00 9/29/2009 4:39 PM

Some wrap-up stories of the visit:

A great weekend for
affirmative orthodoxy

Sept. 28, 2009

VATICAN - Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 26-28 trip to the Czech Republic in some ways loomed as a potential minefield, given that it’s one of the most secular societies on earth, as well as a land that harbors a traditional animus against both Germans and the Catholic church.

For a one-sentence summary of how things went, here it is: Affirmative orthodoxy is alive and well, and it had a great weekend in Prague.

That one sentence is a bit of linguistic sleight of hand, of course, because it requires explaining what “affirmative orthodoxy” means: No compromise on essential points of doctrine and discipline, but the most positive, upbeat presentation possible.

Christianity is framed not as a dry book of rules, but as the answer to, as Benedict put it Monday morning, “the profound thirst for meaning and happiness in the heart of every person.”

Over his three days here, Benedict XVI repeatedly offered variations on a core theme: Congratulations to the peoples of Eastern Europe on recovering their freedom two decades ago, along with an invitation to ponder what goals that freedom is meant to serve.

In effect, Benedict presented himself as a sort of Erasmus for the 21st century, pitching Christian humanism as the key to integrating freedom and truth, faith and reason, and creating a common set of values in an increasingly complicated world.

The three-day swing began on Saturday with a speech to politicians and diplomats in Prague, then continued on Sunday with an open-air Mass in Brno, the largest city in the heavily Catholic Moravia region, which drew an estimated 120,000 people, including large numbers of Poles, Slovaks, Austrians and Germans.

It was described by organizers as the largest Catholic Mass in the history of the Czech Republic. (Bear in mind, however, that this history only dates from the so-called “Velvet Divorce” with Slovakia in 1993.)

Benedict also delivered major addresses to ecumenical leaders and to academics on Sunday evening, and closed the trip with a Mass marking the national feast of St. Wenceslas, the “Good King Wenceslas” of the popular Christmas carol, on Monday before returning to Rome.

Popular enthusiasm for the pontiff sometimes seemed tepid, symbolized by the fact that, unlike other cities that host papal visits, Prague did not festoon its streets with Vatican flags or posters with Benedict’s image. Events were broadcast live on national television, but otherwise media discussion was limited.

Nevertheless, Fr. Jan Balík, press coordinator for the visit, told NCR that what coverage the trip drew was largely positive.

The Pope’s commitment to affirmative orthodoxy over these three days seemed to embody a deliberate effort to get back “on message.”

In many ways, Benedict’s surprisingly positive tone was the early storyline of his papacy. It seemed to go into eclipse in early ’09, however, with a furor over lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one who’s a Holocaust denier, and controversial comments on AIDS and condoms during a trip to Africa.

Pundits hinted that the “real Ratzinger,” the hard-line figure familiar from his years as the Vatican’s top doctrinal enforcer, was finally coming to the fore.

Prior to arriving in Prague on Saturday morning, Benedict’s trip here likewise seemed fated to beckon the finger-wagging, fire-breathing Pope of popular stereotypes.

The Czech Republic is perhaps the mother ship of European secularization, a point even the Mayor of Prague, Pavel Bem, conceded when he told Benedict on Saturday that his country “has the reputation of being one of the most atheistic societies on earth.”

This nation of 10 million also has the worst track record in Church-state relations in the former Soviet sphere. Some $8 billion of church property confiscated under the Communists still has not been returned or paid off, and the Czech Republic is the lone post-Communist state that hasn’t approved a basic treaty with the Vatican.

Consider, too, that the Czech Republic has approved a whole rafter of social policies at odds with Catholic moral teaching. Abortion is legal, cheap, and widely available here. The country approved a domestic partnership law for gay couples in 2006, and the Czech Parliament is currently considering a measure to legalize euthanasia.

In that context, perhaps the most striking development over these three days is what didn’t happen. Not a single word, not even one, flowed from the lips of the Pope of any of those subjects.

During a Saturday visit to the famed statue of the Infant of Prague, Benedict delivered an entire address devoted to the family without so much as mentioning abortion or gay marriage – normally staples of Vatican rhetoric on family matters.

When the Pope’s lieutenants touched on Church/state disputes, it was merely to confirm comments from interim Prime Minister Jan Fischer to the effect that the two sides agreed that resolving their standoff is not an “urgent priority.”

(That lack of urgency was apparently not shared by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague, who described his 18-year tenure as a “failure” on national television Sunday because of his inability to reach a deal on the restitution of property and a Vatican/Czech treaty.)

Lest any of this seem accidental, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi all but acknowledged that “affirmative orthodoxy” was the marching order for the trip in a Sunday evening session with reporters in Prague.

“It’s important for Czech society to understand the positive attitude of the Catholic church,” Lombardi said, describing the spirit with which Benedict XVI approach the visit. “We want to collaborate in a positive way and contribute to the life of the society.”

“The Church has a friendly attitude, and the Pope is demonstrating this with his presence,” Lombardi said. “The focus is not on tensions and debates, but on working together.”

