VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Benedict XVI is traveling to the Czech Republic at the end of September, making a three-day visit to a nation that is widely viewed as Europe’s least-religious country.
The Sept. 26-28 trip was scheduled to coincide with the feast of St. Wenceslas – a 10th-century prince who is credited with bringing Christianity to the Czech people.
It will be a religious pilgrimage for the pope, who will make stops in the capital to see the Infant of Prague at the Church of Our Lady of Victory and in Stara Boleslav to celebrate the feast of St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Czechs.
Pope Benedict also will speak to political and cultural leaders in Prague and meet with President Vaclav Klaus. It will be his first papal visit to the Czech Republic and his 13th trip outside Italy
He will reach out to the country’s Catholics with Masses in Brno and Stara Boleslav, hold meetings with bishops and celebrate vespers with religious and lay groups. He also will address ecumenical representatives, young people and scholars.
These occasions will offer the pope numerous opportunities to draw on many recurring themes of his pontificate: the importance of reviving Europe’s Christian roots, the relevance of a millenniums-old faith for addressing today’s current ills, and the need to promote a political and social culture based on love, hope and solidarity.
The 82-year-old pope has made it a custom to visit a Marian pilgrimage site in Europe every September. This year he will visit Stara Boleslav – a town 15 miles northeast of Prague and home to the Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The highlight of the trip will be the Sept. 28 Mass and feast day celebration of St. Wenceslas. The gathering coincides with the country’s national pilgrimage to Stara Boleslav, which attracts the attention and interest of the whole nation, including political and cultural leaders.
Sept. 28 is a day when patriotic sentiment and religious devotion merge as the country celebrates Czech statehood. The national pilgrimage to Stara Boleslav – the town where St. Wenceslas was murdered by his brother – has become an extremely popular event over the past decade and has turned into “a manifestation of unity in a common Christian spiritual tradition,” according to the Czech bishops’ Web site.
Like the church in other former communist nations, the church in the Czech Republic suffered under Soviet control after World War II. Church properties were confiscated and the problem of restituting or compensating for the seizures still has not been wholly resolved.
For example, Prague’s historic St. Vitus Cathedral, where the pope will celebrate vespers Sept. 26, still belongs to the state despite a long legal battle between the church and the country’s courts.
In 1946, about 80 percent of the Czech people identified themselves as Catholic, and 50 percent of them went to Mass regularly, according to local church statistics. In 1991, two years after the country’s peaceful struggle for independence and democracy with the Velvet Revolution, 38-40 percent declared themselves Catholic. That trend continued to spiral downward to 26-30 percent today, with only 5 percent saying they regularly attend Mass.
When the pope’s trip to the Czech Republic was announced in 2006, Martin Horalek, a spokesman for the Czech bishops, said the papal visit would be a great opportunity to rebuild the Catholic faith “at a time when our church’s position has suffered, leaving it weak in numbers.”
The drastic decline in church attendance has often been blamed on the decades of communist repression and its efforts to blot out religious faith. But some say the crisis of Catholicism includes the church’s failure to seize new opportunities ushered in by the wave of democracy.
The Czech ambassador to the Vatican, Pavel Vosalik, said after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic that an overwhelming majority of citizens did identify with Christian values and principles.
But as the country got caught up in building a free and democratic nation, those common ideals got lost in the shuffle, and society quickly became secularized, he told Vatican Radio Sept. 14.
Vosalik said he believes the country still holds a deep belief in God and religion, but that it has lost its connection to the Catholic Church.
Starting in the 1990s, “the church missed the opportunity, missed the momentum when the nation was very open and was willing to communicate” with the Catholic Church, he said.
The church especially failed to reach out to young people, who never experienced communist oppression, in a language they could understand and with a message they wanted to hear, he said.
He said he spoke with Pope Benedict about these issues and told him how church leaders needed to look at “how they could improve their communication with the population” and find new ways of getting their message across that would resonate with the modern age.
“I see the visit as a very important step toward building and reopening channels for communication between society and the Catholic Church,” the ambassador said.
The pope is optimistic about the Czech Republic’s resolve in overcoming obstacles. In an address to Vosalik when he presented his credentials as the new ambassador to the Vatican last year, the pope praised the Czech people’s strong sense of solidarity, which enabled them to overthrow totalitarianism and build a democratic nation.
But the pope said true progress can only come about with the values and hope that the church offers every generation – a message he is likely to repeat to the Czech people in person.