Pope’s visit to coincide with historical landmark

Preparations for the mass in Brno, photo: CTK

Last minute preparations are underway for the Pope’s visit to the Czech Republic, his first since his election in 2005. While the event will feature the usual official meetings and celebrations, Pope Benedict XVI has also sent a signal that he hopes to reach out to ordinary Czechs.

Pope Benedict XVI begins a three-day visit to the Czech Republic on Saturday. He arrives in Prague and will conduct a public mass in the second city Brno on Sunday, which is expected to be attended by up to 150,000 people. On Monday, St. Wenceslas’ day, the Pope will visit the Basilica of St Wenceslas in Stará Boleslav where prince Wenceslas was slain by his brother in the 10th century. Wenceslas was later canonised and made the patron saint of Bohemia. For Czechs, he has both a national and religious significance.

The Pope has already said that he wants his visit to bring a message of faith and hope to Czechs with the visit taking place 20 years after the fall of Communism.

Guisseppe Fiorentina is the head of the international service of the Vatican-based newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He says the Pope’s current visit should be viewed in the light of recent Czech and Central European history.

“I think that the meaning should be analysed from an historical point of view. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pope goes to visit the Czech Republic to spread once again the message of Christian values that for Europe nowadays are very important”

The Catholic Church was persecuted under the almost four decade long Communist regime. The Communists highlighted its alleged treacherous links with the Vatican, regarded as a worldwide centre of anti-communist conspiracy.

Preparations for the mass in Brno,  photo: CTK
With the Velvet Revolution which overthrew Communism almost 20 years ago, the church came out of the shadows with some credit and popularity. However, leading Czech Catholics have since lamented a missed chance to build on that goodwill and develop a broader base and influence.

The current Pope’s predecessor, John-Paul II visited the Czech Republic three times. Even with his charisma and the credit he won for his part in the overthrow of Communism, he did not appear to make much more than a sporadic impact on most Czechs.

Many would question whether the current Pope, often described as theologically conservative, will be well-placed to broaden the Catholic Church’s appeal in the Czech Republic.

But Mr Fiorentina protests that the conservative tag is not a useful one and that the Papal office rather than the incumbent is what is important.

“It is not a matter of the Pope, it is a matter of the message that this Pope, as well as the former Pope and the future Pope has to spread as the successor of St. Peter. It is not a matter of Benedict, John-Paul II or Paul VI, it is a matter of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter.”

Even so, articles in the worldwide Catholic media ahead of the visit have pointed out that the Czech Republic is probably the most atheistic country in Europe.

Figures from the Vatican describe 3.29 million of the country’s 10.4 million inhabitants as Catholics, or around 32 percent of the population. This estimate appears a bit on the high side. The Czech census in 2001 described 26.8 percent of Czechs as Catholics.