The Czech Republic is contemporary European secularism on steroids. Two decades after the Velvet Revolution, the nation of 10.2 million is wealthy, its per capita gross domestic product equaling South Korea’s and surpassing neighboring Poland’s by 50 percent. Despite its wealth, the central European nation is dying; its population is expected to shrink by 1.7 million in the next four decades. The nation’s divorce rate of 47 percent is the highest on the continent, and 27 percent of pregnancies end in abortion.
Largely because of the ravages of communism, only 28 percent of Czechs—and 18 percent of Czechs under the age of 29—believe in God, according to recent surveys. Twenty-nine percent of Czechs are Catholic, but only one in six Catholics attends Mass regularly. Protestants make up 2 percent of the nation’s population, and fewer than 0.5 percent belong to an Orthodox Church founded by dissident Catholic priests after World War I. The nation has only one mosque, and the Holocaust reduced the Jewish population from 100,000 before World War II to 3,000 today.
During a May 30 audience at the Vatican, President VÁclav Klaus, who is known for his skepticism regarding the European Union and global warming, invited Pope Benedict to visit his nation, and the Pontiff accepted the invitation. According to the Vatican press office, their “cordial discussions focused on the situation in the country, with particular attention being given to questions concerning relations with the Catholic Church and on the future of Europe, bearing in mind the importance of the continent’s cultural, spiritual, and Christian heritage.”
Speaking from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo on September 20, Pope Benedict noted that “the Czech Republic is located geographically and historically in the heart of Europe. After passing through the tragedies of the past century it needs, as does the entire continent, to rediscover reasons for faith and hope. Following in the footsteps of my beloved predecessor John Paul II, who visited that country three times, I too shall pay homage to the heroic Gospel witnesses, ancient and recent, and will encourage everyone to persevere in charity and in truth.”
Pope Benedict’s 13th apostolic journey outside Italy stayed true to these intentions. During his three days in the Czech Republic, the Pontiff paid repeated homage to the martyr-saints Ludmila (921), Wenceslaus (929), Adalbert (997), and John Nepomuk (1393). Pope Benedict also honored the memory of Catholics who heroically kept the faith during the brutal Marxist regime—foremost among them Cardinal Josef Beran (1888-1969), who endured three years of imprisonment in Dachau and 16 years of detention under the communists, and his successor Cardinal František TomÁšek (1899-1992), a stalwart defender of human rights.
Cardinal TomÁšek’s successor is 77- year-old Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, banished from his parish during the years of communist oppression to work as a window-washer. Cardinal Vlk told the Czech press during the papal visit that he considered his years of ministry as archbishop of Prague a failure. “I have achieved almost nothing during the 20 years in the Church and political sphere,” he said, citing the Czech government’s insistence that it owns Prague’s cathedral and the legislature’s refusal to ratify a concordat with the Holy See.
Not referring directly to these disputes, Pope Benedict spent three days inviting the once Catholic nation, and by extension all of secular Europe, to seek a higher reason of being than freedom and to “rediscover reasons for faith and hope.”
The Pontiff ’s days in the Czech Republic began with an arrival ceremony at Prague’s international airport on September 26. Recalling the nation’s glorious Christian past, he reminded the assembled Church and government dignitaries “how deeply Czech culture is permeated by Christianity…. While the whole of European culture has been profoundly shaped by its Christian heritage, this is especially true in the Czech lands, since it was through the missionary labors of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century that the old Slavonic language fi rst came to be writt en down. Apostles of the Slavic peoples and founders of their culture, they are rightly venerated as Patrons of Europe. Yet it is also worth recalling that these two great saints from the Byzantine tradition here encountered missionaries from the Latin West.”
Evoking the memory of Saints Wenceslaus, Ludmila, Adalbert, and John Nepomuk, the Pontiff paid tribute to the victims of communist oppression and urged the nation’s citizens to open their hearts to the Gospel.
