Czech deacons take in local culture, liturgies during Texas visit

September 13, 2016

HOUSTON — Three transitional deacons from the Czech Republic visited the State of Texas this summer, taking in both the local culture and liturgies.

Father Paul Chovanec, the pastor of St. Justin Martyr Church in Houston, helped facilitate their visit to Galveston-Houston, as per tradition in recent years. Thanks to the efforts of Father Stephen Nesrsta, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Corn Hill in the Diocese of Austin, the Lone Star State has welcomed Czech deacons every summer since 1999. Father Nersersta founded and manages the initiative, hosting the deacons for a month, while also coordinating a local stop with Father Chovanec. Outside of Austin and Galveston-Houston, the traveling deacons also visit the Diocese of Victoria and the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.

Father Nesrsta said the program started after a friend asked him to host transitional deacons from the Czech Republic — a one-time request that has transformed into an annual event.

"I had traveled with him in the Czech Republic in 1996 and he knew I was interested in my Czech ancestry and their culture and traditions," Father Nesrsta said. "We met with the rector of the seminary, told him our plans and he was very interested in the idea."

According to Father Nesrsta, the deacons come to Texas to improve their English, learn about the Czech settlements in Texas and experience the people and the parish life in the region.

"I hope they understand the connection between Texas and mainly Moravia, and how people here are very kind and generous and hard-working," Father Nesrsta said. "(The deacons) are usually amazed at how many people go to church here. I also want them to understand the importance of being connected with other people and the importance of learning from one another."

This year's "summer Texans" were Jan Berka (25) and Ondřej Poštulka (26), both from the Diocese of Olomouc; and Ladislav Bublán (34), the Diocese of Brno, of Moravia. While the deacons were based at St. Justin Martyr for four days (July 28 to 31), they participated in the daily morning Mass, singing Czech hymns, reading the Gospel and as altar servers. They also visited St. Mary's Seminary, the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Sacco's, the Czech Center Museum Houston and the University of St. Thomas.

Beyond Houston, the visitors ventured out to the Space Center, St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica in Galveston and the ELISSA at the Texas Seaport Museum. The group attended a festive dinner with the Czech Heritage Society of Galveston County at Queen of Peace Parish in La Marque. The CHS members gave them baseball caps and Texas souvenirs.

During the weekend, the group experienced the Archdiocesan Youth Conference and visited Discovery Green and the Medical Center, later enjoying a dinner with their "in residence" hosts Josh and Viviana Alderete, members at St. Justin Martyr parish, who host the transitional deacons every year.

On Sunday prior to departure, the visitors attended the 10 a.m. parish Mass at St. Justin Martyr and Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus presented a chalice to each deacon in memory of deceased Sir Knights. 

As is the case every year, Father Chovanec wants the Czech deacons to experience the vigor of the Church in Texas.

"We went to the Archdiocesan Youth Conference specifically so that they could see thousands of young people excited about our faith," Father Chovanec said. "We toured the University of St. Thomas so that they could see an effective Catholic university at work. I also wanted them to see ordinary American life — peaceful, orderly and enjoyable."

The transitional deacons returned to the seminary in Olomouc, Moravia, Czech Republic, to complete their studies and be ordained to the priesthood next summer. They enjoyed their time in Galveston-Houston. 

"Among the many very nice locations we have visited, I would like to mention St. Mary's Seminary, especially their beautiful chapel," Deacon Bublán said. "And a big surprise was the swimming pool at the seminary," he added with a laugh.

Deacon Berka commented on how active the community is at Texas parishes in contrast with those in the Czech Republic.

"One of the differences, I have noticed, is the amount of lay people who are involved in your parishes," Deacon Berka said. "You have EMHCs (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion), lectors, education directors, secretaries and a lot of people who are helpful as volunteers. In the Church in the Czech Republic, a lot of this work is done by priests."

Likewise, Deacon Poštulka said that when he becomes a priest, he hopes to inspire parishioners to take "personal responsibility for their parish."

Deacon Bublán observed and appreciates how people stay after Mass in Texas, "to meet each other and share. That is something I would like to take to my priest service."

Deacon Berka noted that in most Czech parishes, organ music and singing are prevalent in liturgies — not necessarily as common in the States — and that learning about the local Church was enriching.

"I saw some very practical things that can be established in the Church in the Czech Republic," he said. "On the other side, I have realized what are some of the specific aspects of the Church in the Czech Republic that we should protect and keep."

In turn, Father Chovanec said the Czech deacons "always rekindle" his joy in being a priest.

"There's something wonderful and inspiring about mature young men or women who are committed to serving God and the Church," Father Chovanec said. "Their dedication to praying the Liturgy of the Hours always impresses me. No matter where they are, when it's time to pray the various hours, they take out their cell phones, find the right app and they pause to pray. That's edifying."

Father Nesrsta said the experience help him learn more about his ancestors and the faith life of people in the Czech Republic.

"It helps me feel rooted with my ancestral heritage," he said. "Their presence here also reminds me of the importance of having fellowship with other priests and seeing their point of view. It also helps me to not forget the Czech language. I have become friends with over 50 priests in the Czech Republic and return there each year to visit them and to attend the ordination of new priests and attend some of the First Masses of these priests."

The deacons expressed great appreciation for the hospitality they received in Texas and despite the aforementioned differences, they all are grateful for experiencing "the Universal Church" during their time in the Lone Star State.

"We share one faith," Deacon Berka said. "And although we use a different language and gestures, we pray to the one same God."