April 21, 1990 – When John Paul II became the first pope to visit Prague

Pope John Paul II and Václav Havel, photo: archive of Czech TV

Thirty years ago this month, Czechoslovakia saw its first ever papal visit. Not only was this seen as a symbolic step in the newly post-communist country, Pope John Paul II also gave acknowledgment to one of the key figures in Czech history, Jan Hus, and warned of nationalism in a state that would soon break apart.

Pope John Paul II and Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Czech TV
It was April 1990. Czechoslovakia was still living off the wave of hope in a better future after the Velvet Revolution and the opening up to the West just months earlier. Václav Havel was a relatively fresh president and the people were preparing for the first free elections in more than 40 years.

The importance of a pope who understood

It was at this time that the Polish-born Pope John Paul II decided to fly to Prague on what was the first visit of a head of the Roman Catholic Church in Czech history. 

There were hopes that he would come already in 1985 during the 1,000 year anniversary of the death of Saint Methodius, one of the two Byzantine priests who brought Christianity to what would become the lands of the Czechs and Slovaks. However, that trip had been cancelled, says Dr Jaroslav Šebek from the Czech Academy of Sciences, who is an expert on church history.

“Back then the Communist regime prevented the visit from taking place, because it was afraid that it could lead to the same mobilisation of the faithful as took place in 1979 when Pope John Paul II came to Poland.”

Soon afterwards, millions of Poles had become members of the Solidarity trade union, which would go on to lead successful strikes against the regime in Poland. Some believe to this day that papal visit helped bring about the eventual peaceful transition a decade later. 

Jaroslav Šebek | Photo: Jakub Wojtovič,  Czech Radio
After 1989, this fear element in the equation had been removed and the pope reacted unusually quickly to the invitation of President Václav Havel, sent just a month and a half following the revolution. 

Dr Šebek says that the swiftness of the visit was not typical of Vatican practices, but believes that it was the result of the pope’s interest in Czechoslovakia at that time. 

“Precisely because he was a Pole, he considered Czechs and Slovaks to be very close, not just as fellow Slavs, but also as Catholics. He met with many Czech and Slovak bishops, establishing very friendly relations with [Cardinal and Archbishop of Prague] František Tomášek. It should also be said that he visited the country when he was still a cardinal in 1974, attending the funeral of Czech Cardinal Štěpán Trochta.”

The pope’s plane landed in Prague on April 21 and he was welcomed by President Havel with the following words.

“I do not know if I know what a miracle is. Nevertheless, I dare say that right now I am now the witness of one.

“Into a country devastated by the ideology of hate arrives a messenger of peace. Into a country devastated by the rule of ignorant people, arrives the living symbol of erudition. Into a country until recently damaged by the idea of confrontation and world division, arrives a messenger of peace, dialogue, mutual tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. The harbinger of fraternal unity in difference.”

Here is an excerpt from the pope’s answer to the president’s welcome.

“I had profoundly hoped to visit your country five years ago, on the occasion of the 1,000 year anniversary of the death of Saint Methodius, but it was not possible. I thank the lord for letting me fulfil this wish now. During the beatification of Saint Agnes Přemyslid [of Bohemia] I heard the mighty call from thousands of Czechs and Slovaks that the pope must come to Prague. The pope understood the imperative of their wishes.

“Yes, the first Slavic pope must visit Prague, [the pilgrimage site of] Velehrad and Bratislava. The wish of the faithful is equalled by his own wish to show the fraternal nations of Czechoslovakia how close they have always been to his heart.”

A “new chapter” in the Czech Church’s history

Pope John Paul II,  photo: Dennis Jarvis,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0
John Paul II then attended a reception with Church representatives and went on to serve mass at Saint Wenceslas Cathedral at Prague Castle.

There he posited the cathedral as the centre of the Czech nation and went on to address the faithful, especially church dignitaries who had just been released from half a century of forced Communist control.

“The first ever visit of the pope in the more than 1,000 year history of Christianity in these lands symbolically closes one of the chapters in your journey and opens a new one. The previous phase, which played out over many decades, places itself within the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church as hard but also glorious.

“You have been led out of subjugation and stand at the beginning of renewal. However, for this to happen, it is also necessary to consider the fruits of what you have gone through. You were called the ‘mute Church’, but your silence was not that of sleep or death. In the spirit of silence, the most valuable values are born.

“Build now the temple of a free existence of your Church not by returning to what was here before your freedom was stolen.”

