The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recently traveled to the Czech Republic in a journey he described as “both a pilgrimage and a mission.” The ancient land of Bohemia was once at the very center of Christian civilization. It was from here that the brother saints Cyril and Methodius launched their mission to convert the Slavic world. From Prague, the realms of the Přemyslid and then Luxembourg dynasties were ruled, followed by the most illustrious house of Hapsburg. Centuries later, long after the nucleus of Hapsburg power had moved to Vienna, it was to Prague that the Emperor Ferdinand came following his abdication and remained until his death in 1875.
But of course there is the other Prague — the city of heresy, rebellion, and warfare. Curiously, this capital has probably experienced more defenestrations than any other city: the killing of seven councilors, including the burgomaster, by Hussites in 1419; the killing of the portreeve and several aldermen by rebels in 1483; the non-fatal defenestration of two governors and their scribe, again by Protestants, in 1618, sparking the Thirty Years’ War; and long-time Czechoslovak politician Jan Masaryk was found dead after a fall from a window in 1948, presumably at the instigation of the Communists who took over.
Bohemia is a land that has been lost to the Faith and regained more than once. There were the Hussite wars of more than 15 years, in which the Taborite extremists raised their arms against their Catholic neighbors, the pope, and the Holy Roman Empire, before their ultimate defeat. Then, the Thirty Years’ War in which Protestants, with Ottoman Muslim support, gained the upper hand. One of the greatest miracles of the Society of Jesus was that so many lands in which Catholicism had almost collapsed — Poland, Hungary, southern Germany, the Spanish Netherlands, and, yes, Bohemia — were returned to the fullness of the Christian religion through their arduous and unceasing efforts. (The Jesuits also brought to the Czech lands the Baroque architecture for which it is justly famous.)
The recent history of Bohemia and Moravia is, sadly, one of repression. This was firstly — and rather perversely — by the nationalists who secured the country’s independence during the First World War. The anti-religious republicans Beneš, Štefánik, and Masaryk (the father of the previously mentioned Jan) wanted to distance the newly born “Czechoslovakia” from its deeply Catholic past, creating the “Czechoslovak Hussite Church” to lure the faithful toward schism and heresy. Their success was such that within a decade of the new group’s 1920 foundation it claimed over 700,000 members. The church has an almost satanic-looking flag of a blood-red chalice on a black background, a symbol replicated in the black vestments of the group’s clergy.
In 1939, Czechoslovakia (having already surrendered the German-inhabited Sudetenland) was invaded by Nazi Germany, and Bohemia and Moravia were declared a protectorate of the Third Reich. Having suffered six years of Nazi occupation, the Czech lands were then conquered by the Red Army in 1945. The Soviets allowed President Beneš to return, and the restored leader immediately issued decrees for the ethnic cleansing of all lands under his control. Beneš eventually sanctioned the “Czech Coup” of February, in which the Communists dominated the government, but resigned and then died a few months later. Bohemia and Moravia continued under a Soviet-backed dictatorship until the “Velvet Revolution” brought about the peaceful end of Czechoslovak Communism in 1989.
Eighty years of the Catholic Church being considered an enemy of the government have taken their toll. The church in Czechoslovakia was one of the most deeply infiltrated in all of Europe, with hundreds of Communist agents entering the seminaries and being ordained priests. The Czech Republic today is one of the least religiously active countries in Europe, with 59 percent of the population claiming a lack of any religion in the official census. Catholic Christianity remains the largest religion in the country, but only with 26.8 percent of the population. That this remains so 20 years after the Czech Church regained her freedom is a scandalous indictment of the Church’s hierarchy in Bohemia and Moravia.
And so, recalling that liberation 20 years ago, the Holy Father came to the Czech Republic both on pilgrimage to a land with a deeply Christian history and on mission to a society that feels the very absence of God. “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,” the pope said on arriving in Prague. Despite the happiness that comes with political liberation, the pope noted, “the cost of forty years of political repression is not to be underestimated,” in particular the “ruthless attempt [by the Communist government] to silence the voice of the Church.”
Throughout his speeches during his visit, the pope was keen to remember and celebrate the 1989 revolution — a transfer of power that took place without violence or bloodshed — and to give thanks for the Church’s regained freedom. But the Holy Father also reminded believers that, as he remarked during Vespers at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, “Society continues to suffer from the wounds caused by atheist ideology, and it is often seduced by the modern mentality of hedonistic consumerism amid a dangerous crisis of human and religious values and a growing drift towards ethical and cultural relativism.” The Communist perpetrator may have disappeared, but his crimes still reverberate throughout the Czech Republic, and indeed all of Eastern Europe and the world.
It is obvious to Benedict that sanctity — the personal love of God and the living-out of that encounter — is the ultimate dignity to which all mankind must aspire, and the ultimate adversary that Communism sought to pervert. The pope’s mission-pilgrimage to the Czech Republic has served to challenge the Czech people (and Christians everywhere following the collapse of Soviet Communism) not to rest on the laurels of having defeated a foe, but rather to continue to fight and build a society in which the dignity of humanity, the sanctity of humanity, is paramount.