Salesian Saints of January: Blessed Titus Zeman (1915-1969)

08 Jan 2019

 

January 8, memorial

by Frs. Enrico dal Covolo and Giorgio Mocci, supplemented by material from Michal Titus Radosinsky’s “Father Titus Zeman, SDB, Martyr for Saving Vocations”

Following his vocation

The story of Fr. Titus Zeman is an excellent example of faithfulness to Don Bosco’s cause, especially through the zeal and love that he showed to save the vocations of young Salesians under the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia.

Fr. Titus was born into a Catholic family on January 4, 1915, at Vajnory, near Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. As early as age 10 he had wanted to become a priest. After completing his secondary studies with the Salesians, in 1931 he entered the novitiate. He professed vows in 1932, and on March 7, 1938, made his perpetual profession at Sacred Heart in Rome.

He did his theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and then went to Chieri, where he spent his free time at the oratory. In Turin in June 23, 1940, he achieved the goal of priestly ordination. On August 4, 1940, he celebrated his first Mass at Vajnory, his birthplace.

After his ordination, he was assigned briefly to the Salesian youth center in Bratislava, but then the provincial sent him to university to take a degree in chemistry and natural sciences, which he did. He was then sent to teach in the diocesan high school at Trnava in 1943. There he was loved and respected by the students because of his cheerful, calm, but no-nonsense yet fatherly disposition. Always ready to assist people, he made many friends. On at least one occasion he gave hiding to a Jewish youth.

After the war the high school was nationalized and the government ordered that crucifixes be removed from the classrooms. Fr. Titus and two other teachers procured and put up new ones, to the displeasure of the principal.

Fr. Titus moved to the Salesian school in Trnava and was prefect of studies in 1946-1947, then catechist in 1947-1949 while also helping in several parishes.

Saving vocations with clandestine escapes

In mid-April 1950, when the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia banned religious orders and congregations and suddenly arrested and began to intern religious in concentration camps on the night of April 13-14—“the night of the barbarians”—the Slovak provincial believed it was necessary to organize clandestine trips to Turin so that young religious (both clerics and coadjutors) could complete their studies, and he asked Fr. Titus to undertake the risky activity of smuggling them across the border to Austria.  He carried out two such expeditions for more than 60 young Salesians, giving the credit for their success to Mary Help of Christians and winning the admiration of Fr. Peter Ricaldone and the other superiors in Turin.

During a third expedition in April 1951, he and the other fugitives were caught and arrested. He then underwent a difficult trial, during which he was accused of being a traitor to his country and a Vatican spy, and he risked the death penalty. On February 22, 1952, in consideration of attenuating circumstances, he was instead condemned to 25 years in prison.

Slow martyrdom

Fr. Titus was released from prison after 12 years on March 10, 1964. He was suffering obviously from the long ordeal in prison, and survived only five years, dying on January 8, 1969. He was very much known for his holiness and, indeed, his martyrdom. He lived his life of suffering with a great spirit of sacrifice and as an offering: “Even if I lose my life, I do not consider it a waste, knowing that at least one of those whom I have saved has become a priest to take my place.”

Fr. Al Pestun of the San Francisco Province (Corpus Christi Parish in San Francisco) is one of those whom Fr. Titus helped.