Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Church Lays Dying in Prague

Everywhere you look you see church steeples in the city of Prague and you come upon magnificent religious structures everywhere; but the spirit of the church is flat and gasping for breath in the Czech Republic.
by Charlie Leck

In 2006, USA Today published a cover story written by James P. Gannon that drew great attention: Is God Dead in Europe?

“Two snapshots from a recent tourist trip to Europe: We are in Prague, the lovely and lively capital of the Czech Republic, where the bars and cafes are full, the glitzy crystal and art shops are busy, and the dozens of historic cathedrals and churches are largely empty — except for gawking tourists snapping photos. InThe Prague Post, an English-language weekly newspaper, a front-page article reports, in titillating detail, how the city has become Europe's new capital for pornographic filmmaking, while an op-ed examines why only 19% of the people in this once-religious country believe that God exists.”

We are just back from an extraordinary, lovely and fascinating visit to the capitol city of the land of my maternal ancestors -- Bohemia. Wherever you look in Prague – on whichever side of the river – you see church steeples rising to heaven. There are people everywhere. In the evenings the young are on the streets and filling the little restaurants, wine cafes and beer halls. There seem to be enough churches to hold all of Prague’s residents and all the tourists as well; yet, those sacred places are by and large empty. When you step into one, to take a photograph or two, the sound of your shoes (or sandals) upon the stone or marble floors echoes loudly throughout the building. You sense the hollowness of both the building and the life of the church itself.

At the Church of Saint Thomas I asked one of the Augustinian friars who care for the church about attendance at mass. He answered in broken English.

“A hundred and fifty, perhaps, and sometimes more on a high holiday. It is discouraging, but we had twelve adult baptisms last year.”

When he commented about the atheists his voice was harsh and angry. He blamed it on a half century of communist rule. I wanted to dispute his theory because many of Europe’s nations, including those never controlled by communism, are experiencing the same phenomenon. (And frankly, to the objective, it appears that America is moving down the same path.)

Got is tot,” the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche, wrote in a number of his works, including Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Of course, the more accurate question, or theme (and it is what Nietzche meant, I believe) is one about the relevance of the God as he is presented and heralded by the Christian Church to a modern society. There are many theologians who have struggled with this question and many clergymen as well; however the answers have by and large rung hollow. Thus, we see diminishing participation in the structural church.

This is too big a question for a single blog – this question of the reality and relevance of God in a modern world – and an answer to it is not what I intend here today.

Rather, it is just a sad observation from my travels to a land where one can see how important the faith was at one time in the past – in earlier centuries. In the twenty-first century, however, the structural church (as buildings) ring hollow and stand essentially empty.

What do you think? Is the god that is presented to us by the institutional church relevant in our world today? Or, do we need to rethink our definitions and understanding of the center of all being?

Of course, there will be comments in response to this question and people will say simple, empty things like "God is always relevant" or "God is relevance." And there will be those who blindly think that one is unfaithful, and even atheistic, to even raise the questions I raise here. Those are folks who don't care to dig deep in order to mine the wonder that is at the heart of faith and hope in God.

Yet, my head aches from the heaviness of the question! Here are a few of the extraordinary churches of Prague.


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  1. Great questions. Attempting to make any belief rigid is an invitation to chaos. The attrocities committed in the name of God or Allah is evidence of that. We do need to rethink our definitions and understanding of the center of all being.

    Welcome back.

  2. A very deep question indeed. The institution of the church is very different than a personal relationship with God and a personal faith. The church is an expression of part of this relationship, but viewing the bricks and mortar and its contents might be misleading. Like a fire that is close to being out, it can be fanned back into existence, usually by an action putting the person in a position of helplessness and questioning. It must be carefully tended and fanned however. Who does this action? Looking back over history it is still a mystery to many.