VATICAN CITY (AP) — Prague Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, who ministered clandestinely to Catholics for years while officially working as a window-washer during communist rule in Czechoslovakia, has died at age 84.
The Vatican said Pope Francis sent condolences Saturday praising the emeritus cardinal as a "generous pastor."
"I recall with admiration his tenacious fidelity to Christ, despite the deprivations and the persecutions against the church," the pope said in the message to Prague Cardinal Dominik Duka.
Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman said Vlk died of cancer on Saturday.
The Vatican in its tribute noted that Vlk did hard farm work as a child in southern Bohemia. Because the communist regime at the time made theological studies impossible, Vlk worked at a car factory in the early 1950s. In 1968, during the Prague Spring era of liberalizing reforms, he was ordained a priest when he was 36 and appointed secretary to the bishop of Ceske Budejovice.
But state authorities, "worried about his influence and pastoral activity, forced him" in 1971 to leave Ceske Budejovice and sent him to isolated parishes in the mountains of the Bohemian forest, the Vatican said. Then, in 1978, state authorities, "in collaboration with the local communists, revoked his state authorization to exercise his priestly ministry," the Vatican said.
"'Citizen Miloslav Vlk' was thus forced to live underground in Prague" from October 1978 through the end of 1988, according to the Vatican.
For most of those years, Vlk worked officially as a window-cleaner in Prague, while secretly performing his pastoral activity with small groups of lay Catholics.
After Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, which saw the nation end communist rule and eventually become two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, his pastoral dedication was recognized quickly and openly. Pope John Paul II made him a bishop in Ceske Budejovice in 1990, a year later appointed him archbishop of Prague, and in 1994, elevated him to the rank of cardinal.
In 2009, Vlk greeted Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's visit to the Czech Republic. Vlk retired a year later.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, in a Twitter post, praised Vlk as a "highly-respected man who was not afraid to act according to his conscience."
Fisnik Abrashi contributed to this report from Prague