In his speech, John Paul II also called on the Czech Catholic Church to forgive those of their brothers who had collaborated with the Communists. 

Those Christians who had lived in free countries during this period could learn much from the experiences of Czechoslovak members of the Church, the pope went on, saying he had also come to pay homage in person to the suffering that the faithful had endured during communism. 

Serving mass to 500,000 people

Pope John Paul II,  photo: Free Domain
Following his sermon at the country’s largest cathedral, John Paul II was driven to Prague’s Letná Plain, where he served another mass, this time to around half a million people.

Out of Czechoslovakia’s population of 16 million, some 10.5 million described themselves as Christians at the time and there was hope that especially among young people ties to the Church could be received. However, this was hindered by the Catholic Church’s conservative stances on many aspects of modern life, says historian Jaroslav Šebek.

“One could see in this visit that there was big potential for people to go back to the Church, but at the same time, there was a fear among parts of the population that the Church could become too powerful and influential. They did not want it to influence the political sphere.

“Furthermore, the Church itself made many mistakes. Many young people found their path towards the Catholic Church during the 1980s, often through so-called underground Church organisations. Once circumstances changed after 1989, the Church, in many ways, returned to the practices it kept before [the Communist coup d’etat in] 1948. That was not so attractive to many young people and it is also why many turned away from the faith during the 1990s.”

While he warned of returning to old ways, the pope himself was a conservative. For example, in one of his speeches during the visit he warned of “diminished Western morals”, materialism and the rules of a purely consumer based society.

In the evening hours after the mass gathering on Letná the pope once again met with the president. This time during a reception at Prague Castle, attended by Church dignitaries, politicians and artists.

Honouring Jan Hus

Jan Hus
It was here that John Paul II paid tribute to one of the country’s national heroes. The reformist priest Jan Hus, who had been branded a heretic by the medieval Catholic Church and burned at the stake, sparking the creation of the Hussite Church and a subsequent bloody period of civil war during the 15th century.

“I remember how during the second Vatican council, Archbishop [of Prague] Jaroslav Beran gave a speech on religious freedom and tolerance. With this in mind and pain in my heart, I will remind you of the fate of the Czech priest Jan Hus as well as the violence and eccentricities which subsequently erupted in the Czech lands.

“I clearly recall the cardinal’s words about Jan Hus, who is of such great importance in the religious and cultural history of the Czech nation. It will be a task for experts, especially Czech theologians, to evaluate the role of Hus among the reformers of the Church…

“Nevertheless, aside from his theological opinions, it is impossible to ignore the integrity which characterised Hus’s life and his attempts at raising moral character and learning within the nation.”

This step played a big role acknowledging the Church’s mishandling of Jan Hus’ trial, says Dr Šebek.

“It was important, because it was a chapter which divided the confessional spectrum in the Czech lands- that of the Catholic and evangelical churches. One can say that John Paul II very much contributed to opening up the discussion.

“The then Czech cardinal, František Tomášek, was unwilling to delve too deep into this area. However, the pope’s acknowledgement served as inspiration to Tomášek’s successor, Miloslav Vlk, who founded an ecumenical commission that focused on Hus. Its activity culminated at a meeting in 1999 at the Lateran University, where John Paul II apologized to Czechs for the death of Jan Hus. This was a very important step, which opened the door towards a more objective view of Hus.”

The first of many visits

The next day, on April 22, John Paul II visited Velehrad, the country’s most important pilgrimage site, which had once been the capital of the first Slavic state – Great Moravia – where Saints Cyril and Methodius had brought Christianity to the Slavs in 862. 

After that he travelled to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, where he also served mass. Making a gesture of kissing Slovak soil, he also warned of the dangers of nationalism and the division it could cause between Czechs and Slovaks. 

These were not empty words. Around the time of his visit, the so-called “hyphen war” was raging. Concerned with placating some Slovak politicians, who felt that the name Czechoslovak Federative Republic diminished their nation’s status, it was an omen of what was to come less than three years in the future.

After his visit to Bratislava and just 34 hours after his plane touched down at Prague airport, John Paul II left Czechoslovakia. He would return to the Czech lands two more times, in 1995 and then in 1997, on the 1,000 anniversary of the martyrdom of Czech Saint Adalbert, who was killed while preaching Christianity to the Baltic tribes and subsequently became a patron saint in both Bohemia and Poland.

However, it was his first visit, which has left the greatest mark in Czech public memory.