As Pope Benedict XVI visits Prague, Brno and Stara Boleslav in the Czech Republic Sept. 26-28, he faces some tough challenges. It is the pontiff's second pilgrimage to Eastern Europe after his May 2006 tour of Poland. In the highly secularized Czech Republic, however, the atmosphere is quite different.

"We're hoping the pope will reawaken and rejuvenate the faith here," Jiri Gracka, press officer of the Czech Bishops Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor. "But many Catholics are also coming from neighboring countries to draw encouragement from his presence. We must count on him to find the right way to inspire such a disparate audience."

The three-day pilgrimage follows Czech visits by the late John Paul II in 1990, 1995 and 1997, and has "The love of Christ is our strength" as its motto. It is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the "Velvet Revolution," which toppled communist rule, and of the 1989 canonization of St. Agnes of Prague, and marks 40 years since the death in exile of the Church's first communist-era leader, Cardinal Josef Beran.

But it also comes at a sensitive time in Church-state ties.

Property disputes

Although Catholic priests are paid salaries by the state, a practice that continued under communism, the Czech Republic is now the only East European country without treaty-level protection of Church rights.

In 2002, a concordat was signed and ratified by the Vatican, only to be voted down by Czech parliamentarians and blocked by President Vaclav Klaus, on the grounds that its provisions gave the Church unfair privileges.

Relations have been tense over the future of Catholic properties confiscated under communist rule, and the Church's fiscal dependence on the state. In November 2007, premier Mirek Topolanek's center-right government agreed to draw up a comprehensive bill, which would have returned a third of communist-seized properties to Catholic religious orders, and provided gradual compensation for the rest, totaling 83 billion Czech crowns ($4.5 billion).

Direct payments to the Church from the state budget -- including clergy salaries -- would have been steadily phased out over the next decade, thus eliminating the Church's need for state money.

However, in June 2008, rebel MPs from Topolanek's governing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) questioned the validity of the move and voted with Social Democrats and Communists to delay the bill indefinitely.

This April, when the government lost a no-confidence vote, a parliamentary commission recommended scrapping the project altogether. It was a move with "no rational justification whatsoever," Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague told the Church's Katolicky Tydenik weekly. He said it wrecked the best chance in years of a final Church-state settlement.

Church leaders such as Cardinal Vlk are disappointed no solutions were found after the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004 with seven other East European countries, or even when it became the first former Warsaw Pact country to hold the European Union's rotating presidency last January.

Although 200 churches, monasteries and convents were given back to the Church in the 1990s, often in derelict condition, many have since been sold off at knockdown prices since the Church's nine dioceses cannot maintain them. Last year, Christian protesters tried to stop the 12th-century church of St. Michael in Prague's Old Town, -- where the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415) once preached -- from being used for strip shows and techno parties by a private developer.

This March, the Prague archdiocese lodged the latest of several appeals when the Czech Supreme Court ruled that the city's 14th-century gothic St. Vitus Cathedral should belong to the state, rather than the Church.

The Church has faced other controversies, too, including attempts by the government to enact a "same-sex marriage" law, and allegations that several still-serving bishops collaborated with the communist StB secret police. In February 2007, the bishops conference deplored "media aggressiveness" on the issue, and demanded an end to the use of StB material "to settle personal accounts."

Spiritual investment

Father Juan Provecho, the bishops conference press director, thinks the Church has suffered a poor image among Czechs with little knowledge or understanding of its role, and that many local Christians have acquiesced "so as not to give the state problems." When President Klaus visited Rome in May, Pope Benedict expressed hopes for movement on some issues. But with only a caretaker government now in power until parliamentary elections next month, there are no solutions on the horizon.

Could the pope's pilgrimage at least instill new interest in Catholicism, and revive some of the spiritual enthusiasm that prevailed throughout Eastern Europe in the heady days of 1989?

In a pastoral letter, read nationwide this April, the bishops conference said Catholics should prepare for the papal visit by reflecting on the current "crisis of identity" facing their country.

"If we are not sure who we are and what our mission is, we will only timidly explain and defend Christianity," the bishops added. "So the most essential investment is the spiritual one. ... Do we hear the cry of people, fallen to pleasure and greed, who do their best to get rid of the terrible idea that their lives are worthless?"

Father Tomas Halik, who directs Prague's Christian Academy and is also rector of St. Saviour's University church, sees signs of hope.

Declared Catholics fell from 40 percent to 27 percent of the Czech Republic's 10.5 million inhabitants in the decade after the Velvet Revolution, and only one in 20 citizens now attends Mass, according to Church data, confirming the country's reputation as one of Europe's least religious.

However, priestly ordinations increased at the Church's two seminaries in 2004-2006, while a rise in enrollments has also been reported by closed and contemplative religious orders. Halik's own books on religion have all proved best-sellers.

There are "spiritual deserts" in the Czech Republic, Father Halik told OSV, as well as "islands of traditional religiosity" in Moravia and northern Bohemia that are being eroded by social and cultural change. Yet there are also "living centers" of the faith, particularly among city-based groups and movements.

"There's certainly an openness to faith here, especially among young educated people," said Father Halik, who showed the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger around Prague during his only previous visit in 1992. "But there's also a great sense of distance from the Church, so we need a special pastoral language and style if we're to respond effectively and provide a sense of partnership. I think [Pope] John Paul II understood this, and we must hope the present pope does, too."

Pilgrimage highlights

Sept. 26

Visit to venerate the Infant of Prague at the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague.

Courtesy visit with the president at the presidential palace in Prague.

Vespers service with priests, Religious, seminarians and members of lay movements at St. Vitus Cathedral.

Sept. 27

Celebration of Mass at Brno-Turany Airport in Brno. Homily, Angelus prayer and brief remarks by pope before return trip to Prague.

Meeting with ecumenical representatives at the archbishop's residence in Prague.

Meeting with academic scholars at Prague's Hradcany Castle.

Sept. 28

Visit to the church of St. Wenceslas at Stara Boleslav.

Outdoor Mass celebrated on the feast of St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech Republic. Homily, message to young people and speech by pope.

Lunch with bishops of the Czech Republic at the archbishop's residence.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.