During his first speech at the beginning of his two-day visit to the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the tragic consequences for Christianity, in particular for the Catholic Church, of more than 40 years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Before the official welcoming delegation that included Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic; Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague and Archbishop Jan Graubner of Olomouc, president of the Czech Bishops' Conference, the Holy Father recalled that the coming months will see the twentieth anniversary of the revolution "which happily brought a peaceful end to a time of particular hardship for this country."
"If the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked a watershed in world history," he added, "it did so all the more for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, enabling them to take their rightful place as sovereign actors in the concert of nations."
"Nevertheless," Pope Benedict explained, "the cost of forty years of political repression is not to be underestimated. A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the Church."
After recalling the history of martyrdom that has marked the history of the local Church, the Pope recounted some of the Catholic heroes under the Soviet era.
"This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Servant of God Cardinal Josef Beran, Archbishop of Prague. I wish to pay tribute both to him and to his successor Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, for their indomitable Christian witness in the face of persecution."
"They," he continued, "and countless brave priests, religious and lay men and women kept the flame of faith alive in this country."
"Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this Republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture, and I invite the Christian community to continue to make its voice heard as the nation addresses the challenges of the new millennium," the Pope said, finishing his address.