Pope’s Apostolic Visit to Czech Republic

Source: FSSPX News

From September 26 to 28, 2009, Benedict XVI made its 13th Apostolic visit to a foreign country by going to the Czech Republic, in response to an invitation sent by President Václav Klaus. Twenty years after the fall of the communist regime in the country, during the “Velvet Revolution”, the pope went to Prague, to Brno, the capital of Moravia as well as to Stará Boleslav, the place of the martyrdom of St. Wenceslas, the patron Saint of the Czech Republic. In this country characterized by atheism, 60% of the Czech population declared themselves as having no religion in 2009, but almost 70% of the Slovak population is Catholic.
According to the data of the Central Statistics Office of the Church, updated on this December 31, the Czech population numbers 3,290,000 Catholics out of 10,380,000 inhabitants, i.e. 31,7% of the population versus more than 80% of the population before the communist regime (1945-1989). They are divided between 9 dioceses, 2,576 parishes, and 70 other pastoral centers. The Czech Catholic Church numbers 20 bishops, 1,956 priests, 1,725 religious, 160 consecrated lay people and 1,109 catechists. The 79 Catholic educational organizations from kindergarten to university gather 15,977 pupils and students. The Church owns and manages 50 hospitals 98 clinics, 134 retirement homes, 59 orphanages and day care centers, 170 centers for family information or social formation and 28 other structures of various kinds. Besides, it numbers 184 seminarians. Priestly ordinations are dwindling in number every year.
The Czechoslovak communist regime, in power from 1945 until 1989, organized an important program to dechristianize Czech and Slovak populations in this country evangelized thanks to the missionary work of St. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century. They were the first to write down the old Slavonic language. On the occasion of the present visit, the sensitive question of the restitution of the goods of the Church confiscated by the communist regime will be tackled behind closed doors.

Saturday, September 26

During the Flight

The pope was accompanied by some thirty people of his retinue, among them his private secretaries, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Holy See, and Bishop Fernando Filoni, substitute for general affairs at the Secretariat of State. Likewise present was Italian Cardinal Giovanni Coppa, age 83, who was apostolic nuncio in Czechoslovakia from June 1990 until the splitting in two of the country on December 1, 1993. From then on, he was nuncio in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, and eventually nuncio in Prague from March 1994 until May 2001.
Asked about the role of a Church henceforth in the minority in secularized societies, Benedict XVI addressed the 50 journalists present and stated that “usually it is creative minorities who determine the future, and in this regard the Catholic Church must understand that she is a creative minority who has a heritage of values that are not things of the past but a very lively and relevant reality. The Church must modernize, she must be present in the public debate, in our struggle for a true concept of freedom and peace. Thus she can contribute in various sectors. I would say that the first is precisely the intellectual dialogue between agnostics and believers. They both need each other,” he concluded.
“In the past century,” the pope said, “the Czech Republic suffered under a particularly harsh Communist dictatorship but also had a high-level resistance movement, both Catholic and secular.” And he called to mind two great Czech figureheads like Václav Havel or Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, deceased in 1992, “who truly gave Europe a message of what freedom is and of how we must live and work in liberty.” Communist countries, Benedict XVI also stated “suffered tremendously under the dictatorship, but in their suffering they developed concepts of freedom which are timely and which must bow be further developed and applied.” “I think that these concepts, these ideas which developed during the period of dictatorship must not be lost,” he added. The pope was also asked a question about his recent encyclical Caritas in veritate. He said he was satisfied by the “discussion” opened by this text of the Magisterium and invited listeners “to find new models for a responsible economy.”

In Prague

At Stará Ruzyne International Airport, Benedict XVI was welcomed towards the end of the morning, by the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague and Archbishop Jan Graubner, Archbishop of Olomouc and President of the Bishops’ Conference. He was presented with symbols of the country: bread, salt and earth, by a young couple in traditional garb. The pope then pronounced his first address on Czech soil in response to the discourse by President Klaus.
“I join you and your neighbors in giving thanks for your liberation from those oppressive regimes. If the collapse of the Berlin Wall(November 9, 1989) marked a watershed in world history, it did so all the more for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, enabling them to take their rightful place as sovereign actors in the concert of nations,” the pontiff declared. “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 ideas and cultural influences  was rigidly controlled.” “The cost of forty years of political repression is not to be underestimated,” the pope continued, seeing “A particular tragedy for this land in the ruthless attempt by the Government of that time to silence the voice of the Church.” “Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this Republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture, and I invite the Christian community to continue to make its voice heard as the nation addresses the challenges of the new millennium.” And Benedict XVI recalled  “how deeply Czech culture is permeated by Christianity.”

