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One of the world’s least religious countries eyes hosting World Youth Day

World Youth Day has been credited with sparking Catholic revival in many places. Undoubtedly, the Czech Republic is a country that desperately needs such revival.

The flag of the Czech Republic is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 31, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

While World Youth Day 2019 in Panama is still 17 months away, the battle to host WYD 2022 has already begun. A few months ago, I wrote about how young Catholics in the United Kingdom – a highly secularized, post-Christian society where the Catholic minority is nonetheless enjoying a revival – are campaigning to hold the event in London. Now, the British capital has a most unlikely rival: Prague. While the Czech Republic borders Slovakia to the east and Poland to the north, two of Europe’s most religious countries, the Czechs are among the world’s least religious peoples. Will Pope Francis – known for his preference of the “peripheries” and penchant for surprising even the most attuned of Vatican observers – take on this Czech gamble?

While Krakow hosted the most recent World Youth Day, Poland’s southern neighbor, the Czech Republic, wants to follow suit and host the event in 2022. About 6,000 Czech pilgrims went to Krakow. The idea for Prague’s bid was born last year, when 120,000 Catholic pilgrims from around the world went on a pilgrimage to the Infant Jesus of Prague, a sixteenth-century statue that is the subject of popular devotion around the world, after having left World Youth Day in Poland.

The Polish section of Vatican Radio reports that Cardinal Dominik Duka, head of the Czech bishops’ conference, has submitted a letter to Pope Francis with the request to host WYD in Prague. Rev. Jan Balík, director of youth ministry for the Czech bishops, has said that the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, responsible for the organization of World Youth Day, has responded to the idea with enthusiasm. Ultimately, however, the decision regarding the next host of WYD after Panama rests with Pope Francis. Now, the Czech bishops are seeking the support of secular authorities in their country for this idea.

Anyone with an inkling of knowledge about the state of the faith in the Czech Republic must be surprised (and, likely, skeptical). The Czech Republic frequently tops rankings of the world’s least religious countries. According to a 2015 Win/Gallup International Poll, the Czech Republic is the fourth country in the world with the most atheists (and in pole position in Europe). In the 2011 census, a mere 1.46 million Czechs out of a total population of 10.5 million claimed anyreligious affiliation (most of those who did were Catholics). Pizzerias, hotels, and discos housed in buildings that were obviously once churches are not an uncommon site in Prague. Meanwhile, the Czech Church is highly dependent on foreign missionary priests: one in ten priests serving in the Czech Republic come from neighboring Poland.

There are several reasons for this. Jan Hus, the precursor to the Protestant Reformation who was sentenced to burning at the stake by the Catholic Church, is a national hero. The Czechs traditionally associate Catholicism with the arch-Catholic Habsburgs who dominated their country for centuries. When Czechoslovakia was formed from the ashes of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, an astounding 1.5 million Czechs left the Catholic Church in just three years. Some became Protestants or Hussites, but many others simply became what we in the twenty-first century call “nones”: by 1930, the number of Czechs who did not belong to any Church reached 833,000.

Then there was the communist legacy. Unlike, say, Poland or Lithuania, the Czechs did not have bitter memories of Russian oppression. After the Second World War, the communists did not take power in Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe (with the exception of Yugoslavia), through Red Army tanks, but in parliamentary elections. Thus communism met with less resistance in Czechoslovakia than elsewhere. Then there is the fact that Czech political culture is marked by conformism to oppression, rather than resistance (note the fact that the Czechs had become almost completely Germanized in the nineteenth century and that they offered precious little resistance to Hitler).

As a result of these historical processes, the Czech Republic is one of the world’s least religious countries. Thus hosting World Youth Day there would be very risky. First of all, there is the risk that this would be a huge public relations flop (on the other hand, WYD was held in Paris, a city also not known for its piety, in 1997; the French bishops had feared it would be a colossal failure, but many French youths showed up, and many credit the current modest Catholic revival in France to this). Then there is the fact that the Czech Republic lacks the infrastructure – parishes, monasteries, etc. – where pilgrims traditionally are housed.

On the other hand, the Czech bishops have said that if Prague will host the event, then part of the events related to the “Days in the Dioceses” will be held in neighboring Slovakia and Hungary. (It is surprising that Poland is not included in these events; perhaps this is to avoid excessively privileging the country, which has already hosted World Youth Day twice, in 1991 in Czestochowa and last year in Krakow.) Undoubtedly, they have taken their cue from Panama. Like the Czech Republic, Panama is a small country, home to just 4 million people, and so many of the “Days in the Dioceses” events will take place in other Central American countries.

In particular, Slovakia could help to provide some of the infrastructure for World Youth Day. While the Czechs and Slovaks formed one country for 75 years and speak very similar languages, their religious cultures are radically different. Slovakia is one of Europe’s most intact Catholic cultures. In a 2014 referendum, Slovaks overwhelmingly voted against same-sex “marriage” and LGBT adoption (however, the referendum was null because of poor turnout). Slovakia also boasts a very high number of vocations in relation to its small population: last year, 51 priests were ordained there, almost as many as in spiritually arid Germany (58), despite the fact that Germany is home to almost eighttimes as many Catholics as Slovakia.

