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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