On April 21, 1990, Polish-born Pope John Paul II came to Prague for a 2-day visit shortly after the fall of communism and at a historic moment of democratic change in Czechoslovakia.
The first Slavic pope in history hailing from neighbouring Poland, John Paul II had already visited Prague a few years earlier when he attended, as a cardinal, the funeral of Czech cardinal Stepan Trochta in 1974.
John Paul II in Prague: the first papal visit to Czechoslovakia
A previous visit planned in 1985, to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the death of Saint Methodius was cancelled at the last minute by communist authorities, who feared the pontiff’s popularity would embolden democratic aspirations in the population – as had happened during John Paul II’s historic 1979 visit to his native Poland.
Hastily arranged by former dissident turned President Vaclav Havel to mark the triumph of democracy, the pope’s arrival in Prague on April 21, 1990 – the first papal visit in history – came at a momentous time for Czechoslovakia. A few months after the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia was emerging from four decades of communist rule and once more reclaiming its place at the heart of Europe.
Greeting John Paul II as his plane landed in the airport that would later bear his name, President Vaclav Havel famously declared: “I do not know if I know what a miracle is. Nevertheless, I dare say that right now I am the witness of one”.
“Into a country until recently damaged by the idea of confrontation and world division, arrives a messenger of peace, dialogue, mutual tolerance, respect and mutual understanding,” he continued, kick-starting the pontiff’s historic 2-day visit across Czechoslovakia.
During his visit, John Paul II met with Church representatives and served a mass at Saint Wenceslas Cathedral in Prague. He later served another mass on Prague’s Letna Plain, attended by around half a million people, including Catholics from Poland waving Solidarity banners.
Jan Hus, nationalism and secularism
The Pope later traveled to Velehrad, the capital of the 9th-century Great Moravia where Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity in 862, and continued his visit to Bratislava. In his address to the Slovak people, he cautioned against the dangers of nationalism, a topical warning coming at the height of the “Great Hyphen War” that foreshadowed the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia into two different states.
Hailing the end of the “tragic utopia” and “violent application of a materialistic ideology” represented by communism, Polish-born John Paul II paid tribute to the Czechoslovak Church, including its 90-year-old leader Frantisek Tomasek, and to Czechoslovak faithful for standing firm in their belief. The conservative Pope also warned them against the “viruses” from the West such as secularism, “hedonistic consumerism”, and atheism.
In a move charged with historic significance, the Pope notably paid homage to Jan Hus, priest and religious reformer burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in the 15th century, widely seen as forerunner of the Protestant reform in Europe, and a national hero in the Czech lands.
Czechoslovakia at a crossroads
“Aside from his theological opinions, it is impossible to ignore the integrity which characterized Hus’s life and his attempts at raising moral character and learning within the nation,” he said.
Historic in many ways, John Paul’s II visit to Prague and Czechoslovakia heralded the beginning of a new era in the country’s young and tumultuous history.
Despite the significant differences in religious affiliation between Czechs – often described as one of the world’s least religious people – and Slovaks – where a majority of the population identifies as Catholic – the pontiff’s visit drew massive crowds of followers.
His 1990 visit to Czechoslovakia would be followed by two additional trips in 1995 and 1997, on the 1,000 anniversary of Saint Adalbert, a patron saint in both his native Poland and Bohemia.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.