At the Feet of the Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague

Next, in a closed car, the pope went to the Church of Our Lady Victorious built in downtown Prague in the 17th century. After having been welcomed by the mayor of the Czech capital before the building, the pope entered to venerate the Child-Jesus of Prague, before crowning Him with a crown of gold and silver bearing his coat of arms.
On this occasion, Benedict XVI addressed himself to the many children and their families crowding the Church: “ We call upon the Child Jesus for the gift of unity and harmony for all families. We think especially of young families who have to work so hard to offer their children security and a decent future. We pray for families in difficulty, struggling with illness and suffering, for those in crisis, divided or torn apart by strife or infidelity. We entrust them all to the Holy Infant of Prague, knowing how important their stability and harmony is for the true progress of society and for the future of humanity.”
Then he emphasized that each human person had to be “appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is, since in the face of every human being, without distinction of race of culture, God’s image shines forth.” “This is especially true of children,” continued Benedict XVI. “Yet how many children are neither loved, nor welcomed nor respected! How many of them suffer violence and every kind of exploitation by the unscrupulous!” the pontiff lamented. “May children always be accorded the respect and attention that are due to them: they are the future and the hope of humanity!”
The Holy Father concluded by greeting all the children who had come to meet him and encouraged them to pray for their parents, teachers, friends and also for himself, and expressed the wish that they be “obedient, good and kind.”

At the Castel of Hradcany

At 4:30 pm, the President of the Czech Republic welcomed the pope at the castle of Hradcany, once the residence of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, of the kings of Bohemia, and governors. Since 1918, the stronghold which also accommodates museums, is the presidential palace. After a private interview with the Head of State, Benedict XVI met Prime Minister Jan Fischer, as well as the presidents of the Senate and parliament.
In his address to the political and civil authorities of the country and to the members of the diplomatic corps, University rectors and several personalities from Czech industrial and agricultural spheres, the pope recalled that his visit coincided with “the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ which restored democracy to the nation.” If he afterwards hailed the pursuit of the process of “healing and rebuilding” two decades after the profound political changes which swept this continent, Benedict XVI warned: “The aspirations of citizens and the expectations placed on governments called for new models of civic life and solidarity between nations and peoples without which the long desired future of justice, peace and prosperity would remain elusive.” “Every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs, seeking to understand the proper use of human freedom,” the pope continued. “True freedom presupposes the search for truth – for the true good – and hence finds its fulfillment precisely in knowing and doing what is right and just. Truth, in other words, is the guiding norm for freedom, and goodness is freedom’s perfection. (…) For Christians, truth has a name: God. And goodness has a face: Jesus Christ.”
In this context, Benedict XVI returned once again to the “fidelity” of Europe to “its Christian roots.” He did not hesitate to encourage the Czech people and political officials as well as European diplomats to “draw inspiration from that living heritage” of Christian values. “Freedom finds its deepest meaning in a spiritual homeland,” the pope explained, before adding: “With full respect for the distinction between the political realm and that of religion — which indeed preserves the freedom of citizens to express religious belief and live accordingly — I wish to underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent, ‘home’!”
After this address, the Holy Father went to the cathedral, dedicated to Saints Vitusf, Wenceslaus and Adalbert for the celebration of Vespers.

At St. Vitus’ Cathedral

At 6:00 pm, the pope presided over Vespers in the Cathedral of Prague, surrounded by Czech bishops, priests, seminarians, men and women religious, and lay movements who had come from all over the country. “Twenty years ago, after the long winter of Communist dictatorship, your Christian communities began once more to express themselves feely, when, through the events triggered by the student demonstration of November 17, 1989, your people regained their freedom.” However, the pope noted that in a supposedly free society, even today  “it was not easy to live and bear witness to the Gospel. Society continues to suffer from the wounds caused by atheist ideology, and 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,” Benedict XVI emphasized. “Our pastoral activity in the field of educating new generations should be undertaken with particular respect,” the sovereign pontiff insisted.
The pope repeated that “the Church does not seek privileges but only to be able to work freely in the service of all, in the spirit of the Gospel.” Yet Benedict XVI refrained from any clear allusion to the juridical battle, which still recently opposed the chapter of the Cathedral to the Head of State to know who owns the Gothic building located in the very heart of the Castle of Prague. After a first trial, the building, confiscated by the communist regime had been returned to the Church in September 2006. It then became State property again after a ruling of the Supreme Court. In May 2009, a second ruling from that same court confirmed the decision which the local Church is contesting.
In 2005, Benedict XVI had more particularly mentioned the question of the goods of the Church when receiving the Czech bishops at the Vatican. “The Church is not seeking privileges,” he had then stated, “but merely the possibility to fulfill her mission. When this right is recognized, the whole society benefits from it.” In September 2008, when receiving the new Czech ambassador near the Holy See, the pope had clearly affirmed: “The whole society benefits from the facts that the Church can have the right to manage the material and spiritual goods necessary to her apostolate. We find in your country signs of progress in the domain, but much remains to be done. I am convinced that the special commissions set up by your government and your parliament to solve the pending issues concerning the Church goods will proceed with honesty, justice, and a genuine acknowledgement of the Church’s capacity to take its share in the well-being of the Republic. I especially desire that these consideration be clearly present in the mind of all concerned when the time comes to find a solution concerning the Cathedral of Prague, which rises like a living testimony of the rich cultural and religious heritage of your country, and bears witness to the harmonious coexistence of Church and State.”

The two other days of Benedict XVI’s visit to the Czech Republic, Sunday 27 and Monday 28 will be reported and the whole of his visit will be the object of an analysis in the next issue of DICI (n°203).