coline Béguet / Brno Daily.

What are the role and tasks of a deacon?

Me, as a deacon, I can’t serve holy masses and I can’t do confessions, so my job is to help our priest with everything I can. I mostly teach religion lessons at schools, to children. I do the baptisms and the preparations for them, and if somebody wants to have a wedding here in the cathedral, I can also do it. I am glad that the person responsible for our parish is our priest, I am only his helper. This year is meant to help me, to teach me things, before I start doing confessions and holy masses. 

After that will you stay here or will you move to another parish?

It is up to our bishop. It depends where you are needed most.

What is special about this cathedral? 

Special compared to other churches in Brno? Or the rest of the world? [he laughs] I think it is one of the biggest churches in Moravia. To me it is one of the nicest, one of the most beautiful, I really like it here. And it is interesting because it is a symbol, the main symbol of this city I think. Even on the 10 crown coin, you can see this cathedral, not Špilberk, not the city hall, but this cathedral. 

Everyone knows this coin. You should have one of them in your wallet, under your sofa or in an hidden pocket of one of your trousers. But have you ever look carefully at its design? The 10 crown coin (about 0.40 euros) has been engraved with an image of Petrov Cathedral since 1993. On the other side you will find, as with all Czech coins, the symbol of the Bohemian region: a lion with two silver tails and a golden crown. Photo credit: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

I can also see, when I prepare people for the baptism of their child, that there are many people who are not from the center of Brno, who are from different parts of Brno, and I ask them why they chose our cathedral and they say “because it is really nice here”. Usually they were themselves baptised here.

Everywhere in Brno, if you are thinking about religion or about god, you just look up and you see our cathedral!

Is it one of the oldest churches?

There is a legend it was being built at the same time as the Church of St. James. There was a competition between these two churches and there is a statue of an angel of the Church of St. James who is showing his backside towards this church to show they wanted to be the best, the one who finished first. 

The cathedral is not the oldest church in Moravia, and it was destroyed during the siege of Brno by the Swedish army. The inhabitants of Brno had to destroy all the houses around the city walls in order to make it easier to defend, so they set them on fire, but the fire moved also to the cathedral, and then it was hit by Swedish canons two years later. 

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The Cathedral has gone through several architectural phases. When its construction started in the 12th century, it was a small Romanesque Basilica dedicated to St. Peter. It was renovated again in the 17th century under the direction of Moric Grimm, who completely changed the style of the church into a gothic style outside and a baroque style inside. The final touch was the beautiful detailed facade. The two towers as we see them now were built between the years 1904 and 1905 in the Gothic Revival style, replacing the previous one whose small size gave it the nickname in Brno of “The drank-away tower”. Photo credits: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

There is a legend about some miracles during the siege: on the last day of the siege, the Swedish general said that they would attack the town, and that if they were not able to conquer it before 12 o’clock, they would withdraw, they would just leave Brno. The legend says that somebody heard this information, so they went to the cathedral and rang the bells at 11 o’clock, one hour earlier. The head of the Swedish army said “we didn’t make it, we will withdraw”, and that’s how the city of Brno was saved. 

Probably it was not like this, because history is never that simple. But, in memory of this story, here at Brno Cathedral we ring the 12 o’clock bells everyday at 11, one hour earlier.

Image 1: Romanesque Basilica (Photo credit: Lou Kaemo / Brno Daily); Image 2: Frantisek Richter, 1827, Brno (Photo credit: Moravian Gallery). In 1296, a kapitula (a community of canons) settled in the Basilica and began its renovation into a beautiful building with a gothic presbytery. As you can see in the first image, its area and height were nothing like now, but it was an architectural feat for Brno which had it consecrated again in 1510 in the name of St. Paul, apostle of the nations. The second image, of a painting by Frantisek Richter from 1827, shows the cathedral without its emblematic 81-metre towers. 

How many people come to the daily holy masses? 

It depends, because there is a huge difference between weekdays and Sundays. On weekdays there are much smaller numbers, a few dozen people. On Sundays, a few hundred people come here, the seats are mostly full, but there are still a lot of places to stand. This cathedral is built for bishop’s masses, which means that the parish only fills part of it, and when there is some special occasion people can fill the whole cathedral. So it is not that full everyday, but we still have quite a lot of people who consider this cathedral as their parish.

