Pope wraps up Czech trip with Mass near Prague

Stephen James Johnson

From the Associated Press.

STARA BOLESLAV, Czech Republic – Pope Benedict XVI on Monday held up the Czech Republic‘s martyred patron saint as a model for leaders, saying the world needs God-fearing people prepared to follow the ethical principles of Christianity.

At an open-air Mass for at least 40,000 faithful, Benedict issued a call for holiness as he wrapped up his three-day visit to this central European country two decades after the fall of communism.

“The last century — as this land of yours can bear witness — saw the fall of a number of powerful figures who had apparently risen to almost unattainable heights,” Benedict said, speaking in Italian.

“Suddenly they found themselves stripped of their power,” he said.

Benedict said that those who deny God and appear to lead a comfortable life are in reality “sad and unfulfilled” people.

His visit, which began Saturday, came as the country prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1989Velvet Revolution, which ousted a communist regime that had ruthlessly persecuted believers and confiscated church property.

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 patron St. Wenceslas, who was murdered here by his pagan brother in 935 A.D.

Wenceslas, the pope said, was “a model of holiness for all people.”

“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 Monday, a national holiday honoring Wenceslas.

Although his overall reception has been tepid, with no posters or billboards announcing the trip, the faithful — some from nearby Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia — streamed into Stara Boleslav before dawn.

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.

Czechs are among Europe‘s most secular people.

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.

In a special message to young people, the pope urged them not to be seduced by consumerism.

“Unfortunately, many of your contemporaries allow themselves to be led astray by illusory visions of spurious happiness, and then they find themselves sad and alone,” Benedict said.

Yet throughout the trip, he has 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 the country peacefully shook off 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.”

On Sunday, an estimated 120,000 cheering pilgrims greeted Benedict at an open-air Mass 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.

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 return to Prague for lunch with Czech bishops before leaving for Rome late in the afternoon