Perhaps taking such a gamble would be worth it? World Youth Day has been credited with sparking Catholic revival in many places. Undoubtedly, the Czech Republic is a country that desperately needs such revival.

To say the least, it will be interesting where Pope Francis will decide to host World Youth Day 2022. Traditionally, the event has alternated between Europe and another continent; the next such event will be held in Central America. As I have noted, Prague will face a strong rival in the form of London.

In my opinion, one should not be especially shocked if Prague is selected. Francis is, after all, “the pope of surprises.” In particular, Francis has often shown his preferences for the “peripheries,” elevating prelates from far-flung countries with tiny Catholic minorities like Laos, Sweden, Ethiopia, and Tonga to the College of Cardinals. The Czech Republic is undoubtedly such a Catholic periphery. But is its intense secularism too “peripheral” for World Youth Day?


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About Filip Mazurczak 40 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

8 Comments

  1. 1. You missed the memo a few months ago that the country’s preferred name in English is now “Czechia”.
    2. The communists took power in Czechoslovakia the same way they did everywhere else, through military force. Yes, as in several other E.European contries they came to power through parliamentary elections, but the elections were certainly not free and fair. The Red Army was occupying the country and communist agitprop and standover men ensured their desired candidates were “elected”.

  2. The soviet invasion of 1968 of Czechoslovakia also comes to mind that the communists were not appreciated, and forced their way back in after the people threw them out.

  3. And what does the Czech government think of this proposal? Have they endorsed it or shown disapproval?

    Better for WYD to end, and let the other bishops take up the slack. Though they may not have what it takes.

  4. The historical analysis in this piece regarding Czechoslovakia and communism is embarrassingly clueless. The communists achieved power there by becoming part of a coalition gov’t in the aftermath of WW2 (similar to what also happened in Hungary). Once some of their people were in positions of power (such as control of the state police) they began to manipulate the system from within – ultimately pushing Edvard Benes out of power and instituting a fully communist regime. And if you think the Czechs just happily embraced the USSR and communism I suggest you read up on the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution.

    Anyone interested for a better understanding of the Czech response to communism should check out the excellent documentary The Power of the Powerless (which takes its name from Vaclav Havel’s famous essay):

    https://www.amazon.com/Power-Powerless/dp/B00794W4U4/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1503587540&sr=1-1&keywords=power+of+the+powerless

    • Of course I know of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, overall, the people of Czechoslovakia showed relatively little opposition to the communists. The Prague Spring was the result of reforms from the top, and while there was some street fighting after the Soviet invasion, in general there was little popular resistance to the invasion. The Velvet Revolution occurred after communism had crumbled in other countries and the writing on the wall that the Soviet Bloc would implode soon was clear to everyone. Before the Velvet Revolution, there was very little resistance in Czechoslovakia. Before the Velvet Revolution, the biggest dissident movement was Charter 77, whose signatories numbered 1,900. Not a large number in a country of 15 million. Under communism, the Czechs showed much less resistance than the Hungarians in 1956 or the Poles in 1980-1989. Yes, there was some resistance, but it wasn’t massive until the Velvet Revolution, when it was clear that communism’s days were numbered anyways.

  5. Can somebody tell me why there is a cardinal from Prauge?
    The Czech hierarchy is a failure. They have failed to evangelize the Czech people. In any other organization, they would be fired. The city of Philadelphia has at least as many Catholics and there is not Cardinal from Philadelphia.

  6. Interesting and thoughtful article but many statements are not fully accurate. Communists did not get to the power through elections but through the coup in 1948 (in the last manipulated but still somewhat free elections in 1946 they got 40% of delegates in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia but 60% of delegates were from democratic parties). Article also fails to mention that the persecution of the Catholic church during communist times was much more severe in the Czech Republic than in neighboring countries like East Germany, Poland, or Hungary (e.g. all male religious orders were prohibited and most of their members spent multiple years in prison). Even though the Czech Republic is truly very secular country Catholic minority there is quite active which can be documented by priestly vocations – for example in 2016 (a year mentioned in the article regarding vocations in Germany and Slovakia) there were 22 new priests ordained in the Czech church which is definitely proportionally much more than in neighboring Germany or most other Western European countries (see http://www.katyd.cz/clanky/sveceni-a-primice-novoknezi-2016.html for a reference). Finally, even though a formal membership in churches is low in the country its citizens and governments are consistently promoting international politics based on Christian values (for example support for ostracized Israel runs across the political spectrum and the Czech Republic is unfortunately the only European country consistently supporting Israel in the UN and other bodies in spite of repeated bullying from rich Middle Eastern dictatorships) and the “multiculturalism” ideology has no influence there. But organizing the World Youth Day in Prague would be definitely a great idea which could bring a new renewal. I hope it will happen.

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