Thousands pack field for pope's Czech mass

27th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

On his arrival for his first papal visit to the Czech Republic on Saturday, Benedict hailed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Brno -- More than 120,000 people packed a field outside the Czech city of Brno on Sunday for an open air mass by Pope Benedict XVI who is on a high profile visit on the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

Many spent the night in tents in the field near Brno-Turany airport and 20,000 people were waiting before dawn.

Youngsters in traditional costumes mingled with robed priests and families with prams, warming their hands on mugs of tea or nibbling cake and biscuits in the morning chill. White and gold Vatican flags were everywhere.

On his arrival for his first papal visit to the Czech Republic on Saturday, Benedict hailed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

"I join you and your neighbours in giving thanks for your liberation from those oppressive regimes," Pope Benedict said in a speech.

"If the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked a watershed in world history, it did all the more so for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, enabling them to take their rightful place as sovereign actors in the concert of nations," he said.

The pope met former Czech President Vaclav Havel, playwright and hero of the peaceful 1989 "Velvet Revolution", who became president after spending years in communist prisons.

But for many Czechs, the huge open air mass was the highlight of the three-day visit, the pope's second to eastern Europe.

He is the first Pope to go to Brno since the local diocese was established in 1777.

For the 21st century mass, a pristine white stage was set up in the field.

The Roman Catholic Church said it expected 10,000 people from neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, and flags could be seen in the crowd, from Slovakia, Israel and even Australia.

One bishop travelled from Bangladesh for the ceremony.

Roads around the airport were closed for security reasons. Before dawn broke there were already huge crowds of pilgrims and a long line of buses making their way to the field.

"We came here at 4:00am so we could be in the first row and as close to the Holy Father as possible," said Gabriela Ovciakova, 50, part of a group of 38 pilgrims from two villages in Slovakia's High Tatras region.

"The arrival of the Pope here in Brno is really a great celebration for us," said Lenka Polachova, 17, who was wearing a traditional costume she said was only used for great occasions.

On small tables set up around the stage, bowls of communion bread wafers and ornate goblets were ready to be handed out. Volunteers spent four hours on Friday distributing the 100,000 wafers in 400 ceramic bowls.

"It's important for me to see the Pope and see people who have the same faith," said Pavel Bernatek, 18, from the eastern Czech town of Zlin, wearing his choir boy outfit.

"It's just perfect because the Czech Republic is very atheist but when I see all these people, I'm happy," he added.

Alena Seywerth arrived from Sankt Andrae in eastern Austria with her husband. She has already seen Benedict in his birthplace of Marktl am Inn in Germany and in Mariazell on his 2007 visit to Austria. "You can never see the Pope too often," she smiled.

Patricia Opasy, a Nigerian who works in the Czech Republic and was wearing African dress, noted: "It's for me a very special occasion, a privilege for me to be at this holy mass."

Brno is the Czech Republic's second largest city and capital of Moravia, by far the most Catholic region of the Czech Republic.

The field used for the mass is the size of 25 football pitches and lies near the former village of Turany, one of the most ancient pilgrimage sites of Moravia.

After the two-hour mass, Benedict was to return to Prague to attend an ecumenical meeting and then meet scientists, ahead of a mass in Stara Boleslav on Monday.


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