A day of mourning to remember Pope John Paul II

The funeral of John Paul II, photo: CTK

As in many countries around the world, Friday 8th April was declared a day of mourning in the Czech Republic. It is a sign of just how important the pope's legacy was felt to be - in this most secular of states - that even here flags flew at half mast on public buildings across the country, a very official acknowledgement of the pope's significance to Czechs.

The funeral of John Paul II,  photo: CTK
At twelve o'clock bells rang out in honour of Karol Wojtyla, the first Slav pope in history. Respect for John Paul II in the Czech Republic goes far beyond the Catholic Church. His role in helping to bring down communism in Central Europe was a great deal more than just symbolic. When he first visited his native Poland as pope in 1979, literally millions of people took to the streets to see him. As one political commentator put it, the communist regime virtually had to shut up shop for a week. For Central Europe it was a reminder that other values beyond the grey realities of communism were alive and kicking, and the seeds were sown not only for the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, but also for the huge popular protests that culminated in 1989 throughout the region. It was none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who once said that the fall of communism would not have happened without John Paul II, and perhaps it was no exaggeration.

Prague bishop Vaclav Maly
On Thursday night hundreds of worshippers gathered at Prague's St Vitus' Cathedral for a televised mass, led by the Prague bishop and former dissident Vaclav Maly. Just before the mass he told Radio Prague of the significance of the pope for Czechs before 1989.

"It was very important, because the pope recognized well the situation then in the then Czechoslovakia, because he recognized the basis of the communist system. And then, through his coming to Rome, Czech Catholics knew that finally somebody is in Rome, who understands exactly the functioning of the communist system. He was an encouragement for us. He was also an encouragement for the then Prague Archbishop Cardinal Tomasek. With the coming of this pope to Rome, Cardinal Tomasek became more and more courageous, and he became even a symbol of resistance before the fall of the Iron Curtain. In this way we are very, very thankful to this pope."

Generally speaking Czech reactions to the pope's death have been fairly low-key, especially in comparison with neighbouring Poland. Czechs have a deeply ambivalent relationship to the Catholic Church, but several hundred people did come to sign and leave messages in a book of condolences at the Vatican Embassy in Prague. This is what some of them had to say:

Vatican,  photo: CTK
Woman: "He was above all a model for our lives. In his life he showed how we can live without succumbing to all the temptations around us."

Man: "I think he was the greatest pope of modern times, and at the same time in his way the greatest politician of our time. He really dwarfed the others."

Woman: "He loved the whole world - everyone - without distinguishing between them, and he helped the poor."

Among the dozens of heads of state attending the pope's funeral in the Vatican was Czech President Vaclav Klaus. He met the John Paul II on several occasions, and for Radio Prague he recalled an episode when the pope was just ending his last visit to the Czech Republic in 1997.

"I remember when he was about to fly back to Rome, and we were waiting at the airport. It was evening, and he'd had a very long day. At that time he was already sick. A guard of honour was waiting on the tarmac as always when a head of state leaves, but the pope was having great difficulty walking. I try to persuade him that no-one would mind if he didn't inspect the guard, but he wasn't to be persuaded. He went ahead, and I could see he really was drawing all the strength left in him. This was good example of his attitude to life and the world around him, and the amazing standards that he set for himself."

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn,  photo: CTK
At this stage there is much speculation as to who will succeed John Paul II. One thing is almost certain. Although the Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk is on the conclave of 117 to choose the new pope, it is highly unlikely that the next pontiff will be from the Czech Republic.

Yet this is not quite the case. One of the cardinals said to be a front runner is the Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who was born 60 years in the village of Vlastislav in North Bohemia. Locals there will certainly be watching developments closely.

There has been speculation that the next pope might come from Latin America. Cardinal Vlk thinks this is unlikely, but another Czech cardinal Tomas Spidlik - who himself is too old to be on the conclave - hints that the next pope might come from outside Europe:

"I think we are truly living in a period of change. I have spoken about that very, very often, because now the so-called European culture and civilization is changing, because plenty of Catholics are now from Asia and from Africa - more than from Europe."