VATICAN CITY, 26 SEP 2009 (VIS) - At 9.40 a.m. today Benedict XVI departed by plane from Rome's Ciampino airport. Following a two-hour flight his plane landed at Stara Ruzyne airport of Prague, thus beginning his first apostolic visit to the Czech Republic, the thirteenth foreign trip of his pontificate. On his arrival the Pope was greeted by 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.
In his address the Holy Father indicated that "while the whole of European culture has been profoundly shaped by its Christian heritage, this is especially true in the Czech lands, since it was through the missionary labours of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century that the old Slavonic language first came to be written down. Apostles of the Slavic peoples and founders of their culture, they are rightly venerated as patrons of Europe".
"This territory", he went on, "has been a meeting-point for different peoples, traditions and cultures. Undeniably this has sometimes led to friction, but in the longer term it has proved to be a fruitful encounter. Hence the significant part played by the Czech lands in Europe's intellectual, cultural and religious history - sometimes as a battleground, more often as a bridge".
After then recalling how 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", the Pope said: "I join you and your neighbours in giving thanks for your liberation from those oppressive regimes.
"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, 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. Throughout your history, from the time of St. Wenceslaus, St. Ludmila and St. Adalbert to the time of St. John Nepomuk, there have been courageous martyrs whose fidelity to Christ spoke far louder and more eloquently than the voice of their executioners".
The Holy Father went on: "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, 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".
Benedict XVI concluded his remarks by quoting from his recent Encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" saying: "Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is". And he added :"The truth of the Gospel is indispensable for a healthy society, since it opens us to hope and enables us to discover our inalienable dignity as God's children".
The welcome ceremony over, the Pope travelled to the church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.
PV-CZECH REP./ARRIVAL/PRAGUE VIS 20090926 (610)