In part, this option for affirmative orthodoxy may be little more than a return to form for Benedict XVI after what has been, by most accounts, a rocky year so far. [A 'return to form'??? He never changed! The fact that he was opposed - not new, though in far more virulent form this time even from some cardinals and bishops - does not mean he changed in anything!]

In part, too, it was a no-brainer for a German Pope coming into the Czech Republic, where nationhood is often defined in terms of resistance to 300 years of rule by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire and occupation by the Nazis, and whose national hero, medieval preacher Jan Hus, was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415. [It is clearly arguable whetehr Hus or St. Wenceslas is the national hero!]

More basically, however, affirmative orthodoxy seems to be one component of Benedict’s two-pronged strategy for meeting the challenge posed by secularization and the contemporary crisis of faith in Europe.

For secular society, Benedict’s aim is to present Christianity as the best guarantee of the values which even the most ardently secular agnostic also prizes: peace, tolerance, dialogue, and freedom.

To make that case, the Pope seems to believe he can’t start the conversation with flash-points of controversy, but rather with a positive vision of what Christianity has to offer.

For the local Church, meanwhile, Benedict’s prescription boils down to embracing life as a “creative minority.” Gone are the days of Christianity as the culturally dominant force [in Euyrope]; today it’s fated to be a subculture, with fewer priests and nuns, lower levels of Mass attendance, and a generally shrunken sociological footprint. The key question, from the Pope’s point of view, is what kind of subculture it will turn out to be.

Borrowing a phrase from the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Benedict is pressing the Church to be a “creative minority.” [An expression Cardinal Ratzinger first used in this context, in the interview book Salt of the Earth.]

Toynbee’s contention was that in any civilization, renewal happens when a small subgroup works out fresh responses to new challenges, which are eventually copied by the majority.

On the papal plane en route to Prague, the Pontiff was asked what his message would be for a thoroughly secularized country where Christians have been reduced to a minority.

His answer was vintage Benedict: “It’s normally the creative minorities that determine the future,” he said.

The key question, of course, is whether that strategy will succeed. It’s not clear in the immediate aftermath of Benedict’s trip that the outing offered any clear evidence one way or the other. [Obviously, no one can POSSIBLY come to any conclusion about outcomes - immediate, short-term or long-term - at the end of a three-day trip! One can only say whether the trip was a 'success', not so much as to accomplishing the Holy Father's aim, which is always and everywhere to confirm Christians in their faith, as in terms of whether anything negative happened to 'spoil' the trip. Nothing did, from all accounts, not in the least - I don't think those condom lovers even managed to do what they threatened to do - so by that measure, it was a success.]

Trying to reach such snap judgments is especially complicated with this pope, given his penchant for thinking in the long run. Benedict is legendarily indifferent to tomorrow’s headlines; his tendency is instead to be concerned with how things will stand two or three centuries down the line.

That’s probably just as well in the Czech Republic, where the ambivalence of several centuries vis-à-vis the Catholic church was always unlikely to dissolve over a lone weekend in late September. [Well, DUH!!!!]

Alas, however, it also means that we may have to wait a couple of centuries to know whether affirmative orthodoxy actually worked. [I beg to disagree. A generation has passed since the 1989 fall of Communism. The generations that experienced atheistic Communism are passing away. There is a hopeful core for Catholic renewal in the young Czechs who turned up in Brno and Stara Bolezlaw for the Pope's Masses. The next two generations will show whether the revival holds and broadens.]

PRAGUE — Ending a three-day trip here aimed at fighting secularism, Pope Benedict XVI told about 40,000 of the faithful on Monday that the collapse of the Communist system had shown the price paid by those who chase power and deny God.

“The last century — as this land of yours can bear witness — saw the fall of a number of powerful figures who had apparently risen to almost unattainable heights,” Benedict, 82, said during an open-air Mass in Stara Boleslav, a town about 15 miles northeast of Prague where the Czech patron St. Wenceslas was slain in the 10th century.

“Suddenly they found themselves stripped of their power,” he added, in an allusion to the fall of Communism in 1989.

The Pope came to this decidedly skeptical nation as part of a Continentwide mission to urge the unbelieving out of their collective apathy.

But while Benedict’s visit has been warmly received by the country’s Roman Catholics, the Pope has been faced with the overwhelming indifference of a nation unmoved by religion. According to the latest census, fewer than 3 million of the country’s 10.5 million people identify themselves as Roman Catholics.

During his visit to the Czech Republic, where civil unions between gay men and lesbians have been legal since 2006 and abortion has been permissible for decades, the Pope avoided delicate social issues.

Yet many Czechs said his mission here had been futile. “Catholicism is not going to catch on here where cynicism and ‘What’s the point?’ are the national ideology,” said Dominik Jun, 31, a filmmaker. “More Czechs believe in infomercials on television than they do in religion.” [Oh ye of little faith, indeed!]

