Czech Republic remembers Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, photo: CTK

Church bells tolled across the Czech Republic on Sunday to commemorate the passing of the first Slav in history to lead the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of worshippers in the Czech Republic are praying for the late Pope John Paul II and requiem masses are being held in churches and cathedrals.

Pope John Paul II,  photo: CTK
Black flags will fly from church buildings until the day of the funeral which will be attended by the Czech President Vaclav Klaus and senior church officials. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk will be the only Czech among the 117 cardinals who will choose a new pope.

"Coming from a communist country, John Paul II had first-hand knowledge of the regime. So he understood our situation and was able to draw on that experience and act accordingly. When asked after his election what his church policy would be towards Eastern European countries - he said - certainly not naïve."

Photo: CTK
Historians agree that one of the Pope's most lasting legacies will be his role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

The former dissident and Czech President Vaclav Havel has issued the following statement: "We felt that not only had an excellent man with great charisma been chosen to head the Catholic Church, but also a person who would fundamentally influence the future fate and the political order of the current world."

Only four months after the Velvet Revolution, John Paul II flew to Czechoslovakia to hail the collapse of communism with President Vaclav Havel.

Almost 15 years to the day after his first official trip to Czechoslovakia, John Paul II, the first Slav pope who helped overthrow communism in Eastern Europe died in Rome at the age of 84.

John Paul II and the Czech underground church

In communist days Jan Kofron was involved in the Czechoslovak underground church, and is now secretary to the Prague bishop Vaclav Maly. He talked to Rosie Johnston about the Czech Republic's reaction to the Pope's death.

President Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II in 1990,  photo: CTK
"I was witness to many expressions of compassion, and of feeling. A Czech proverb fits this situation perfectly: The height of the tree is recognized once it has fallen. And I think that this is just right. This morning I was sent an email by a brilliant woman. She told me that her son, who had never prayed before, prayed for the pope yesterday. I think that it is interesting that he found the impetus to do so."

What was the Pope's relationship with the Czech Republic?

"He visited this country very shortly after the revolution. He came in the spring of 1990, and the whole nation accepted him. One of the first things he did was acknowledge the courage of people and groups under the communist regime."

And did he help the Czechoslovak underground church at that time?

"As a matter of fact, this branch of the church started under Paul 6th, and what must be stressed is that this was really a clandestine organization. There was a great deal of secrecy therefore and contacts with Pope John Paul II were limited. He was a great support to us, however, and we have been praying for him."

Very different reactions in the Czech Republic and Poland

Roma,  photo: CTK
Poland, the Pope's homeland, is in a state of national mourning, having lost a great symbol of the nation, but here in the Czech Republic the situation is very different. Even though John Paul II was a popular figure here, the news of his death has - by and large - not been received with great emotion. Although the Roman Catholic Church is the biggest church in the Czech Republic, this is a largely secular country, and when we went out into the streets of Prague to gauge reaction, most people we spoke to were matter-of-fact or even detached in their view of the Pope's death:

Man: "I am not a religious man, so I don't care."

Man: "I am not a Christian, so I don't have any special feelings."

Woman: "I am also not religious. For me it is a death of a man, it is a pity, but I don't feel anything special."

Woman: "I think he was very important for some people, but it is nothing important for me personally."

Woman: "I think he was a very important person for some people - for Christians - but I think it's rather the media that usually make a big fuss about this."

Martin Mikule spoke to father Piotr Krysztofiak - a Polish priest living in the Czech Republic - about the differences of Czechs and Poles in their relation to John Paul II.

"The mentality of Poles and Czechs is different. I think that Czechs are more reserved in general. Not only towards the Pope, but in every area of life. Poles are much more emotional, you can see it in families, you can see it everywhere. So I am not surprised that Czechs are also a little bit more reserved towards the Pope regarding the recent day's events. But it does not mean they didn't love him. On Saturday evening Cardinal Vlk invited everybody to the cathedral for the prayer for the Pope. It was the first time during my seven year's stay in the Czech Republic when I saw the cathedral full of people."

I know this is a very broad question, but let me ask you just briefly: can you summarize the difference between Czechs and Poles in terms of religion?

Photo: CTK
"That is a difficult question. Simply speaking, the mentality is different. Poland is an absolutely different country from the point of view of faith. As you know, more than 90 percent of Poles are Catholics and there is only 30 percent of Czechs who are Catholic. The history and the attitude of Poles towards Catholicism and Rome is also absolutely different. So it is a little bit funny; we are neighbors - Czechs and Poles - but practically the two worlds are absolutely different."

What was the relation of John Paul II to Czechs? Did it make any difference that he came from a culturally close country?

"I think that he understood the situation here in the Czech Republic very well. He visited Czechoslovakia very often. He was certainly interested in everything concerning Czechoslovakia and Czech people. The Poles are grateful to Czechs for Saint Vojtech. In a certain way, you can very often hear in Poland that Czechs are our brothers. I don't hear it very often in the Czech Republic. I think it also expresses the attitude of the Pope - he really understood the Czechs as brothers. So I am sure that his attitude towards Czechs was much warmer than towards other nations."