By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
PRAGUE/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Pope Benedict XVI began a three day visit to the
Czech Republic Saturday, September 26, with a call for the nation to rediscover its Christian roots. Forty years of communist rule in the country stifled religious activities and left the number of Catholics in decline and religious practice in general at historic lows.
Speaking at Prague’s Ruzyne International Airport, the 82-year old pontiff asked Czechs to once again embrace Christianity. Under communism, which ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the church was repressed.
Research shows that today nearly half of the country’s population of 10 million claim to be non-believers.
Speaking in Czech, the pope said the Roman Catholic Church has been battered by four decades of totalitarian rule until the fall of communism.
“The cost of 40 years of political repression” when church leaders were imprisoned and Christians harassed is “not to be underestimated,” he said. Pope Benedict XVI added that that “a particular tragedy” for the Czech Republic was what he called “the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the church.” He said now that religious freedom has been restored, all the citizens of the Czech Republic should “rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture.”
Speaking at the same ceremony, Czech President Vaclav Klaus made clear that despite Czech distrust toward religion, the pope should feel welcomed. “I welcome you in Prague and the Czech Republic from all of my heart, not not only on behalf of myself and my wife but on behalf of all Czechs,” he hastened to add.
Yet, the pope’s attempts to increase public confidence in the Catholic Church are overshadowed by several disputes, including the return of church properties that were confiscated by the Communist regime in 1948.
An enduring symbol of that struggle is the 14th-century St. Vitus Cathedral, the 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.
The papal’s envoy in the Czech Republic, Archbishop Diego Causero, told Vatican Radio that the Catholic Church also seeks the return, or compensation, for mainly rural properties, including forests.
“Practically for 50 years it has been taken from the church and it has been used by the state. The church does not want to receive back what is lost during the period,” he explained. “We would like only want the of properties or compensation where properties can not be identified anymore or can not be given back because something is build on that.”
Among his first scheduled appointments Saturday was a visit to the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, which holds a statue of the Infant Jesus and has become a magnet for worshippers from around the world.
Father Renzi, a monk from India assigned to the church, described the pope’s arrival at the site as historic.
“We are very excited because the father of the Catholic Church is visiting this church. And this is the first time that any pope visits this church,” he said. “This is the original shrine of Infant Jesus. And the pope visiting this shrine of Infant Jesus means that he is reaching out to all the shrines that are in the world which are dedicated to the Infant Jesus.”
Evangelical Christians have mixed feelings about the practice. They say Christians serve a “risen Lord Jesus Christ” who overcame death. The “infant Jesus”, while being without sins, still had to fulfill a mission that included preaching, healing the sick, dying at a cross and rising up from the death so everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life, they say.
Czech organizers hope the pope’s visit will encourage 100,000 Catholic faithful, including pilgrims from neighboring Austria and Poland, to pack an airfield for Sunday’s outdoor Mass in the town of Brno.
The gathering has been described as “the highlight” of the pontiff’s three-day pilgrimage in the Czech Republic. (Part of this BosNewsLife News story also airs via the Voice of America (VOA) network. )