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In Czech Republic, Pope Benedict's powerful challenge to secularism September 28, 2009

During a weekend visit to the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict XVI surveyed the damage done to that nation by generations of Communist rule, and warned the Czech people against socialist materialism with secular materialism. "Man needs to be liberated from material oppressions", the Pontiff insisted.

In an unusual number of public speeches crowded into a 3-day schedule, the Pope repeatedly challenged the people of the Czech Republic to follow the example set by the great saints of their past history, revive a precious Christian heritage, and bring help to a society that is longing for true freedom but does not know how to find it.

The Pope began his trip-- the 13th foreign voyage of his pontificate-- on Saturday morning, and arrived in Prague shortly before noon. He was greeted at the airport by Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

During the welcoming ceremony the Pope outlined the theme that he would continue to develop, from different perspectives, throughout his stay. The Czech Republic, he said, has a deeply rooted Christian culture that can be traced back to the evangelization of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their country "has been a meeting point for different peoples, traditions and cultures," and consequently has played an important part in European history-- "sometimes as a battleground, more often as a bridge."

The recent history of the Czech people is clouded by the years of Communist rule, and "the cost of 40 years of political repression is not to be underestimated," the Pope continued. The atheistic regime strove to silence the voice of the Church, but brave Christians "kept the flame of faith alive." Now that religious freedom has been restored, the Church should be a powerful witness in a secular society.

The Pope's challenge was directed at a Czech population that has become thoroughly secularized, with religious influence dwindling in the past generation. But the huge throngs who greeted the Pope demonstrated that the flame of faith is still alive. On Saturday afternoon the Pope visited one of the centers of that enduring faith, the shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague. As he venerated the famous statue the Pope prayed for the welfare of troubled families.

Later in the afternoon the Pontiff traveled to Prague Castle for a formal meeting with President Havel, followed by talks with other political leaders. In an address there the Pope remarked that 20 years have now passed since the "Velvet Revolution" that swept the Communist government from power, and "the process of healing and rebuilding continues." The Czech people still seek true freedom, he said, and that freedom can only be attained through a recognition of truth. The truth about European society, he continued, cannot be understood apart from a recognition of that society's Christian heritage.

Prague, the Pope reminded the Czech political leaders, is often called "the heart of Europe." He asked them to consider how they could understand this "heart," and suggested that "a clue is found in the architectural jewels that adorn this city." The architecture confirms the Christian heritage, he observed. "The creative encounter of the classical tradition and the Gospel gave birth to a vision of man and society attentive to God's presence among us."

On Saturday evening, at he led a Vespers service in the city's cathedral, the Pope delivered the same message in even stronger form. "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," he said. Catholics must take the lead in guiding society back toward a model of Christian humanism.

Pope Benedict flew from Prague to Brno on Sunday morning, and celebrated an outdoor Mass there for a congregation of about 120,000. Again he lamented the development of a secular materialism in which Christian faith and hope "have been relegated to the private and other-worldly sphere." An intense public focus on economic and scientific progress has produced very mixed results, he reminded the congregation. Christians must provide the necessary counterpoint, constantly reminding their neighbors that reality is not confined to the visible, material world.

In the afternoon the Pope met with the Czech bishops, and renewed his warning against the forces in society that seek "to marginalize the influence of Christianity upon public life" and the "artificial separation of the Gospel from intellectual and public life." The Church, Pope Benedict said, must show "a spirit of courage to share the timeless saving truths" that bring hope to the world.

Returning to Prague Castle on Sunday evening, the Pope gave an address to Czech university faculty and students, delivering a message that reminded many listeners of the Pontiff's famous lecture at the University of Regensburg. The scholarly world, he reminded his audience, "is directed to the pursuit of truth, and as such gives expression to a tenet of Christianity which in fact gave rise to the university." For decades, the aspirations that fuel university life were suppressed by an ideology that stunted the human spirit. But the quest for truth and for freedom "can never be eliminated, and as history has shown, it is denied at humanity's own peril."

There is still enough risk, the Pope said, that academic life will be stunted by "the temptation to detach reason from the pursuit of truth." A spirit of dogmatic relativism, he said, "provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk." Again the net result is deadly to the scholarly enterprise, the Pope said: "An understanding of reason that is deaf to the divine and which relegates religions into the realm of subcultures, is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures that our world so urgently needs."

September 28 is the feast of St. Wenceslas, and the Pope traveled to the church of St. Wenceslas in Stara Boleslav, outside Prague, to join in an annual pilgrimage to the site of the 10th-century martyr's death. There the Pontiff again celebrated an outdoor Mass, and in his homily exhorted the Czech faithful to imitate the virtue of St. Wenceslas, a generous king who gave first priority to the welfare of his people and to his own spiritual growth. "Do we not place more value today on worldly success and glory?" the Pope asked. "Yet how long does earthly success last, and what value does it have?"

Once more the Pope referred to the end of the Communist era, pointing out that with the fall of that regime, the members of the political elite were suddenly ousted from power. They had been affluent, comfortable, and confident, the Pope said. "Yet one need only scratch the surface to realize how sad and unfulfilled these people are." Christians must learn from St. Wenceslas, he said-- and pass the message along to others-- to have "the courage to prefer to kingdom of heaven to the enticement of worldly power."

After the Mass, the Pope offered a special word of advice to the young people in the congregation. "In every young person there is an aspiration toward happiness," he said. That aspiration is fundamentally healthy, but it can be manipulated and exploited by secularism and materialism "in false and alienating ways." The Pope encouraged young people to preserve their aspirations, take them seriously, and continue in the pursuit of true and lasting happiness until they discover, as St. Augustine discovered, "that Jesus Christ alone is the answer that can satisfy his and every person's desire for a life of happiness, filled with meaning and value."