Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Prague Saturday on a three-day pastoral visit of the highly secular former Communist Czech Republic, in the year that marks two decades since the Communist rule tumbled in Europe.
Having travelled to Africa and the Middle East this year, Pope Benedict hopes to offer encouragement to some three million believers in the country of 10.5 million where distrust of organised religion remains deeply ingrained and the church-and-state relations strained.
Pope Benedict was greeted by a guard of honour on the tarmac of the Prague’s international airport and welcomed by President Vaclav Klaus and his wife.
At his own wish, the pontiff is to open the 13th trip of his papacy at the Church of Our Lady Victorious, a pilgrimage site in the city centre and the home of the Infant Jesus of Prague since 1628.
The wax statuette is little known to Czechs but venerated by Roman Catholics worldwide. The 82-year-old pontiff is to present the effigy, adorned for the occasion in festive garb, with a golden crown. He is also scheduled to meet families with children in the Baroque church.
Pope Benedict will visit the Czech Republic’s most admired church, St Vitus Cathedral, which has been a subject of a 17-year-old legal battle between the Catholic Church and the state.
On Monday, he is set to pay a tribute to the Central European nation’s patron saint, St Wenceslas, in Stara Boleslav outside Prague. Pope Benedict will be the first pope to bow before relics of the 10th-century Czech prince, who promoted Christianity in the Czech lands. St. Wenceslas became the nation’s guardian and martyr after he was murdered by his brother Boleslav on September 28, 929 or 935.
The pontiff is to address the youth after celebrating mass for estimated 50,000 people at the Stara Boleslav site.
In a highlight of the tour, Pope Benedict is to celebrate a mass on Sunday in Brno, the second largest Czech city. Poles, Slovaks and Austrians are expected to be amount the 100,000 expected to attend.
The papal visit has brought renewed attention to the long-standing sore points between the Czech Republic and the Vatican, including Prague’s failure to ratify a treaty with the Holy See. Such issues are not to be “officially” discussed, according to Vatican officials.
But Prime Minister Jan Fischer and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, are to discuss the matter at their Saturday afternoon meeting.
They “will certainly touch on the issue”, Mr. Fischer told public Czech Television, referring to the concordat.