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A day to honor 'Good King Wenceslas'

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By JOHN L. ALEN JR.
Prague

tCelebrating the feast day of the most famous figure in Czech history, a 10th century ruler known around the world as “Good King Wenceslas” thanks to the popular Christmas carol, Pope Benedict XVI closed his three-day visit to the Czech Republic this morning with a Mass in honor of St. Wenceslas, the country’s patron saint.

tThe Mass was held in Stará Boleslav, a pilgrimage destination about 15 miles outside Prague believed to be the site of the death of Wenceslas in 935. (In Czech, “Wenceslas” is rendered as "Václav" and remains perhaps the most common first name in the country.)

tThe early history of Christianity in the Czech lands is thoroughly intertwined with the story, and at times the legend, of Wenceslas. Tradition holds that his grandfather was converted by St. Cyril and Methodius, the legendary “apostles to the Slavs,” thereby becoming the first Christian prince of the Czechs. His grandmother Ludmilla, today venerated as a saint, was strangled to death by a pagan servant in a dynastic dispute.

UK trip, Newman beatification in 2010 a 'good hypothesis'

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tIn a briefing with reporters in the Czech capital, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi stopped short of official confirmation of a rumored papal trip to Great Britain for 2010, but suggested that it’s likely. He added that such a trip would be an "obvious occasion" to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Lombardi also said that outings in 2010 to both Malta and Portugal are in the works, but that preparations still have to be made.

tThe Malta trip, set for April, has already been announced by the Maltese bishops. It will commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s famous shipwreck on the Mediterranean island. The pontiff’s trip to Portugal has likewise been quasi-official for some time, set for the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13.

tLombardi said that the main organizer of papal travel, Alberto Gasparri, has not yet worked out the details of trips to either location.

A professor pope wields some rhetorical jiu-jitsu

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Prague

tIn the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu, the key to success is turning your opponent’s strength into a weakness. If your opponent is bigger or hits harder, you deflect his energy rather than directly opposing it, turning the blows back upon the guy delivering them.

tIn effect, Pope Benedict XVI has been practicing some rhetorical jiu-jitsu this weekend in the Czech Republic.

Benedict XVI confronts the ghost of Jan Hus

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prague

tThough lengthy volumes have been written about Christian history in the Czech lands, the casual observer really only needs two words to understand the striking ambivalence that Catholicism often evokes here: Jan Hus.

t In America, “Good King Wenceslas” is probably the single most famous figure from Czech history, owing largely to the popular Christmas carol. His memory lives on here too, but more commonly it’s the medieval preacher Jan Hus who is lionized as the real father of the Czech nation and the embodiment of its virtues. The fact that Hus was burned at the stake by the Catholic church in 1415 goes a long way toward explaining why, for some locals, being Czech and being hostile to Catholicism are practically the same thing.

tEven the most avowedly atheistic Czechs celebrate Hus as a nationalist founder. Ted Turnau, who teaches the sociology of religion at Charles University, says that in Czech schools still today, Hus is often presented as the father of the nation, and of resistance to outside domination, with only scant mention of his religious views.

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.

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