VATICAN CITY, NOV. 18, 2005 ( A growing number of individuals without ties to any particular religion are interested in the life of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI told the bishops of the Czech Republic.

The Pope made these comments today during an audience with the bishops, at the conclusion of their five-yearly visit. The Holy Father had met with them previously this week in personal audiences.

"I have been informed about a Church that is very alive," Benedict XVI said, "which feels called to be leaven in a secularized society, but at the same time interested, often nostalgically, in the liberating, though exacting, message of the Gospel."

The Czech Republic, a country of 10.2 million inhabitants, is considered one of the most secularized in the world.

According to the 2001 census, Catholics constitute 26.8% of the population, Protestants 2.1%, other 3.3%, unspecified 8.8%, and unaffiliated 59%.

Benedict XVI said that in his meetings with the country's prelates he was told about "the growing number of your fellow citizens who state that they do not belong to any church."

At the same time, the Pope added, those reports reveal "the interest with which civil society follows the activity of the Catholic Church and her programs."

Spiritual foundations

The Holy Father continued: "I believe that the material and spiritual devastation of the earlier regime has left your fellow citizens, now that they have reacquired complete freedom, with a yearning to make up for lost time, pushing ahead without, perhaps, giving sufficient attention to the importance of spiritual values which give fortitude and consistency to civil and material progress."

This situation "opens a great field to the mission of the Christian community," inviting the local Churches to "welcome those who are seeking valid motivations for their lives and their existential decisions," said the Pope.

In particular, Benedict XVI encouraged the endeavor of "universal charity" of the Czech Catholic communities, as they "provide a solid testimony that attracts no small number of people, also from the world of culture."

"This is a sign of hope for the formation of a mature laity," he stated, "one that knows how to shoulder its ecclesial responsibilities."