Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday told tens of thousands of faithful that societies exclude God at their peril, pressing ahead with a pilgrimage to nudge the ex-communist Czech Republic back to its religious roots.
"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 the southern city of Brno for what is expected to be the biggest turnout of his trip to the heavily secular country.
Cheering faithful from the Czech Republic and neighboring countries — including Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia — sang and waved Czech and Vatican flags as the pope's plane flew in from Prague. The Vatican had said it hoped as many as 200,000 would turn out.
Officials with the Czech emergency services said 18 people collapsed and were treated for dehydration, and a police officer was taken to a hospital after he suffered injuries in a fall from his horse.
Velvet Revolution anniversary
The 82-year-old pontiff's three-day visit comes as Czechs prepare to mark 20 years since their 1989 Velvet Revolution shook off a regime that had ruthlessly persecuted the Roman Catholic Church.
The German-born pope, speaking under a white canopy beside a 12-meter-high stainless steel cross, warned that technical progress is 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 said.
He spoke in Italian and his words were translated into Czech.
Benedict is using the trip to recall communist-era religious repression and appeal to the strongly secular Czech people to reconsider a faith many have abandoned.
His predecessor, John Paul II, visited the former Czechoslovakia three times, but this weekend's tour is Benedict's first as pope. Although the nation of 10 million has given him a lukewarm reception, he got an enthusiastic welcome Sunday in the center of 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. "There are so many people here and the atmosphere is great. I didn't want to miss it. Above all, people need hope — especially now at a time of (economic) crisis."
Message of faith, hope and love
Marta Moravcikova, one of 9,000 Slovaks expected to attend Sunday's Mass, said she was encouraged by the pope's message of faith, hope and love.
"We try to keep our faith alive," she said.
The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly half the country professing to be nonbelievers.
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 were then allowed to function only under the state's control and supervision.
In 1991, 4.5 million of the country's 10 million people said they belonged to a church. In 2001, a census showed that number had plunged to 3.3 million.
Recent surveys suggest the freewheeling drop continues. About one in two respondents to a poll conducted by the agency STEM said they don't believe in God.
On Saturday, the pope decried the "wounds" left by decades of atheistic communism, and he urged Czechs to reconsider Christianity and the "irreplaceable role" it has played in their lives.
‘Rich heritage of faith’
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.
Later Sunday, the pope was to meet back in Prague with leaders of other religious faiths and with scholars.
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.
Despite the lack of posters and billboards promoting the visit, Jana Kocvarova of Brno said she was thrilled to hear the pope.
"His visit is something money can't buy," said Kocvarova, 58. "It's of importance to all of us."