The Pontiff, John Lennon and Me

A visit to the Czech capital reveals a secularIized nation at odds with its religious past

On The Town | James Kane | November 2009

"Prague, the city of a hundred spires" – that’s how the Czech capital was advertised to me in an e-mail from a friend, insisting I spend a free weekend to visit. Sure, why not? 4.1 million international tourists per year can’t be wrong, after all. One cursory Wikipedia search and a five-hour train ride later, and I arrive in Prague just around midnight. Incidentally, I am received by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI himself. Sort of.

Alright, the Pontiff did not really greet me at Hlavní Nádraží train station at 12:05 a.m. But it’s true: the man was there, visiting the city as I was, part of some highly-publicized national tour of the Czech Republic designed to renew fervor for the Roman Catholic church and turn the tides against secularism in Europe.

My mind raced at this news. I had paranoid delusions of throngs of devout Catholics filling the streets, crowding local restaurants and taverns, aching for a glimpse from the Holiest of Padres – not exactly the side of Prague I was most desperate to take in. Wait, what if they stop selling beer because the pope’s here? Dear God, what if they won’t sell me beer?

Okay, be calm. I took a deep breath and resolved that I would have fun despite the zealous masses. That night, I met up with friends and took some well-earned rest at our hostel. We began our self-guided walking tour early next morning: First stop, the Charles Bridge.

Spanning the Vltava River that divides the city in two, the Charles Bridge is a massive stone construct decorated in a continuous alley of 30 Baroque statuary. For centuries, the bridge has served as the primary conduit between Old Town Prague, including Prague Castle, and the rest of the city. Originally called Kamenný most or "Stone Bridge," it was renamed in 1870 for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who ordered it built in 1357. Prague experienced a major renaissance under the 14th century Luxembourg ruler – he was also responsible for the founding and construction of both Charles University and St. Vitus Cathedral, respectively the oldest university and the oldest Gothic cathedral in central Europe.

Taking a view from his bridge – packed with tourists, local traffic, clergy eager for the aforementioned papal visitation, painters and vendors – Prague stretched out in panorama all around. "The city of a hundred spires"? I didn’t get an exact count, but this figure can’t be far off. Indeed, masterworks running the architectural gamut are visible in every direction – from the dominant Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, to Rococo, Renaissance, Cubist and Neo-Classical.

Even the ultra-modern is represented in Prague, most significantly in the Dancing House, designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in cooperation with well-known Canadian designer Frank Gehry. Completed in 1996, the structure was erected over a lot left vacant by bombing during World War II. Also nicknamed the "Drunk House," the building’s formed curvatures and sleek, flat surfaces stand in stark contrast to the jagged lines and detailed ornamentations of the iconic neo-Gothic and Baroque revival styles in the surrounding areas.

Ultimately though, that’s what Prague is best known for. In particular, its towering cathedrals, basilicas and chapels dominate the landscape; some gold-domed, some green, some held in place by massive flying buttresses and vaulted arches.

Everywhere one looks, in fact, there is prodigious evidence that once upon a time, Padre Benedict’s papal predecessors would have been given a place of great honor here. For more than 1,000 years, Prague has served as cultural and religious nerve center to the Czech lands; on two occasions it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. How much of Prague’s modern-day tourist appeal is a direct result of its awe-inspiring architecture, the most visible, longest-lasting symptom of the city’s roots in Christian orthodoxy?

It would only follow, then, that the Pontiff should receive some sort of red carpet treatment in Prague. Adoring congregations, prayers shouted in the streets, all that. Only twenty years ago, the Czech nation was still in the grips of a Communist regime which often forcibly suppressed religious leaders unsympathetic to its socialist agenda. Back then, religious affiliation could sometimes be regarded as an act of civil disobedience.

Today, that’s not the case. Fewer than three million of Czech’s population of 10.5 million identify themselves as Roman Catholic, according to the last census. As recently as 2006, civil unions between gay men and lesbians were legalized, and abortion has been permissible here for decades – two decidedly un-Catholic policy points.

The Rev. Tomas Halik, a Roman Catholic leader secretly ordained under Communism and now a lecturer at Charles University, spoke plainly about his secularized nation when interviewed in the International Herald Tribune: "A majority of people have no interest in the pope’s visit and are more concerned about traffic congestion."

