THE HOLY FATHER, Pope Benedict XVI, recently travelled to the Czech Republic in a journey he described as “both a pilgrimage and a mission.” The ancient land of Bohemia was once at the very center of Christian civilization. It was from here that the brother saints Cyril and Methodius launched their mission to convert the Slavic world. From Prague, the realms of the Přemyslid and then Luxembourg dynasties were ruled, followed by the most illustrious house of Hapsburg. Oh to have been in Prague under the reign of the Emperor Rudolf II! With his mysterious court of astrologers and magicians and his cabinet of curiosities. With Arcimboldo, Spranger, Heintz, and Hans von Aachen putting paint to canvas, Giambologna and de Vries sculpting, while Kepler and Tycho Brahe searched the night skies. Centuries later, long after the nucleus of Hapsburg power had moved to Vienna, it was to Prague that the Emperor Ferdinand came following his abdication and remained until his death in 1875.
But of course there is the other Prague — the city of heresy, rebellion, and warfare. Curiously, this capital has probably experienced more defenestrations than any other city: the killing of seven councilors, including the burgomaster, by Hussites in 1419; the killing of the portreeve and several aldermen by rebels in 1483; the non-fatal defenestration of two governors and their scribe, again by Protestants, in 1618, sparking the Thirty Years’ War; and long-time Czechoslovak politician Jan Masaryk was found dead after a fall from a window in 1948, presumably at the instigation of the Communists who took over.
Bohemia is a land that has been lost to the Faith and regained more than once. There were the Hussite wars of more than fifteen years, in which the Taborite extremists raised their arms against their Catholic neighbors, the pope, and the Holy Roman Empire, before their ultimate defeat. Then, the Thirty Years’ War in which Protestants, with Ottoman Muslim support, gained the upper hand. One of the greatest miracles of the Society of Jesus was that so many lands in which Catholicism had almost collapsed — Poland, Hungary, southern Germany, the Spanish Netherlands, and, yes, Bohemia — were returned to the fullness of the Christian religion through their arduous and unceasing efforts. (The Jesuits also brought to the Czech lands the Baroque architecture for which it is justly famous.)
The recent history of Bohemia and Moravia is, sadly, one of repression. This was firstly — and rather perversely — by the nationalists who secured the country’s independence during the First World War. The anti-religious republicans Beneš, Štefánik, and Masaryk (the father of the previously mentioned Jan) wanted to distance the newly born “Czechoslovakia” from its deeply Catholic past, and created the “Czechoslovak Hussite Church” to lure the faithful toward schism and heresy. Their success was such that within a decade of the new group’s 1920 foundation it claimed over 700,000 members. The church has an almost satanic-looking flag of a blood-red chalice on a black background, a symbol replicated in the black vestments of the group’s clergy.
In 1939, Czechoslovakia (having already surrendered the German-inhabited Sudetenland) was invaded by Nazi Germany and Bohemia and Moravia were declared a protectorate of the Third Reich. Having suffered six years of Nazi occupation, the Czech lands were then conquered by the Red Army in 1945. The Soviets allowed President Beneš to return, and the restored leader immediately issued decrees for the ethnic cleansing of all lands under his control. Beneš eventually sanctioned the “Czech Coup” of February, in which the Communists took over the government, but resigned and then died a few months later. Bohemia and Moravia continued under a Soviet-backed dictatorship until the “Velvet Revolution” brought about the peaceful end of Czechoslovak Communism in 1989.
Eighty years of the Catholic Church being considered an enemy of the government have taken their toll. The church in Czechoslovakia was one of the most-deeply infiltrated in all of Europe, with hundreds of Communist agents entering the seminaries and being ordained priests. The Czech Republic today is one of the least religiously active countries in Europe, with 59% of the population claiming a lack of any religion in the official census. Catholic Christianity remains the largest religion in the country, but only with 26.8% of the population. That this remains so twenty years after the Czech Church regained her freedom is a scandalous indictment of the Church’s hierarchy in Bohemia and Moravia.
And so, recalling that liberation twenty years ago, the Holy Father came to the Czech Republic both on pilgrimage to a land with a deeply Christian history and on mission to a society that feels the very absence of God. “The coming months will see the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which happily brought a peaceful end to a time of particular hardship for this country, a time in which the flow of ideas and cultural influences was rigidly controlled,” the pope said on arriving in Prague. Despite the happiness that comes with political liberation, the pope noted, “the cost of forty years of political repression is not to be underestimated,” in particular the “ruthless attempt [by the Communist government] to silence the voice of the Church.”
