Home News Pope retraces the past in ex-Communist Prague

Pope retraces the past in ex-Communist Prague

Published on 29/09/2009

Prague — Pope Benedict XVI retraced the death of a Czech martyr more than 1,000 years ago and the fall of Communism in 1989 during a three-day visit to the Czech Republic that ended on Monday.

The 82-year-old pontiff hailed the fall of Communism on Saturday as he arrived in a largely secular Prague for his second visit to eastern Europe.

His trip came shortly before the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a peaceful coup that toppled Communist rule in former Czechoslovakia in 1989.

The pope opened the trip with words of "thanks for your liberation from those oppressive regimes," before meeting — for the first time ever — Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who became the country’s president in 1989.

"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," the pope said.

Fulfilling his duties as head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope bowed to the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wax statuette worshipped since the 17th century, as well as to the skull of St Wenceslas, Czech martyr and patron saint, who was killed on September 28, 935.

But believers in the Czech Republic and elsewhere will cherish above all the memory of two huge open-air masses, one in the southeastern city of Brno and the other in Stara Boleslav near Prague, where St Wenceslas was murdered.

In Brno, at the heart of the most religious Czech region, the pope once again focused on Communism as a force that stifled religious belief in former Czechoslovakia for 40 years.

"History has demonstrated the absurdities to which man descends when he excludes God from the horizon of his choices and actions," he said.

The Communist regime suppressed religious belief, labelling the Church the people’s enemy, putting priests under secret police surveillance and banning the Catholic press and Catholic associations.

At present, Catholics make up only a third of the 10.3-million Czech population, while six in 10 Czechs claimed to be non-believers in a 2001 census.

In what participants described as a "livelier" experience in Stara Boleslav, the pope addressed young people, reminding them that those who seek material success but deny God and "have no respect for man" are "sad and unfulfilled."

But "the true value of human life is measured not merely in terms of material goods and transient interests… it is not material goods that quench the profound thirst for meaning and happiness in the heart of every person," he added.

At both masses, the arrival of Benedict in his distinctive white Popemobile drew cries from the crowd, who waved small white-and-gold Vatican flags and large Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Austrian, German and Polish banners, chanting slogans such as "Benedicto" and "Long live the pope."

Elena, a young Czech nun, said after the last mass she could see people "united and interconnected" everywhere the pope went.

"The whole country is on alert, you can see how everyone’s watching the visit, how the attention is focused on Pope Benedict. I think many people have realised quite a few things," she added.

Many pilgrims also compared Benedict XVI to his predecessor John Paul II, with some saying before mass that the Polish-born pope who helped to dismantle Communist regimes across Eastern Europe was more charismatic.

But Vojtech Elias, head of the Catholic Faculty at Prague’s Charles University, said after the last service that Benedict XVI’s speeches were more progressive than expected and in general a pleasant surprise — a view that pilgrims voiced after the masses too.

"John Paul II was able to open other people’s hearts through emotions, while Benedict XVI can do that through arguments," Elias was quoted by the CTK agency as saying.

"We’ll see what this will do in our society," he added.