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The Hapsburgs were smiling from Heaven today

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tEmpires come and go, but even long after they crumble, one can occasionally catch a glimpse of their past glory. Assuming that the Hapsburgs, monarchs of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, were looking down from Heaven upon a field near the Brno airport this Sunday, one can assume they were smiling.

t(Officially speaking, Catholics can be reasonably sure that at least one Hapsburg had such a view from above. Karl I, the last Hapsburg monarch, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.)

tPope Benedict XVI presided over an open-air Mass in Brno this morning that drew a crowd estimated at roughly 120,000, composed of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Austrians and Germans, thus representing several of the constituent elements of the old Hapsburg empire (minus, of course, the Hungarians). Though those peoples are now scattered into different nations, today’s Mass offered a reminder of a time when the common Christian faith of central Europe was also embodied in a common political identity.

Interview with Benedict XVI aboard the papal plane

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

On the papal plane en route to the Czech Republic yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI took five questions from reporters. The following is an NCR translation of a transcript from that exchange provided by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Among other things, Benedict XVI discusses the experience of eastern European nations under Communism, the role of ethics in the global economy, his wrist fracture during his summer vacation, and the upcoming second volume of his book on Jesus and the gospels.

Your Holiness, as you said last Sunday during the Angelus address, the Czech Republic is not only geographically but also historically at the heart of Europe. Can you explain what you meant, and tell us how and why you believe this visit can be important for the entire continent, in terms of its cultural and spiritual journey, and also the political task of constructing the European Union?

Czechs object to authority, not religion, sociologist says

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

Ted Turnau is an Evangelical Protestant who grew up in Pennsylvania, eventually earning a Ph.D. in apologetics from the Westminster Theological Institute. He’s lived for the last decade in the Czech Republic, teaching the sociology of religion and other subjects at the Anglo-American College, a small secular liberal arts college in Prague, and at Charles University.

Turnau spoke with NCR on Saturday about the religious situation in the Czech Republic, and about the prospects for the Catholic church in this heavily secularized society.

The Czech Republic has a reputation for being one of the most secularized societies on earth. Is that accurate?

In Prague, Benedict XVI offers Erasmus for the 21st Century

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tIn the court of popular opinion – certainly in the secularized Czech Republic, but to some extent everywhere – Christianity and its claim to transcendent truth are often seen as instruments of authority and control, inconsistent with a democratic spirit of freedom. Rejection of institutional religion by a broad swath of the population is often shaped, at least in part, by that root perception.

Across the former Soviet sphere, secularists often express the idea with a pithy phrase: “We didn’t overthrow the Reds just to submit to the Blacks,” they say, referring to clerical authority.

Pope Benedict XVI knows that impression all too well, which is probably why he devoted his address this evening before an audience of politicians and diplomats to a meditation on the relationship between freedom and truth. Reprising one of his classic themes, the pope argued that truth is not opposed to freedom, but rather is the door through which free people must choose to walk in order to realize the best versions of themselves.

Pope delivers upbeat message in ambivalent spot

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tIn the first spiritually evocative moment of his itinerary in the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit early this afternoon to the Church of Our Lady of Victorious, home to the famed statue known as the “Infant of Prague.”

tThe pope’s words were warm and devotional, even if the setting has a somewhat more ambivalent place in the popular Czech imagination.

tThe 16th century statue of the child Jesus is known for its reported miraculous powers, but Benedict’s remarks today dwelt instead on the reminder it offers of Christ’s early years under the care of his parents, Mary and Joseph. That led Benedict to offer a few words about the families of his listeners “and all the families in the world, in their joys and difficulties.”

t“We pray for families in difficulty,” Benedict said, “struggling with illness and suffering, for those in crisis, divided or torn apart by infidelity.” Family harmony, the pope said, is important “for the true progress of society and for the future of humanity.”

tThe infant Jesus also offers a reminder, Benedict said, that every human being is a child of God.

Religion key to a 'healthy society,' pope tells secular Czechs

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tPope Benedict XVI began his three-day trip to the Czech Republic by marking the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which swept what he called an “oppressive regime” under the Communists from power, and urged Czechs to see religion as an essential ingredient of the new society they’re still trying to build twenty years later.

tIn effect, the pope’s “pitch” was that Czechs should take a new look at Christianity, not as a fossil from their past but as a resource to building a more humane and satisfying future.

tThat may be a tall order in what is commonly reckoned to be one of the most secularized societies on earth, in which some 60 percent of Czechs profess no religious affiliation and in which, although baptized Catholics represent roughly a third of the population of 10 million, the number of practicing Catholics may be as low as two to three percent.

tAccording to Ted Turnau, a professor of religion at Prague’s Charles University, the Czech lands may be one of the few places on earth where the phrase “Catholic atheist” is not a contradiction in terms.

Czech believers find islands of hope in a secular sea

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tEven in the most religiously flourishing corners of the world – sub-Saharan Africa, for example, or the American Bible belt – one can always find pockets of secularism. By the same token, even in the most thoroughly secularized zones of the planet, one can also find signs of religious life if you know where to look.

tThe Czech Republic, by every measure a remarkably secular society, offers a case in point. Even here, there are intriguing signs that the Catholic church, which often seems little more than a shell of its former self, nevertheless has a pulse.

tCertain the overall picture here is not in dispute. According to Austrian sociologist Fr. Paul Zulehner, the Czech Republic is, along with the former East Germany, the zone of the former Soviet sphere where state-sponsored atheism had its greatest success. Today, some 60 percent of Czechs say they have no religious affiliation. All this has clearly taken its toll on the church. In the Archdiocese of Prague each year, more priests die than are ordained.

Church history through the eyes of a catacombs priest

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tIf history is really biography, then the stories of remarkable Catholics such as Fr. Petr Pit’ha, an intellectual-turned-catacombs priest who helped keep the faith alive during the dark days of Communist oppression, are a fascinating way to narrate church history in this part of the world.

tSecretly ordained in 1969, Pit’ha ministered in the shadows for two decades, teaching religious education in private apartments and hearing confessions disguised as friendly chats. His priesthood was a carefully guarded secret; his own father, mother and brother didn’t even know until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

tPit’ha, now 71, sat down Friday afternoon for a conversation with NCR. He was ordained clandestinely in Holland in 1969, after it became clear that the brief hope of the 1968 “Prague Spring” was giving way to another cycle of brutality.

The Freemasons from the Inside

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You may have heard: Dan Brown is at it again! The author of the DaVinci Code has a new novel called The Lost Symbol that focuses on the Freemasons. It sold 2 million copies the first week!

When I heard about the Freemason focus, it resurrected memories of my Catholic relatives telling me about this super-secret society that Catholics were forbidden to join. I recalled the rumors: Masons really rule the world, and they are really a substitute “religion.”

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