Pope Wraps Up Czech Trip With Mass Near Prague
September 28, 2009 - 4:07 AMPope Benedict XVI issued a call to holiness Monday as he wrapped up a three-day visit to the Czech Republic -- one of Europe's most secular nations -- with an open-air Mass for at least 40,000 faithful.
The 82-year-old pope told believers who packed a meadow in Stara Boleslav, 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Prague, that they could learn from the country's patron saint, Wenceslas, who was murdered here by his pagan brother in 935 A.D.
"We ask ourselves: In our day, is holiness still relevant? Or is it now considered unattractive and unimportant? Do we not place more value today on worldly success and glory? Yet how long does earthly success last, and what value does it have?" the pope said.
His visit, which began Saturday, came as the country prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of a communist regime that ruthlessly persecuted believers and confiscated church property.
Although his overall reception has been tepid, with no posters or billboards announcing the trip, an estimated 120,000 cheering pilgrims greeted Benedict at an open-air Mass on Sunday in the southern city of Brno, a Catholic stronghold.
There, the German-born pope broadened his message to all of Europe, appealing to people across the continent to remember their Christian heritage.
Before dawn Monday, the faithful -- some from nearby Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia -- streamed into Stara Boleslav. The Vatican said 40,000 people turned out; Czech organizers put the crowd estimate at 50,000.
"It's important for us to show that we're not just an atheist nation and that there are believers here," said Lukas Jasa, 21, who traveled with friends from the eastern Czech Republic -- more than 300 kilometers (200 miles) -- to glimpse the pope.
In 1991, 4.5 million of the country's 10 million people said they belonged to a church, but a 2001 census showed that number had plunged to 3.3 million. Recent surveys suggest the number of believers remains low; about one in two respondents to a poll conducted by the agency STEM said they don't believe in God.
Benedict has used his pilgrimage to recall the evils of communist-era religious repression and to coax indifferent Czechs back to the church.
Throughout the trip, he carefully avoided wading into abortion, gay marriage and other controversial issues -- an apparent attempt to avoid further antagonizing already apathetic Czechs.
In November, Czechs will mark two decades since their 1989 Velvet Revolution peacefully shook off decades of communist rule.
Anna Bozkova, 76, said the pope's visit comes "at a hard time."
"Everybody can feel it," she said. "(The pope) is welcomed in all other states. Faith was common for my generation. It survived the communist era. We were marginalized, but we maintained our faith because it's strong."
The pope, who has been giving his speeches in either English or Italian, is making his first foreign trip since he broke his right wrist in a fall while on vacation in July. He told reporters aboard his plane that he is finally able to write again and hopes to complete a new book by next spring.
Before Monday's Mass, Benedict stopped at a shrine to St. Wenceslas, where he blessed the martyr's skull and other relics.
The pope was to deliver a special message to young people and then return to Prague for lunch with Czech bishops before leaving for Rome late in the afternoon.
Associated Press Writers William J. Kole and Victor L. Simpson in Prague contributed to this report.
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