Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Prague next week, almost 20 years since the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, which heralded the end of communism in that country.
The Pope will stay in the Czech capital for three days, Sept. 26-28, and take a brief excursion to Brno, a city around 100 miles from Prague that is rich in Catholic heritage and home to the Republic’s Constitution Court.
But while the visit will celebrate the end of communism, which Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, did so much to end, the Pope’s primary concern will be widespread secularization which is sweeping the country. Despite the end of atheistic communist rule, the Czech Republic has become one of the most secular countries in Europe, with just a quarter of its population professing belief in Christianity.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said this week that in the face of this trend, the Pope is expected to issue many strong messages of encouragement to the Catholic faithful, and show how the “credibility and profundity” of believers and their contributions can help build a future in a secularized society.
Lombardi said he also expects Benedict XVI to warn that European unity cannot be reduced to material and economic aspects, but must “carry within itself the wealth of shared values, necessary to guarantee the dignity of the human person.” Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague, believes the Pope will draw heavily on his recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (charity in truth) — a document that stresses the need for ethics to shape economics so that profit alone does not regulate the world of business.
The Velvet Revolution was just one of the uprisings in 1989 that, like dominos, helped bring an end to the Cold War. It was also one of the quickest, lasting just 10 days at the end of November.
Yet few would have predicted that a country, so rich in Christian heritage but denied the faith for so long, would have voluntarily rejected Christianity so brazenly in the years that followed.
“Above all, the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic suffers from indifference among believers,” observed Peter Rettig, a Czech expert for the charity Aid to the Church in Need. Another challenge, he said, is disaffection among youth. “There are beautifully renovated churches with just a few elderly women who come to worship,” said Rettig, speaking to his charity’s in-house publication Kirche in Not on Sept. 11.
Rettig also pointed out that the church is struggling to win compensation for land expropriated during the days of communism. The Czech Republic and the Holy See treaty have yet to ratify a treaty on the issue, while 75 percent of the Czech people voted last year to reject proposals to return nationalized property to the church.
Pavel Vosalik, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the Holy See, blames the rampant secularism on a missed opportunity. “I believe we are now reaping the results of our own behaviour in the ’90s,” he told Vatican Radio last week. “My opinion is that the church, at that time, had an opportunity but missed its chance. The nation was very receptive.”
One way to address this concern, he said, is to better educate the Czech people, and Europeans as a whole, in their rich Christian heritage.
“We should see the Pope and the Holy See as an essential part of European culture and European history, regardless of whether you are a member of the Catholic Church or not,” Vosalik said. “We should simply see that the Catholic Church shares nearly 2,000 years of history with the history and culture of Europe.”
Pope Benedict XVI will no doubt stress this point, especially when he addresses young people on the final day of his trip. He may also gently remind the Czech people that were it not for his predecessor’s ardent belief in the liberating force of the gospel, they might still be oppressed by a wicked tyranny that denied them not only their religious liberty, but plenty of other freedoms they now enjoy.
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