00 9/26/2009 3:16 PM


Pope decries Communist-era persecution

PRAGUE, Sept. 24 (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI criticized the communist era's fierce religious persecution Saturday as he began a three-day pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, and urged the heavily secular nation to rediscover its Christian roots.

At a welcome ceremony at Prague's Ruzyne International Airport, the 82-year-old Pope spoke of how the communist regime, which was overthrown in 1989, ruthlessly persecuted the Roman Catholic Church.

"I join you and your neighbors in giving thanks for your liberation from these oppressive regimes," Benedict said, hailing the collapse of the Berlin Wall two decades ago this autumn as "a watershed in world history."

"Nevertheless, the cost of 40 years of political repression is not to be underestimated," the Pope said. "A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the Church."

"Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture," he added.

Scores of pilgrims poured into Prague for the nation's first papal visit in a dozen years. But most Czechs seemed to shrug the trip off as irrelevant — and some were openly hostile.

"It's just a waste of money," said Kveta Tomasovicova, 56, who works at Prague's National Library. "At a time of economic crisis, when our salaries are going down, the visit is a useless investment."

Even the Vatican acknowledges the 13th foreign trip of Benedict's papacy casts the Pope as an apostle among the apostate.

Secularism is so ingrained in the modern Czech Republic that "the practice of religion is reduced to a minority," said the pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Even so, Czech organizers of the Pope's visit expect 100,000 faithful to pack an airfield for Sunday's outdoor Mass in Brno — the highlight of the visit. Some were expected to make the trek from neighboring Austria and Poland.

Under Communism, which ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution that drew hundreds of thousands of Czechs to mostly nonviolent street protests, the church was brutally repressed.

The regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all Church-owned property and persecuted many priests. Churches were then allowed to function only under the state's control and supervision.

An enduring symbol of that struggle is the 14th-century St. Vitus Cathedral, the iconic Gothic centerpiece of Prague's medieval Hradcany Castle. Two decades after the collapse of communism, the church is still fighting to recover it from the government.

That bitter restitution battle has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Czechs. And some — claiming the church cares more about property than souls — have drifted away from the faith.

In 1991, 4.5 million of the country's 10 million people said they belonged to a church. In 2001, a census showed that number had plunged to 3.3 million.

Recent surveys suggest the freewheeling drop continues. About one in two respondents to a poll conducted by the agency STEM said they don't believe in God. Another 28 percent said they considered themselves believers, and 24 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Moreover, the Czech Republic is one of the few nations in the world that has not ratified a standard treaty with the Vatican that spells out church-state relations.

"Czechs are getting less religious every year," said Klara Kucerova, a resident of the southern city of Brno, where the Pope will celebrate an open-air Mass on Sunday.

"They are more interested in horoscopes or other kinds of magical predictions," she said.

Underscoring the hostility toward the Church, a group calling itself Condom Positive planned to distribute condoms bearing a likeness of the Pope wearing one on his head and the words: "Papa said no! And you?"

Another group, Condoms for the Pope, said it would inflate prophylactics to condemn Benedict's assertion earlier this year that condoms are not the answer to Africa's severe AIDS problem.

The Pope's position "clearly shows us that he is more interested in preserving dogma than saving the lives of African women, men and children," it said in a statement.

At a stop Saturday at Prague's Church of Our Lady of Victory, home to a revered statuette of the infant Jesus, the Pope condemned violence and neglect against children.

"May children always be accorded the respect and attention that are due to them: They are the future and the hope of humanity!" he said.

The Pope was to meet later with President Vaclav Klaus and other current and former leaders, including Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president who led the 1989 anti-Communist uprising.

After Sunday's Mass in Brno, the Pope returns to Prague to meet with local leaders of other religious faiths and with scholars at Prague's castle.

On Monday, Benedict visits the Basilica of St. Wenceslas — the nation's patron saint — in the town of Stara Boleslav, a popular pilgrimage site just northeast of the capital. He then lunches with Czech bishops in Prague before returning to Rome.

Associated Press Writer Karel Janicek contributed to this report.

Welcome Ceremony
Prague, Stará Ruzyne Airport

Pane presidente,
milí páni kardinálové a bratři biskupové,
Vaše Excelence,
dámy a pánové!