Turning to President Klaus, Pope Benedict said, “I know that you wish to see a greater role for religion in this country’s affairs. The presidential flag flying over Prague Castle proclaims the motto ‘Pravda Vítězí—the Truth wins’: it is my earnest hope that the light of truth will continue to guide this nation, so blessed throughout its history by the witness of great saints and martyrs.… The authentic progress of humanity is best served by just such a combination of the wisdom of faith and the insights of reason. May the Czech people always enjoy the benefi ts of that happy synthesis.”
Remaining in Prague, the Pontiff traveled by car to the Carmelite Church of Our Lady of Victory, where the Holy Infant of Prague is venerated. This 14th century Spanish statue of the infant Jesus, which made its way to Prague in 1628, had its hands broken off by Lutheran invaders in 1631. Six years later, the statue spoke to a Carmelite friar who had found it: “Have mercy on me and I will have mercy on you. Give me hands and I will give you peace. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.” Since then, devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague has spread throughout the world.
Pope Benedict placed a golden crown upon the Holy Infant’s head and prayed for the transformation of a culture ravaged by divorce and abortion.
As several thousand Czechs and foreigners bearing images of the Holy Infant cheered the Pontiff , Pope Benedict traveled by car to the nunciature. He then left for the presidential palace, where he met privately with President Klaus and enjoyed a Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Antonín DvořÁk’s Te Deum. Pointing out that DvořÁk’s rendition of the liturgical hymn “eloquently expressed both the roots of Czech culture and the outstanding contribution which this nation has made to European culture,” the Pontiff challenged government leaders and the diplomatic corps—and by extension, all of secular Europe—to move beyond a shallow relativism and instead use its freedom to seek the truth and goodness: “Jointly we must engage in the struggle for freedom and the search for truth, which either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”
The Pontiff urged political leaders to consider the beauty of Prague’s historic center. “The arresting beauty of its churches, castle, squares, and bridges cannot but draw our minds to God. Their beauty expresses faith; they are epiphanies of God that rightly leave us pondering the glorious marvels to which we creatures can aspire when we give expression to the aesthetic and the noetic aspects of our innermost being. How tragic it would be if someone were to behold such examples of beauty, yet ignore the transcendent mystery to which they point.”
The Pontiff then went to the Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus, and Adalbert, where he celebrated Vespers with priests, religious, seminarians, and representatives of lay movements.
The following morning, Pope Benedict left the western Czech region of Bohemia for the eastern region of Moravia, where the majority of the nation’s Catholics live. Following a 35-minute airplane trip, he off ered Mass for 120,000 who packed a fi eld at the airport near the Moravian capital of Brno. The crowd was eight times larger than that which greeted President Barack Obama when he visited the nation in April.
The Pontiff reminded the faithful that Christ is man’s only hope. During the Angelus address that followed, he urged Moravian Catholics to make pilgrimages to local Marian shrines and foster “traditions of popular piety with deep roots in the past, which you rightly take care to maintain, so that the warmth of family conviviality in villages and towns may not be lost. At times one cannot help noticing, with a certain nostalgia, that the pace of modern life tends to diminish some elements of a rich heritage of faith.”
Flying back to Prague and traveling to the archbishop’s residence, Pope Benedict addressed representatives of the nation’s tiny Protestant and Orthodox communities, reminding them that Christ offers the people of our time not an ideology, but salvation. The saints of the past spread the Gospel because they knew that “Christians should not cower in fear of the world but rather confidently share the treasury of truths entrusted to them. Likewise Christians today, opening themselves to present realities and affirming all that is good in society, must have the courage to invite men and women to the radical conversion that ensues upon an encounter with Christ and ushers in a new life of grace.”
