Papal Visit to a Land of Nonbelievers

Czech Prior Reflects on Benedict XVI’s Next Trip

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KOENIGSTEIN, Germany, SEPT. 15, 2009 ( Though Benedict XVI’s next apostolic visit will bring him to one of the most atheistic nations in Europe, many Czechs who describe themselves as nonbelievers still love the Infant Jesus of Prague, whom the Pope will visit on his first day in the Republic.

Prior Petr Sleich of the Carmelite monastery of the Holy Infant of Prague noted his countrymen’s affection for the Infant Jesus when he spoke last week with Aid to the Church in Need about the Holy Father’s trip to the Czech Republic this month.

«Many people are uncertain when it comes to God, but I wouldn’t say they have no faith,» he said, explaining that the aim of the papal visit is to focus people’s hearts and minds on Christ. «I am certain that many [Czechs] will yet become [the Infant Jesus’] friends!»

According to Prior Sleich, the fact that the first stop on the Pontiff’s program is the shrine of Our Lady of Victories, where the image of the Holy Infant Jesus has been venerated since the 17th century, is «the most powerful expression of this intention.»

Benedict XVI will be in the Czech Republic from Sept. 26 to 28.

During his visit, the Pope will solemnly crown the image of the Infant Jesus, which, affirmed the 41-year-old Carmelite prior, is the highest honor Western Christianity can accord such an image.

A needy Child

Prior Sleich said the Infant Jesus is a symbol that everyone can understand, and one that often leads to a real encounter with Christ.

«When people come here to our church and see God as a Child, they have no fear of him,» the Carmelite observed. «On the contrary, he is a child who needs our love, our hearts, our hands, our help.»

Nevertheless, Prior Sleich continued, the Prague image also portrays Christ as a king. The orb held in his left hand symbolizes the entire universe, which stands beneath the symbol of the cross and rests in the hand of the Child Jesus.

«I sometimes say, half jokingly, that the left hand of the Child Jesus is enough to sustain the entire universe,» Prior Sleich recounted. «But of course it is no joke, but the truth. Meanwhile, with his right hand, the Divine Child blesses mankind.» This is a symbol, he added, that is easily intelligible to people without a great deal of reflection, and «the most effective symbols are precisely those that do not require us to think long and hard about them.»

Expecting change

Though the prior admitted that the papal visit comes at a time when spirituality is weak in the Czech Republic — only about 30% of Czechs claim any religious belief — he is hopeful about the future.

He himself was only baptized at age 20 after having found his way to faith through friends, while a student of mathematics. Today almost his entire family is Catholic.

«Things can change very quickly,» the priest affirmed, «as we all saw 20 years ago with our own eyes, when the Iron Curtain fell.»

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