So, the religious revitalization of Prague would be a tough sell. Benedictus Pontificus would have to work hard to win back his spiritual empire this time around. Surely, in this position, the Father would merrily rain down blessings, God’s love, and prayers for good fortune on behalf of the Czech people? Times have been hard and we all need some heavenly affection. That’s part of the pope’s job, right? Sort of.

During his time in Prague, the pope variously decried the continent-wide rise of secularism, "a growing drift toward ethical and cultural relativism," and "hedonistic consumerism" (though I concede the point on this last item – walking away from the bank-o-mat with thousands of something in my pockets was undeniably fun). On the last day of his tour, speaking before 40,000 faithful in an open air mass North of Prague, Benedict, 82, used the bully-pulpit to remind his flock that the previous government, that Communist one, had paid the price for grasping at power and denying God.

He’s the pope; I am not the pope. Far be it for me to question God’s elected official here on earth, but when you are speaking as the spiritual head of a skeptical nation whose faith is disheveled at best, should your core concept really be: Don’t you keep this up, or else!

His papal envoys were no more welcoming. Mulling through the crowded courtyard of Prague Castle, my friends and I found our way to the famed St. Vitus Cathedral barred. Approaching two stationed guards, their explanation was sympathetic, but brief: "No St. Vitus today. Pope is here."

Oh. Okay. We stood around in silence for a moment.

"Aw man," my friend finally said. "The pope ruined Prague." We forged on, this holy finger-wagging fresh in our memories.

From one quad, teeming with anxious Catholics, bored policemen and a cadre of curious onlookers, we wandered down the next avenue and the next, passing outdoor markets, restaurants and resplendent architecture at every turn.

We saw pork roasts on open spits, beer flowing into plastic novelty glasses, and token kitschy tourist shops lining the streets at even intervals of about 15 feet. And buildings, more buildings. Eventually, though, we happened to stumble upon a monument of a wholly different sort: the John Lennon Memorial Wall.

Bias alert: I love John Lennon. I love the music he made. I love his ideology, his politics. I even love his idiosyncratic proclivity for drug abuse and his rebellious, temperamental nature.

His wall – which encourages visitors and passersby to inscribe their own messages and graffiti-style artwork – cuts a vibrant 90 feet through the heart of Old Town Prague opposite the French Embassy. Poetry, lyrics and prose overlap and crisscross its expanse in full Technicolor, written in more languages than I am able to accurately differentiate. There are scrawled lines from Beatles songs (including a few from Paul’s songs, which seems like a bit of a sacrilege here but whatever), notes to departed loved ones, and messages of appreciation for John himself. It is a monument both fitting and ironic, encouraging self-expression and idealism in the heart of a city that has not always known such liberties, either under hard-line Christian doctrine or totalitarian Communism.

The wall began when in 1980, shortly after Lennon’s untimely death, a group of anonymous, dissatisfied Prague youths established a mock grave to the rock and roll superstar at the site. The memorial quickly became a graffiti forum for dissenting opinion, as malcontents voiced political ideals and grievances with the government in colorful, freeform design.

The wall was immediately a source of tension for the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, which denounced the artistic dissidents variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism. Yet despite several white-washings and the continuing risk of imprisonment and persecution for "subversive activities," the "Lennon-ist" tribute lived on.

The man made his life’s work the pursuit of free expression through music, art and the cause of world peace. Lennon was a pacifist hero to many in the Czech subculture, espousing the virtues of love, equality and freedom even while his Western-style pop music was officially banned by Communist authorities. It occurred to me that Lennon is perhaps Patron Saint of this Secularism that Benedict so thoroughly denounced in Prague. But here, maybe the pope could borrow a line from John? "All You Need is Love," Holy Father.

Prague is filled with epic monuments to the old order – to saints and martyrs, and yes, to a few popes. These sites are part of a proud, often stunningly beautiful tradition of a people who have known oppression and conducted themselves always with dignity, bravery and a spirit of rebellion. But looking forward, it is in this simple, self-emphasizing memorial to a working-class hero that one can discover perhaps the clearest reflection of Prague’s contemporary conscience.

It may no longer be a religious one, Padre Benedict, but it nevertheless retains a deep spirituality.

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