The Catholic faithful in the Czech Republic have been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions as a year of special thanksgiving for their regained freedom from communism. In this, the most atheistic country in Europe, the Catholic Church felt it important to commemorate this event with its own special all-year-round nationwide pilgrimage. Following the high point of the pilgrimage to Fatima in September, this pilgrimage is now continuing within the country itself, with a pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima traveling for an entire year throughout the Czech Republic. A pilgrimage of thanksgiving is also being held on 18 November at the world-famous shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague, whose image was earlier carried by the Czech pilgrims to the shrine of Fatima in a „gesture of thanksgiving“
The pilgrims who arrived early on 13 September at the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fatima were greeted with a somewhat unusual sight – a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague being carried in the arms of a religious sister before the image of Our Lady of Fatima. The image of the Christ Child, dressed as King in festive white robes, was later that day to enjoy a great triumph when, at the end of the Solemn Holy Mass on the square of the Fatima shrine, it was solemnly presented by Cardinal Dominik Duka, the Archbishop of Prague, to Bishop António Augusto dos Santos Marto of Leiria-Fatima, in whose diocese the famous Fatima shrine is of course situated.
This pilgrimage to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions was the second time that the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic had organised a national pilgrimage to Fatima, and on this occasion 1,300 pilgrims, including the entire Czech bishops‘ conference, dozens of priests and religious and hundreds of ordinary Catholic faithful, had made their way to this renowned Marian shrine in Portugal, which is so closely linked to the history of the former Eastern Bloc.
Cardinal Duka recalled the fact that the people of the Czech Republic had already come on pilgrimage to Fatima in 1989 to give thanks for their regained freedom. This time they were here to give thanks „for a new generation that has never known the prison of National Socialism, the prison of communism or persecution for their faith.“
As a gesture of this gratitude, the Cardinal solemnly presented the local bishop with the replica statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague, solemnly blessed at the shrine in Prague, as a special gift from the Catholics of the Czech Republic to the shrine in Fatima. „The Infant Jesus is the patron of all his friends“, said the Cardinal, recalling that Pope Benedict XVI had also visited the world-famous shrine of the Infant Jesus during his visit to Prague.
In fact the fate of the Jezulatko, as the little statue of the Infant Jesus is known to the Czech people, has been closely bound up with the message of Fatima over the past century. For it was in 1917 – exactly 100 years ago – that Our Blessed Lady predicted the October Revolution in Russia and the Second World War. The consequence was an unprecedented persecution of the Church. After the Second World War, what was then still Czechoslovakia also fell under the communist yoke and witnessed one of the worst persecutions in Eastern Europe. Thousands of priests and religious were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms and forced labour, churches and religious houses were closed down and desecrated, and the practice of the Faith severely restricted. For years, the image of the Infant Jesus of Prague was left abandoned and alone on its altar in a desolate and ransacked church.
„We owe it to the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that we are able to live in freedom today“, Cardinal Duka declared in front of thousands of pilgrims in Fatima. Afterwards, the Czech pilgrims were allowed to carry home with them a pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and immediately on their return, this statue was welcomed with a solemn Holy Mass in the Prague St Vitus Cathedral and then carried in solemn procession through the streets of Prague. Now it will spend the next year travelling through the churches, cathedrals and public shrines of the Czech Republic – exactly 50 years after a statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought secretly into the country, during the so-called „Prague Spring“, ultimately preparing the path for the easing of the situation of the Church which took place in 1968.
The image of the Infant Jesus of Prague will remain in Fatima, however. It was the martyr saint, philosopher and Carmelite nun Edith Stein who said of him: „Is he not the hidden Emperor who one day will put an end to all need? It is he who holds the reins in his hand, even if men think that they are ruling.“ When the Czech pilgrims gather on 18 November at the shrine of the Infant Jesus in Prague, many of them will be thinking along similar lines and giving thanks that the oppression of the godless Communist regime is now over.
Long before the overthrow of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, the international Catholic pastoral charity, and now pontifical foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) had been helping the Catholic Church, and has continued to generously support the rebuilding of Church life and infrastructure since the changes. Today the charity is helping above all for the training of priests, the training and support of contemplative religious sisters, for renovation projects and pastoral transport. Last year the charity gave almost 60,000 Euros in aid for the Czech Republic.
Today the Czech Republic is regarded as one of the most atheistically inclined countries in Europe, with 34% declaring themselves of no religion and a further 44% giving no indication of any religious affiliation. In the census of 2011, just 10.4% of the population declared themselves as Catholics, while a further 11% belonged to other Christian denominations. In 1950, at the beginning of communist rule, some 76% of what was then Czechoslovakia declared themselves Catholics.