Throughout his speeches during his visit, the pope was keen to remember and celebrate the 1989 revolution — a transfer of power that took place without violence or bloodshed — and to give thanks for the Church’s regained freedom. But the Holy Father also reminded believers that, as he remarked during Vespers at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, “Society continues to suffer from the wounds caused by atheist ideology, and it is often seduced by the modern mentality of hedonistic consumerism amid a dangerous crisis of human and religious values and a growing drift towards ethical and cultural relativism.” The Communist perpetrator may have disappeared, but his crimes still reverberate throughout the Czech Republic, and indeed all of Eastern Europe and the world.
It is obvious to Benedict that sanctity — the personal love of God and the living-out of that encounter — is the ultimate dignity to which all mankind must aspire, and the ultimate adversary that Communism sought to pervert. The pope’s mission-pilgrimage to the Czech Republic has served to challenge the Czech people (and Christians everywhere following the collapse of Soviet Communism) not to rest on the laurels of having defeated a foe, but rather to continue to fight and build a society in which the dignity of humanity, the sanctity of humanity, is paramount.
Pope Benedict naturally began his trip to the Czech Republic in the capital city of Prague. As a correspondent of Fr. Zuhlsdorf noted, “The first place he went (at his own request) was the Church of Our Lady of Victory. It is the church – the symbol of recatholisation of the country”. The Church is home to the Infant of Prague, a devotion to the Child Jesus which has spread around the world.
“The figure of the Child Jesus, the tender infant, brings home to us God’s closeness and his love,” the Pope said at the Church of Our Lady Victorious. “We come to understand how precious we are in his eyes, because it is through him that we in our turn have become children of God. Every human being is a child of God and therefore our brother or sister, to be welcomed and respected. May our society grasp this truth! Every human person would then be appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is, since in the face of every human being, without distinction of race or culture, God’s image shines forth.”
The Holy Father donated a crown for the Infant of Prague.
Following the visit to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the Pope was officially received at Prague Castle by Mr. Václav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic.
Part of the welcoming ceremony included a performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; the Pope is well-known as a lover of music.
Following the welcoming ceremony, Pope Benedict crossed the street to the Cathedral of St. Vitus, located within the Castle complex. Here the Holy Father prayed Vespers with priests, monks, nuns, and members of religious communities.
“Twenty years ago, after the long winter of Communist dictatorship, your Christian communities began once more to express themselves freely, when, through the events triggered by the student demonstration of 17 November 1989, your people regained their freedom. Yet you are well aware that even today it is not easy to live and bear witness to the Gospel. Society continues to suffer from the wounds caused by atheist ideology, and it is often seduced by the modern mentality of hedonistic consumerism amid a dangerous crisis of human and religious values and a growing drift towards ethical and cultural relativism.”
“In this context there is an urgent need for renewed effort throughout the Church so as to strengthen spiritual and moral values in present-day society. I know that your communities are already actively engaged on several fronts, especially in charitable work, carried out under the auspices of Caritas. Your pastoral activity in the field of educating new generations should be undertaken with particular zeal. Catholic schools should foster respect for the human person; attention should also be given to the pastoral care of young people outside the school environment, without neglecting other groups of the faithful. Christ is for everyone!”
“Can he make a better gesture to support the traditional Catholics?” wrote Fr. Z’s correspondent. “An intellectual, giving a crown to an old miraculous doll. Then he meets priests and nuns in the cathedral. Does he talk to them, discuss something? No, he just prays together with them. Vespers, in Latin, nice music. … He demonstrates without words: This is the stuff you ought to do, this is your job – to pray.”
The next day, the Pope travelled to Brünn (Brno), the capital of Moravia, to celebrate mass for Moravian pilgrims, as well as those who had come from Bohemia, Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, and other nearby countries.
“‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ These words of Jesus, written in large letters above the entrance to your Cathedral in Brno, he now addresses to each of us, and he adds: ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Mt 11:29-30). Can we remain indifferent in the face of his love? Here, as elsewhere, many people suffered in past centuries for remaining faithful to the Gospel, and they did not lose hope; many people sacrificed themselves in order to restore dignity to man and freedom to peoples, finding in their generous adherence to Christ the strength to build a new humanity. In present-day society, many forms of poverty are born from isolation, from being unloved, from the rejection of God and from a deep-seated tragic closure in man who believes himself to be self-sufficient, or else merely an insignificant and transient datum; in this world of ours which is alienated when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, only Christ can be our certain hope. This is the message that we Christians are called to spread every day, through our witness.”
“Proclaim it yourselves, dear priests, as you remain intimately united to Jesus, as you exercise your ministry enthusiastically, certain that nothing can be lacking in those who put their trust in him. Bear witness to Christ, dear religious, through the joyful and consistent practice of the evangelical counsels, indicating where our true homeland lies: in Heaven. And you, dear young people, dear lay faithful, dear families, base on the firm foundation of faith in Christ whatever plans you have for your family, for work, for school, for activities in every sphere of society. Jesus never abandons his friends. He assures us of his help, because nothing can be done without him, but at the same time, he asks everyone to make a personal commitment to spread his universal message of love and peace.”