The Pope had been expected to broach the issue of church property confiscated under Communism and given to the state, which church officials value at about $15 billion. Prime Minister Jan Fischer said over the weekend that both sides had agreed to put aside the issue for now.

NB: I find it most strange that neither Allen nor the NYT reporter made any reference at all to President Klaus's remarks at Prague airport in sending off the Holy Father. (Perhaps they did not get a translation of the text???)

Nothing could gave been a more obvious and gratifying expression of the immediate effects of the Pope's presence in the Czech Republic - the more so because it comes from an avowed non-believer who did not have to say what he said but did.

Thankfully, the AP wrap-up reporter reported something of the airport remarks - Klaus's, as well as the Pope's felicitous citation of Franz Kafka on happiness and staying young.

Czech trip was low-key,
but the Pope is 'very happy'


PRAGUE, Sept. 28 (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a low-key pilgrimage to the fiercely secular Czech Republic on Monday, reaching out to nonbelievers and calling on an increasingly diverse Europe to embrace Christian teachings.

Throughout the three-day visit, the crowds were contained, and so was the Pope's rhetoric.

Although he often wades into contentious issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, this time a conciliatory Benedict — apparently unwilling to antagonize already apathetic Czechs — made no direct mention of either.

{Excuse me! It must be obvious to anyone with common sense that the Pope chooses the time, place and occasion for statements he has to make. It would have been most foolhardy of him to talk about these hot-button social issues in a highly-secularized country which has legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and even euthanasia.]

But the Vatican pronounced the Pontiff's 13th foreign trip a success. So did President Vaclav Klaus, a non-Catholic, who called it "extraordinarily successful."

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the 82-year-old Pope was "very happy" with the response in the ex-communist country, one of Europe's most secular nations.

While acknowledging there is little the Vatican can do to radically change the situation, Lombardi said the church must send a loud and clear appeal as a "minority" and get out its message of love and hope.

"The solution is to encourage," Lombardi told reporters.

Benedict visited less than two months before Czechs celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which peacefully toppled a Communist regime that had persecuted Roman Catholics and confiscated Church property.

On Monday, a national holiday honoring St. Wenceslas, the nation's martyred patron saint, the German-born Pope held an open-air Mass in the town of Stara Boleslav, just northeast of Prague.

At least 40,000 faithful — some from nearby Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia — packed a meadow to hear the Pope point to Wenceslas as a model for leaders and urge the world to follow the ethical principles of Christianity.

"The last century — as this land of yours can bear witness — saw the fall of a number of powerful figures who had apparently risen to almost unattainable heights," Benedict said, speaking in Italian.

"Suddenly they found themselves stripped of their power," the Pope said.

Those who deny God and appear to lead a comfortable life are in reality "sad and unfulfilled" people, he added.

The Pope called Wenceslas, murdered by his pagan brother in 935 A.D. at the gate to a church, "a model of holiness for all people."

"We ask ourselves: In our day, is holiness still relevant? Or is it now considered unattractive and unimportant? he said.

The Vatican said 40,000 people turned out; Czech organizers put the crowd estimate at 50,000.

Some 30 people needed treatment during the Mass, mostly for dehydration and exhaustion, said Tereza Janeckova, a regional emergency services spokeswoman. Seven were hospitalized, including two who apparently suffered heart attacks.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland, who served as secretary to Benedict's predecessor, the late John Paul II, urged Europeans to heed Benedict's message.

"It is a crucial moment for the future of Europe, and Benedict speaks like a prophet," he told Sky TG24 television. "Don't abandon the roots from which you grew, because a tree without roots dies. If Europe abandons these roots, the future is uncertain."

In a special message to young people, the Pope urged them not to be seduced by consumerism.

"Unfortunately, many of your contemporaries allow themselves to be led astray by illusory visions of spurious happiness, and then they find themselves sad and alone," he said.

And in his farewell before returning to Rome, Benedict quoted the great Czech writer Franz Kafka — "anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old" — and encouraged people to see beauty in God's creation and truth.

On Sunday, an open-air Mass in Brno in the southern Czech Republic, the country's Catholic heartland, drew 120,000 pilgrims.

Overall, though, the Pope got a tepid response: No posters or billboards promoted his visit, and local media coverage was thin.

That came as no surprise in this nation where polls suggest half the population of 10 million don't believe in God.

Even the nation's top churchman seemed stuck in a funk.

In an astonishingly public display of self-deprecation, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk made his confession to reporters, saying: "I have achieved almost nothing during my 20 years" as archbishop. [Cardinal Vlk is being humble instead of Pharisaic, but I think his flock knows he did his best.]

But Lukas Jasa, 21, who trekked more than 300 kilometers (200 miles) from the country's east to glimpse the Pope Monday, said he felt it was important to buck the secular trend.

"It's important for us to show that we're not just an atheist nation — that there are believers here," he said.

AP correspondents Victor L. Simpson in Prague and Karel Janicek in Stara Boleslav contributed to this report.
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 9/29/2009 5:48 PM]