BRNO, Czech Republic (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that all of Europe — and not only this ex-communist country — must acknowledge its Christian heritage as it copes with rising immigration from other cultures and religions.
The second day of Benedict’s pilgrimage to this highly secular country was marked by a joyous open-air Mass that drew tens of thousands of pilgrims and a sober message for the entire continent.
“History has demonstrated the absurdities to which man descends when he excludes God from the horizon of his choices and actions,” Benedict said.
Church organizers estimated that 120,000 people packed a field beside an airport in this southern city for what was expected to be the biggest turnout of his trip. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was the largest turnout for a Mass in the history of the Czech Republic.
Cheering crowd members from the Czech Republic and neighboring countries including Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia sang and waved Czech and Vatican flags. Emergency services said 18 people collapsed and were treated for dehydration, and a police officer was hospitalized with injuries after falling from his horse.
The 82-year-old pontiff was making the three-day visit as Czechs prepare to mark 20 years since their 1989 Velvet Revolution shook off an atheistic communist regime that ruthlessly persecuted the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope warned that technical progress was not enough to “guarantee the moral welfare of society.”
“Man needs to be liberated from material oppressions, but more profoundly, he must be saved from the evils that afflict the spirit,” Benedict told the crowd from under a white canopy beside a 40-foot-high stainless-steel cross. The German-born pope spoke in Italian, and his words were translated into Czech.
Later Sunday, in talks with leaders of other faiths and branches of Christianity, Benedict broadened his message to all of Europe.
“As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own,” the pope said during the meeting at Prague’s medieval Hradcany Castle. “Her notions of justice, freedom and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance.”
Europe’s religious roots, he said, “supply the continent with the spiritual and moral sustenance that allows her to enter into meaningful dialogue with people from other cultures and religions.”
Lombardi said the pope shook hands with Jewish leaders at that meeting, but did not mention atrocities against Jews during World War II. An estimated 80,000 Czech Jews perished in the Holocaust, which decimated the nation’s Jewish community.
Benedict is using the trip to recall communist-era religious repression and to urge Czechs to reconsider a faith many have abandoned.
In a meeting with other Christians, he also mentioned Jan Hus, a 15th-century religious reformer seen as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation who was burned at the stake. He is considered a national hero here.
The pope said discussion of the case was important not only in the quest for Christian unity but also “for the good of all European society.”
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited the former Czechoslovakia three times, but this weekend’s tour is Benedict’s first here as pope. Although the nation of 10 million has given him a lukewarm reception, he received an enthusiastic welcome Sunday in the country’s Roman Catholic heartland.
“The pope’s never been here. It’s a unique experience to see him,” said Daniel Rampacek, a 21-year-old student from the southeastern town of Breclav. “Above all, people need hope, especially now at a time of (economic) crisis.”
The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe. 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.
Under communism, the church was brutally repressed. The regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all church-owned property and persecuted many priests. Churches then were allowed to function only under the state’s control and supervision.
In his traditional Sunday Angelus blessing, Benedict urged the crowd not to forget their “rich heritage of faith.”
“Maintain the spiritual patrimony inherited from your forebears … guard it and make it answer to the needs of the present day,” he said.
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.
Associated Press writers Karel Janicek in Brno and William J. Kole in Prague contributed to this report.