“May you draw encouragement from the example of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the principal patrons of Moravia, who evangelized the Slavic peoples, and of Saints Peter and Paul, to whom your Cathedral is dedicated. Look to the shining testimony of Saint Zdislava, mother of a family, rich in works of religion and works of mercy; of Saint John Sarkander, priest and martyr; of Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer, priest and religious, born in this diocese and canonized one hundred years ago, and of Blessed Restituta Kafkova, a religious sister born in Brno and killed by the Nazis in Vienna. May you always be accompanied and protected by Our Lady, Mother of Christ our Hope. Amen!”
Returning to Prague, the Holy Father met with representatives of local Orthodox Churches and of Protestant and other non-Catholic groups.
“We take confidence in knowing that the Church’s proclamation of salvation in Christ Jesus is ever ancient and ever new, steeped in the wisdom of the past and brimming with hope for the future. As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own. Her notions of justice, freedom and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance. Indeed, her memory of the past animates her aspirations for the future.”
“This is why, in fact, Christians draw upon the example of figures such as Saint Adalbert and Saint Agnes of Bohemia. Their commitment to spreading the Gospel was motivated by the conviction 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.”
“From this perspective, we understand more clearly why Christians are obliged to join others in reminding Europe of her roots. It is not because these roots have long since withered. On the contrary! It is because they continue — in subtle but nonetheless fruitful ways — to supply the continent with the spiritual and moral sustenance that allows her to enter into meaningful dialogue with people from other cultures and religions. Precisely because the Gospel is not an ideology, it does not presume to lock evolving socio-political realities into rigid schemas. Rather, it transcends the vicissitudes of this world and casts new light on the dignity of the human person in every age.”
Following the ecumenical meeting, the Holy Father was received by members of the Charles University of Prague, and recalled his own past years in a university faculty:
“I address you as one who has been a professor, solicitous of the right to academic freedom and the responsibility for the authentic use of reason, and is now the Pope who, in his role as Shepherd, is recognized as a voice for the ethical reasoning of humanity. While some argue that the questions raised by religion, faith and ethics have no place within the purview of collective reason, that view is by no means axiomatic. The freedom that underlies the exercise of reason — be it in a university or in the Church — has a purpose: it is directed to the pursuit of truth, and as such gives expression to a tenet of Christianity which in fact gave rise to the university.”
“Indeed, man’s thirst for knowledge prompts every generation to broaden the concept of reason and to drink at the wellsprings of faith. It was precisely the rich heritage of classical wisdom, assimilated and placed at the service of the Gospel, which the first Christian missionaries brought to these lands and established as the basis of a spiritual and cultural unity which endures to this day. The same spirit led my predecessor Pope Clement VI to establish the famed Charles University in 1347, which continues to make an important contribution to wider European academic, religious and cultural circles.”
“The great formative tradition, open to the transcendent, which stands at the base of universities across Europe, was in this land, and others, systematically subverted by the reductive ideology of materialism, the repression of religion and the suppression of the human spirit. In 1989, however, the world witnessed in dramatic ways the overthrow of a failed totalitarian ideology and the triumph of the human spirit. The yearning for freedom and truth is inalienably part of our common humanity. It can never be eliminated; and, as history has shown, it is denied at humanity’s own peril.”
In Altbunzlau, the Pope had the opportunity to meet with thousands of young pilgrims who came from all over the Czech Republic and from neighbouring lands.
“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. Instead, that longing for happiness must be taken seriously, it demands a true and comprehensive response. At your age, the first major choices are made, choices that can set your lives on a particular course, for better or worse.”
“Unfortunately, many of your contemporaries allow themselves to be led astray by illusory visions of spurious happiness, and then they find themselves sad and alone. Yet there are also many young men and women who seek to transform doctrine into action, as your representative said, so as to give the fullness of meaning to their lives. I invite you all to consider the experience of Saint 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 (cf. Confessions, I.1.1).”
“As he did with Augustine, so the Lord comes to meet each one of you. 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. Dear young people, be aware that by Baptism you have become children of God and members of his Body, the Church. Jesus constantly renews his invitation to you to be his disciples and his witnesses. Many of you he calls to marriage, and the preparation for this Sacrament constitutes a real vocational journey. Consider seriously the divine call to raise a Christian family, and let your youth be the time in which to build your future with a sense of responsibility. Society needs Christian families, saintly families!”
“I come from the Czech Republic,” Fr. Z’s correspondent writes, “and I am quite frustrated that the Pope’s visit gets such a negative response in the English blogs — or no response at all… In reality, it was fantastic! He touched dynamite at every step, he was very brave, and proudly (for once) I must say, that he was well received, both from the politicians and from the bishops. (Normal Catholics love him, of course). I just wanted you to know that there was more to this visit than eyes of foreigners can see. It was a victory!”