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The heart of European history

Benedict XVI's Journey to the Czech Republic, his 13th International Visit, may be summed up as a trip to the heart of Europe to address in spirit the whole continent and the world.

The Czech nation, for many reasons the symbol of Europe's turbulent history, after a resplendent but tragic past, suddenly returned to centre stage in 1968 with what is known as Prague Spring. Its harsh repression by the Warsaw Pact troops was followed 10 years later by the Charter 77 Manifesto on human rights.

These seeds of civility soon found a response and acceptance on the part of the Church of Rome: in the action of Paul VI, and – from the first years of his Pontificate – in the decisions of John Paul II, the Bishop from a “distant land”.

Thus in 1977, at Pope Montini's last Consistory, the name of the Apostolic Administrator (and subsequently Archbishop) of Prague was published, František Tomášek, who the previous year had been created Cardinal in pectore .

Cyril and Methodius, the evangelizers of the country and of the continent's vast central and eastern regions, were proclaimed Co-Patrons of Europe in 1980. And in 1985 Pope John Paul II dedicated to the two holy brothers the Encyclical Slavorum Apostoli , which developed the extraordinary image of the two lungs – eastern and western – with which the Christian tradition breathes.

While the Pope was setting his hand to the reorganization of that Church, still atrociously persecuted towards the end of the 1980s, the most moving sign was the canonization of  Agnes of Bohemia, in that memorable Autumn of 1989 which marked the end of real communism in Europe. The memory lives on of that 12 November when the sun shone softly on the groups of Czech faithful, who were almost incredulous at having arrived in Rome – in spite of their lack of means – in order to honour the new Saint canonized by the Roman Pontiff. It was in St Peter's Square itself, where, according to political propaganda, the Cossacks' horses would have slaked their thirst.

And the following year, when the withdrawal of the Soviet troops began, John Paul II made the first of his three Visits to the Czech and Slovak regions.

The timing of this papal trip on an international scale is significant, as it shows an attentiveness to the core of Europe's history – a continent that would be unintelligible were its Christian roots to be removed, which with other aspects have made it what it is today. Indeed, Benedict XVI's Visit falls on the day after the unanimous commitment to nuclear disarmament that was made at the United Nations. There, where on 4 October 1965 Paul VI, “like a messenger who, after a long journey, finally succeeds in delivering the letter entrusted to him”, spoke to the world of the incumbent danger: “Weapons, especially the terrible weapons that modern science has given you, long before they produce victims and ruins, cause bad dreams, foster bad feelings, create nightmares, distrust and sombre resolves; they demand enormous expenditures; they obstruct projects of solidarity and useful work; they falsify the very psychology of peoples”.

Today his Successor is continuing on the same path, confident that his appeal to reason will be heard. As well as his preaching.

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St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 18, 2019

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