VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Czech Republic at a time when the former Communist nation is being hit by a wave of secularization.

The visit takes place 20 years after the fall of Communism in central and Eastern Europe.

On Sept. 26-28, the Pope will travel to Prague, the European country’s capital, as well as Brno, a city rich in Catholic heritage and home to the Republic’s Constitution Court.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, said the Holy Father’s trip will allow him to show the vitality of Christianity in Europe’s center at a time when the Czech Republic is suffering from “widespread secularization.”

Speaking on his weekly Vatican Television program, “Octava Dies,” Sept. 13, the papal spokesman said although the Czech people have a great and ancient cultural tradition, mostly formed by Christianity, it is becoming increasingly secular, and “religious practice is confined to a minority.” He said the Pope will give many “strong messages” of encouragement to the faithful and that the most likely theme will be “an invitation to a cordial ecumenism,” one that gives “credibility and profundity” to the contribution believers can make in building a future in a secularized society.

Father Lombardi said he also expects the Holy Father 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.”

He added the Pope has chosen this time to visit the Czech Republic to coincide with the celebration of its patron saint, St. Wenceslaus, whose feast is Sept. 28. Father Lombardi said it’s hoped that aligning the visit with the feast will help to “effectively” recall that Christianity has and wants to continue to offer a “precious service to the deepest being and hopes of a people, of every people.”

President Klaus

Despite the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, when the country led Eastern Europe in freeing itself from the shackles of atheistic Communism, the country is now considered to be one of the most secular in Europe. According to statistics, at most only a quarter of its population are believers. It’s a particular concern of the country’s president, Vaclav Klaus, who, on a visit to the Pope in May, expressed his hope that the papal visit would serve to help the Czech people recall the beauty of the faith.

“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, Sept. 11. He said a shortage of priests has meant parishes have had to be merged.

He also observed that the Church is struggling to win compensation for land expropriated during the days of Communism. The Czech Republic and the Holy See have yet to ratify a treaty on the issue, while 75% of the Czech people voted last year to reject proposals to return nationalized property to the Church.

‘Rich Christian Heritage’

Despite the shadows of increasing secularization, there has been plenty of coverage ahead of the visit in the country’s media. Meanwhile, the Czech Church has been working hard to draw attention to the Pope’s trip and has even arranged for the faithful to have regular updates on the visit sent to their cell phones.

According to the nation’s ambassador to the Holy See, Pavel Vosalik, politicians and communities are showing a “great interest” in the Pope’s visit. But in an interview with Vatican Radio Sept. 12, Vosalik warned that curiosity about it is not enough, and that the Czech people, and Europeans as a whole, need to be educated about their rich Christian heritage.

“This is a point that we must include in our day-to-day education in Europe,” he said. “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. We should simply see that the Catholic Church shares nearly 2,000 years of history with the history and culture of Europe.”
Ambassador Vosalik added he didn’t think there was a “real risk” the population will completely turn away from religion or from faith in God, but he believes the Church might be paying for neglect after the “Velvet Revolution.”

“I believe we are now reaping the results of our own behavior in the 90s,” he said. “My opinion is that the Church at that time had an opportunity, but missed its chance. The nation was very receptive.” But now he believes there’s another opportunity: to spread the Gospel message to a whole new generation that was born after the revolution and without any knowledge of communism.

Papal Itinerary

Pope Benedict is scheduled first to pay a visit to the famous Infant Jesus of Prague statue and shrine Sept. 26 before meeting President Klaus. He will then address members of the diplomatic corps. In the evening, he is scheduled to celebrate evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours with priests, religious and seminarians at the Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert.

The following day, Sunday, Sept. 27, the Holy Father will fly to Brno, where he will celebrate Mass before returning to Prague in the afternoon to hold an ecumenical meeting and meet local academics in Prague Castle.

On his final day, the Holy Father will celebrate an open-air Mass on the feast of St. Wenceslaus and give a special message to young people. He will then have lunch with Czech bishops before returning to Rome in the evening.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.