The Pontiff concluded the day by offering a diplomatic critique of trends in academia. He spoke in historic Prague Castle to members of the Czech academic community:
The idea of an integrated education, based on the unity of knowledge grounded in truth, must be regained. It serves to counteract the tendency, so evident in contemporary society, towards a fragmentation of knowledge. With the massive growth in information and technology there comes the temptation to detach reason from the pursuit of truth. Sundered from the fundamental human orientation towards truth, however, reason begins to lose direction: it withers, either under the guise of modesty, resting content with the merely partial or provisional, or under the guise of certainty, insisting on capitulation to the demands of those who indiscriminately give equal value to practically everything.
“Fidelity to man,” he concluded, “requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom. This confidence in the human ability to seek truth, to find truth, and to live by the truth led to the foundation of the great European universities. Surely we must reaffirm this today in order to bring courage to the intellectual forces necessary for the development of a future of authentic human flourishing, a future truly worthy of man.”
THE FINAL DAY
The final day of Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage was the Feast of St. Wenceslaus, the nation’s patron. Traveling from Prague to nearby StarÁ Boleslav, the site of the saint’s martyrdom, Pope Benedict, in the presence of the nation’s president, contrasted the emptiness of unbelief and the path of holiness.
During an open-air Mass attended by 50,000, the Pontiff called St. Wenceslaus “a model of holiness for all people, especially the leaders of communities and peoples. Yet we ask ourselves: in our day, is holiness still relevant? Or is it now considered unattractive and unimportant? Do we not place more value today on worldly success and glory? Yet how long does earthly success last, and what value does it have?… Those who denied and continue to deny God, and in consequence have no respect for man, appear to have a comfortable life and to be materially successful. Yet one need only scratch the surface to realize how sad and unfulfilled these people are.”
“Today,” he continued, “there is a need for believers with credibility, who are ready to spread in every area of society the Christian principles and ideals by which their action is inspired. This is holiness, the universal vocation of all the baptized, which motivates people to carry out their duty with fidelity and courage, looking not to their own selfish interests but to the common good, seeking God’s will at every moment.”
After the Mass, Pope Benedict spoke to the estimated 15,000 young people who had spent the chilly night in prayer awaiting his arrival. “Dear friends, it is not hard to see that in every young person there is an aspiration towards happiness, sometimes tinged with anxiety: an aspiration that is often exploited, however, by present-day consumerist society in false and alienating ways,” he began. “Instead, that longing for happiness must be taken seriously, it demands a true and comprehensive response.… I invite you all to consider the experience of St. Augustine, who said that the heart of every person is restless until it finds what it truly seeks. And he discovered that Jesus Christ alone is the answer that can satisfy his and every person’s desire for a life of happiness, filled with meaning and value.”
“As he did with Augustine, so the Lord comes to meet each one of you,” he continued. “He knocks at the door of your freedom and asks to be welcomed as a friend. He wants to make you happy, to fill you with humanity and dignity. The Christian faith is this: encounter with Christ, the living Person who gives life a new horizon and thereby a definitive direction. And when the heart of a young person opens up to his divine plans, it is not difficult to recognize and follow his voice. The Lord calls each of us by name, and entrusts to us a specific mission in the Church and in society.”
Returning by car to the nunciature, Pope Benedict met privately with the nation’s bishops before traveling to Prague’s airport to deliver a farewell address. “I was especially delighted to meet the young people, and to encourage them to build on the best traditions of this nation’s past, particularly its Christian heritage,” he said. “If our eyes remain open to the beauty of God’s creation and our minds to the beauty of his truth, then we may indeed hope to remain young and to build a world that reflects something of that divine beauty, so as to inspire future generations to do likewise.”
President Klaus for his part expressed gratitude for the Pontiff’s visit. “Your strong beliefs, your courage to express views that are not politically correct and not only applauded, your firm commitment to the basic ideas and principles our civilization and Christianity have been based upon give us all an example and encouragement… I daresay, and I know it is not only my private view or only my personal observation, that your visit was successful and will have a long lasting effect.”
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