Mám velikou radost, že mohu dnes být v České republice, a jsem hluboce vděčný vám všem za srdečné přivítání.

[Mr President, Dear Cardinals, Brother Bishops, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great joy to be here with you today in the Czech Republic, and I am most grateful to all of you for the warmth of your welcome.]

I thank the President, Mr Václav Klaus, for inviting me to visit the country and for his kind words. I am honoured by the presence of representatives of the civil and political Authorities, and I greet them along with all the people of the Czech Republic.

As it is principally the Catholic communities of Bohemia and Moravia that I am here to visit, I extend a warm fraternal greeting to Cardinal Vlk, Archbishop of Prague, to Archbishop Graubner of Olomouc, President of the Czech Bishops’ Conference, as well as all the Bishops and faithful here today.

I was particularly touched by the gesture of the young couple who brought me gifts typical of this nation’s culture, together with an offering of your native soil. I am reminded how deeply Czech culture is permeated by Christianity since, as you know, these items of bread and salt have a particular significance in New Testament imagery.

While the whole of European culture has been profoundly shaped by its Christian heritage, this is especially true in the Czech lands, since it was through the missionary labours of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century that the old Slavonic language first came to be written down. Apostles of the Slavic peoples and founders of their culture, they are rightly venerated as Patrons of Europe. Yet it is also worth recalling that these two great saints from the Byzantine tradition here encountered missionaries from the Latin West.

Throughout its history, this territory at the heart of the continent, at a crossroads between north and south, east and west, has been a meeting-point for different peoples, traditions and cultures.

Undeniably this has sometimes led to friction, but in the longer term it has proved to be a fruitful encounter. Hence the significant part played by the Czech lands in Europe’s intellectual, cultural and religious history – sometimes as a battleground, more often as a bridge.

The coming months will see the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which happily brought a peaceful end to a time of particular hardship for this country, a time in which the flow of ideas and cultural influences was rigidly controlled.

I join you and your neighbours in giving thanks for your liberation from those oppressive regimes. If the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked a watershed in world history, it did so all the more for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, enabling them to take their rightful place as sovereign actors in the concert of nations.

Nevertheless, the cost of forty years of political repression is not to be underestimated. A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the Government of that time to silence the voice of the Church.

Throughout your history, from the time of Saint Wenceslaus, Saint Ludmila and Saint Adalbert to the time of Saint John Nepomuk, there have been courageous martyrs whose fidelity to Christ spoke far louder and more eloquently than the voice of their executioners.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of the Servant of God Cardinal Josef Beran, Archbishop of Prague. I wish to pay tribute both to him and to his successor Cardinal František Tomášek, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, for their indomitable Christian witness in the face of persecution.

They, and countless brave priests, religious and lay men and women kept the flame of faith alive in this country. Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this Republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture, and I invite the Christian community to continue to make its voice heard as the nation addresses the challenges of the new millennium.

“Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is” (Caritas in Veritate, 78). The truth of the Gospel is indispensable for a healthy society, since it opens us to hope and enables us to discover our inalienable dignity as God’s children.

Mr President, I know that you wish to see a greater role for religion in this country’s affairs. The Presidential flag flying over Prague Castle proclaims the motto “Pravda Vítězí - the Truth wins”: it is my earnest hope that the light of truth will continue to guide this nation, so blessed throughout its history by the witness of great saints and martyrs.

In this scientific age, it is instructive to recall the example of Johann Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian Abbot from Moravia whose pioneering research laid the foundations of modern genetics.

Not for him the reproach of his patron, Saint Augustine, who regretted that so many were “more concerned with admiring facts than seeking their causes” (Epistula 120:5; cf. John Paul II, Address for the Commemoration of Abbot Gregor Mendel on the First Centenary of his Death, 10 March 1984, 2).

The authentic progress of humanity is best served by just such a combination of the wisdom of faith and the insights of reason. May the Czech people always enjoy the benefits of that happy synthesis.

Zbývá mi jen zopakovat: díky vám všem, a říci, že jsem se opravdu dlouho těšil na tyto dny mezi vámi v České republice, kterou hrdě nazýváte „země česká, domov můj“. Srdečné díky.

[It remains only for me to renew my thanks to all of you, and to say how much I have been looking forward to spending these days among you in the Czech Republic, which you are proud to call “zemĕ Česká, domov můj”. Thank you very much