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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.”

The New Republic on Benedict

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The New Republic has an interesting essay on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. You have to read it quick as TNR’s website only keeps articles available for free on-line for a matter of days.

The author, David Nirenberg, is a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago which may explain why his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus” and his brief but incisive recapitulation of that consensus includes a happy sentiment from Gratian’s medieval Decretum with which I was unfamiliar. “A merchant can rarely or never please God,” writes Gratian. “And therefore no Christian should be a merchant, and, if he wishes to be one, he should be expelled from the Church.” I wonder what Michael Novak, Robert George and other apologists for Americanism make of that?

Social justice homily 101 from a layman

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On the first day of the Sept. 24-26 Catholic Charities USA 2009 Annual Gathering, one of the most inspired and inspirational commentaries on Catholic social justice themes came not from one of the convention’s major featured speakers, but from a local lay Catholic Charities leader on a group panel – Michael Reichert, president of the Seattle Archdiocese’s Catholic Charities office, Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.

What he said basically was that Catholic Charities personnel ought to realize they speak for disenfranchised people they know through personal experience. The humility that marks their service to those people in the church should not interfere with or limit the strength of their public advocacy for them, he said.

Missouri priest to cross country on bicycle for poverty awareness

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PORTLAND, Ore.
The day before the Catholic Charities USA 2009 Annual Gathering opened Sept. 24, there were the usual pre-convention leadership meetings – and a bicycle ride through Portland dubbed the “Cycling for Change” Fun Ride.

One of the cyclists, Jesuit Fr. Matthew Ruhl, is a more serious biker. One of the purposes of the Sept. 23 ride was to publicize the priest’s plan to cycle across America next summer – from Seattle to Key West, Fla. – to draw attention to CCUSA’s efforts to cut poverty in half in the United States within the next few years.

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