The canonization of Pope John Paul II brought back personal memories for one Tyneside man. Ruth Lognonne talks to the man who knew the saint as a friend.
He was declared a saint in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, but Pope John Paul II was not above buying a round of beers for his close friends, as one North man knows.
It was in the early 1970s and anti-communist sympathisers in Eastern Europe would meet in secret in pubs and theatres following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the pro-democratic Prague Spring reforms in what was then Czechoslovakia.
A boy in his teens had already been shot eight times when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. Anyone who survived being shot was immediately branded an enemy of the state.
Miroslav Bernard, who now lives comfortably in a semi-detached house in Jesmond, Newcastle, was prohibited from being a doctor or a lawyer and was told by the Communists that he was going to be a forestry commissioner instead.
In that vein, it was relatively easy for Miroslav to slip across the Czech/Polish border through the forests and meet up with other anti-communists in Krakow and Wroclaw in Poland.
One of the men who would often make his anti-communist feelings known at these meetings was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla; the future Pope John Paul II.
The then Archbishop of Krakow had automatically been branded an enemy of the state for being a member of the Polish clergy.
Miroslav, who met the future Pope and now saint at least eight times at separate meetings, said he was a warm man with a penchant for pints.
“We had to be very careful where we met so it was always in secret and often in a theatre bar,” said Miroslav. “We were less conspicuous that way. Unfortunately I have no photos of those meetings; if I had, it would have endangered all of us.
“But he called me Slavek and I called him Karol. I can see him still, talking and drinking with us. He always listened to my opinion; he valued the opinions of the young people. He was also a huge fan of beer and would order litres of the stuff every year from Czechoslovakia. He would often buy the rounds in and was a very generous man that way.
“I was privileged to have been a friend of his and I’m overjoyed that he has been made a saint.”
Around a million Catholics are reported to have turned out to celebrate Pope John Paul’s enrolment as a saint in Rome, while pilgrims hoping to get into the Vatican itself had waited for more than 12 hours before police opened up the square.
Alongside Pope Francis at the mass were around 850 cardinals and 700 priests, helping to distribute communion to the vast crowd.
But it was not always pomp and ceremony for the Pole who reigned for nearly 27 years as Pope. Like his friend, Miroslav, he was a dissenter working against communism, afraid for his every move against the Russian Red Army.
It was during these secret meetings where Miroslav also met Václav Havel - the future president of Czechoslovakia - who was hiding from Czechoslovakian state security (StB) in a garage outside Liberec. The pair quickly became friends and Miroslav supplied him with food and beer.
“I thought he was fantastic, and clever, and a very intelligent man,” said Miroslav. “A little bit shy, but a beautiful person.
“He was a playwright and a poet but the Communists wanted him to suffer so much that they put him in cells with the worst people – murderers, arrogant and aggressive people. They tried to push him to his knees.”
Then, in January 1989, Count Michal Lobkovic came bearing news.
Miroslav recalled: “He said ‘I’m bringing you a message from Václav Havel. The revolution will be November 17. It was international day of students – you could go out with others so that’s why we chose that day.”
History tells how the government suppressed a peaceful student protest, leading to mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. Havel’s civic forum asked the Communists to hand over power and they officially agreed, but behind it was a disturbing turn.
Miroslav tells how a friend from the Liberec army regiment, called Pekulas, brought a telegram sent to all army bases by the Communist government, calling on them to head to Prague to forcefully put down the movement. Slavek personally took the telegram to Havel, who confronted the Communists.
Miroslav said: “He said ‘Give us all power or I will publish the letter and you will be hanged’. I probably saved the nation from civil war, or at least terrible bloodshed. That’s why they can call it the Velvet Revolution.”
They had achieved the unthinkable – the defeat of Communism without a shot fired, a drop of blood spilt. They now had the freedom to take Czechoslovakia in a new direction.
Václav Havel appointed Miroslav as an ecological adviser, and he set about cleaning up rivers and forests, closing down polluting factories and ousting former StB members – a move, he said, which earned him many enemies but also powerful friends.
Václav Havel’s main rule as president between 1993-2003 saw many changes for the better, but towards the end, his influence declined and the reach of Communism continued.
Miroslav, along with two friends, Jan Cernohorsky and Rene Matovsek, had seen top secret Communist archives. Matovsek was murdered first, hanged on the back of a door, and in 1995 Cernohorsky was poisoned in hospital.
Realising he could logically be next, and that he relied heavily on Havel for his protection, Miroslav decided it was time to leave. Packing two suitcases he left for London and asked for political asylum, before heading to Newcastle because of North East links - his uncle Josef had flown with the RAF out of Darlington and spoke warmly of the region.
These days, with wife Lesley who taught him English at North Tyneside College, Miroslav spends his time advising on wild cooking and foraging – ironically an offshoot of the career the Communists chose for him.
He worries for the future of the Czech Republic, and the slow, creeping return of Communism. He fears the work he and Havel did is being undone, but remains proud of playing a part in such historic events.
He can also say that he knew a saint.