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.
Marian site is part of visit
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 to 40 percent declared themselves Catholic.
That trend continued to spiral downward to 26 to 30 percent today, with only 5 percent saying they regularly attend Mass.
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. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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