Image: Pope Benedict XVI in Stara Boleslav, Czech Republic
Filip Singer  /  EPA
Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful at Basilica of Saint Wenceslaus in Stara Boleslav, Czech Republic, on Monday.
updated 9/28/2009 10:59:53 AM ET 2009-09-28T14:59:53

Pope Benedict XVI held an open-air Mass on Monday for at least 40,000 cheering faithful who packed a meadow as the pontiff wrapped up a three-day visit to the Czech Republic.

The 82-year-old pope first made a stop in Stara Boleslav, 15 miles northeast of Prague, to bless relics at a shrine to St. Wenceslas. The country's patron saint was murdered by his pagan brother at the gate to a church in 935 A.D.

Benedict then rode in his bulletproof popemobile through a sea of flag-waving pilgrims to a nearby field for the Mass, which was to be followed with a special message to young people. The Vatican said 40,000 people turned out; Czech organizers put the crowd estimate at 50,000.

The German-born pope will lunch with Czech bishops in Prague before returning to Rome later Monday.

His visit, which began Saturday, came as the heavily secular country prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of a communist regime that ruthlessly persecuted believers and confiscated church property.

Broadens message
Although his overall reception has been tepid, with no posters or billboards announcing the trip, an estimated 120,000 cheering pilgrims greeted Benedict at an open-air Mass on Sunday in the southern city of Brno, a Catholic stronghold.

There, the pope broadened his message to all of Europe, appealing to people across the continent to remember their Christian heritage.

Before dawn Monday, the faithful were streaming to Stara Boleslav, and by 8 a.m. there were already 15,000 people crowding a field and huddling together to ward off the morning chill. Some came from nearby Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

"It's the first time I'll see the Holy Father," said Lukas Jasa, 21, who traveled with friends from the eastern Czech Republic — more than 200 miles — to glimpse the pope.

"It's important for us to show that we're not just an atheist nation and that there are believers here," he said.

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.

‘A hard time’
Benedict has used his pilgrimage to recall the evils of communist-era religious repression and to coax indifferent Czechs back to the church.

In November, Czechs will mark two decades since their 1989 Velvet Revolution peacefully shook off decades of communist rule.

Anna Bozkova, 76, said the pope's visit comes "at a hard time."

"Everybody can feel it," she said. "(The pope) is welcomed in all other states. Faith was common for my generation. It survived the communist era. We were marginalized, but we maintained our faith because it's strong."

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.

More on: Pope Benedict XVI | Czech Republic

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Video: Pope cheered by Czech faithful


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