Pope asks Czechs to reclaim their Christian roots

Pope Benedict XVI during the mass in Brno, photo: CTK

Pope Benedict XVI visited the Czech Republic over the weekend on a mission that many deemed impossible. In a secular nation where most people define themselves as atheists, the Pope focused on reclaiming the Christian heritage, and bringing more Czechs back to the faith.

On Sunday Pope Benedict addressed some 120,000 believers at a mass he celebrated outside Brno, in the Catholic heartland of the Czech Republic. Many of the pilgrims had come from neighbouring Slovakia, Poland and Germany – and the pontiff received a much warmer welcome than on his arrival in Prague the previous day. One of those who camped on the site was Tomáš Váňa, a 23-year-old student from Prague.

Pope Benedict XVI during the mass in Brno, photo: CTK
“Well, I’m from Prague and I got to Brno last night. I got up at about four to be here on time.”

There don’t seem to be many people from Bohemia. Why do you think that is?

“I think that’s the reason why the mass is held in Brno, because most Czech Catholics live in Moravia.”

One of the purposes of the visit is to bring Czech people back to the Church. Do you think that the Pope can be successful?

“Yes, I believe so. I don’t think that the Czech nation is atheist. Perhaps now a little bit more but traditionally, it’s a very Catholic country, and I think he is the person that can bring people back to the faith.”

His predecessor, John Paul II, was very popular. He had a very outgoing personality, whereas Benedict is more of an intellectual and a rational type. How do you feel about that?

“That’s true; their personalities are very different. But while John Paul was more outgoing, more people attend masses by Pope Benedict. I think that Czech people are more intellectual, that people from the south of Europe, like Italy for example. So I think that this pope is the guy who can help people like Czechs find their way to the Church.”

Reverend Tomáš Halík is a leading figure of the Czech Catholic Church, and also a professor of sociology at Prague’s Charles University: He believes that while most Czechs live in what he calls a spiritual desert, the intellectual side of Pope Benedict may appeal to those who lack more spirituality in their lives.

“They are thoughtful, educated people, young people, artists, scientists, and so on. And they have great interest in spiritual values. But the Church has very few people that are able to work with them because most priests and bishops were brought up in this village culture of popular Catholicism. And these educated people, they need a rather different style of pastoral work.”

And Benedict XVI might be the right person for this kind of approach. In his keynote speech to members of the academic community at Prague Castle on Sunday, the Holy Father stressed the importance of respect for the Christian roots of the society.

The mass in Brno, photo: CTK
“What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded? What will happen if in its anxiety to preserve a radical secularism, it detaches itself from its life-giving roots? Our societies will not become more reasonable or tolerant or adaptable but rather more brittle and less inclusive, and they will increasingly struggle to recognize what is true, noble and good.”

On Monday, September 28, the Pope celebrated a mass honouring the main Czech patron saint, St Wencelas. The event attracted some 50,000 people to the outskirts of Stará Boleslav, where Wenceslas suffered a martyr’s death in the 10th century.

On this occasion, the Pope had a special message for young people. They should open their hearts to Jesus, and not be led astray by “illusory visions of spurious happiness” that lead to sadness and solitude. One of the pilgrims at Stará Boleslav was Jiřina Hofmanová, a 30-year-old doctor from Prague. She said that she appreciated the fact that the Pope highlighted the legacy of the Czech patron saint, St. Wenceslas.

Pope Benedict XVI in Stará Boleslav, photo: CTK
“I think it was really an important and strong message that young people in the Czech Republic needed to hear now, and he really accurately describe the situation here.”

What does St. Wenceslas mean for you today? Is there any overlap into the present?

“Yes, definitely. He set a great example. He lived in a time that’s similar to ours. It was very difficult for him to live in his faith, and now, it’s a similar situation. If I want to live by my faith properly and not hide myself, I feel pressure.”

The Czech Republic is not only a decidedly secular nation, but it is also the only European country that has not yet concluded a treaty with the Vatican. Czech President Václav Klaus, who has always opposed the treaty, accompanied the Pope throughout the visit and was clearly charmed by him. But some are sceptical whether this will bring about a change of heart. Cyril Svoboda is the head of the Christian Democratic Party that largely relies on Czech Catholics for support.

Pope Benedict XVI, Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
“Perhaps Václav Klaus likes the style and the traditional protocol involved, and the Holy Father represents all the traditional rules. I think it’s a matter of form rather than one of substance.”

Assessing the time the Holy Father spent in the Czech Republic, Mr Svoboda says that the visit seemed to indicate that the Czech Catholic Church can look ahead with optimism.

“Time will show if there is any spiritual impact or spiritual consequences and implications. But the fact that there was a massive participation of believers, that’s a good sign that the Church even in my country is in good condition. And that could be a good and solid basis for the future.”

Photo: CTK
During his visit, the socially conservative Pope did not mention any of the topics that could cause controversy among the liberal Czechs. This might be one of the reasons why Czechs seemed much warmer towards Benedict XVI as he ended his historic visit. The coming years will show whether Czechs listened to what Benedict XVI had to say, and whether his emphasis on the Christian roots of the Czech society have fallen on fertile soil.