In February 2019, in memory of the supposed date of Petrov’s baptism (May 21st), an art competition was announced for the design of the liturgical space in the Cathedral. Photo credits: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

Is it correct to say that the Czech Republic is one of the most atheist countries in Europe?

It is said so. But I don’t know… it is said that in these days the situation in Scandinavia is that there are many people who really don’t believe in anything, they are just by themselves. Here in the Czech Republic there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be part of a church, but they believe in god somehow. I can see when I do these preparations for the baptism of children, I always ask the parents: what do you think about God? Who is God for you? Often, only one of those parents is baptised and the other one isn’t. But all of them believe in some entity that is above us and who cares about us. Usually their idea isn’t exactly the same as what we as Catholics say, but they all believe in something and believe that it is the entity that the Catholic church is talking about, which is why they want their child baptised. 

So, in reality we are not that atheistic, but we are more secular we can say. Also, one other thing is that Brno is the biggest city in Moravia and Moravia is the most religious part of the Czech Republic. There are also a lot of people from smaller towns in Moravia who work here in Brno. When I go out into the streets with my collar, I don’t meet many angry faces, but I often meet people smiling at me. 

A Statista Global Consumer Survey from 14 February 2022 revealed that 28% of Czechs declared themselves not religious, making the Czech Republic the least religious country in Europe. It is also considered to be the most atheist country in Europe, due to its historical legacy, with about 91% of 16-29-year-olds not belonging to any religion, according to a 2018 study from St. Mary’s University in London. Photo credits: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

Do you personally know the people who come to the holy masses?

Well, there are a lot of people here who don’t consider themselves as part of one parish. Every Sunday, they decide which church they will go to. But there is also a group of people who think about themselves as being part of our parish, they are from all Brno. They are about 100 people and these people, yes, I know them personally.

What kind of events are organised? 

The cathedral was built for holy masses, so these are the main events here. We have three holy masses on Sundays and each weekday we have one or two. Sometimes there are special masses for certain groups of people, so there might be even more holy masses. The church was built for these religious events, but there are also many concerts here because it has really nice acoustics and there is a nice organ. We have two to four concerts per month, sometimes more. 

What kind of concerts are they? Religious music?

When there are concerts in a church they should be in some sense religious, because churches are meant to worship god, so even the music here should be used to worship god. But, during these concerts, there might be parts that are not specifically religious. It depends, but our bishop really wants churches not to become just concerts hall, but to stay houses of prayers.

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If you enter the church, you will find a Baroque interior that contrasts with the dark colours of the exterior, in surprising harmony. The Cathedral is known for its huge stained-glass windows that let the light soften the atmosphere of the place. But the soothing white on the walls and the golden touch everywhere are just as important as the windows. Before Christmas, you may even have the chance to attend rehearsals of the Brno parish choir or the organist playing a piece and appreciate the mesmerizing acoustics of the space. Photo credits: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

You also hosted a concert for Ukraine. Are you organising some collection of materials or money for refugees? 

Yes. The first week when Russia invaded Ukraine, we collected money during holy masses here in the cathedral, and we sent it to charity. I think it was one of the biggest collections here, we raised about CZK 70,000, which is quite a lot. And now people can bring food, hygiene materials, mattresses, etc. to our parish office, and we will pass donations on to an organisation who will give them to people from Ukraine. There is a network of organisations who are helping Ukrainian people in Brno, we are in contact with all of them.

Do you provide accommodation to refugees?

We did not because in this parish we don’t have space where we could accommodate anyone. 

Are there any Ukrainian people who come to the parish? Before the war?

I don’t know anyone personally. There are two Greek Catholic churches here in Brno, so people from Ukraine who want to go to Catholic church usually go to one of them. Also, most Ukrainians are orthodox and there is an orthodox church here, so I think they go there. But I have also noticed that since the beginning of the war, many people are coming here to visit the cathedral, and they speak in an Eastern Slavic language. I am not sure, as I am not able to differentiate Russian from Ukrainian, I am not skilled in it. But I can hear people talking like this, so it seems to me that the refugees who come to Brno want to visit the city, so they visit the cathedral too. 

Finally, what is your best memory of this cathedral?

The most important to me is not the cathedral, it is the parish, the people here. The cathedral is really nice, I really like it, but all my memories are about the parish, not about the cathedral. We are quite a young parish here, we have a lot of young families, with children. And when you work with children, you have many, many, nice memories!

How could we imagine Brno’s skyline without its cathedral? Photo credit: Coline Beguet / Brno Daily.

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