It so happened that, just days before leaving to participate in a Charles University Spring University Programme on the topic “World on the move – and Europe? Migration, Identity, Security,” I came upon a passage in one of Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce’s letters about the city that I was preparing to visit. In a letter dated February 2, 1942, she wrote:
“Yesterday, when I looked at a picture of the Infant of Prague, it suddenly occurred to me that he is wearing imperial coronation dress and surely it was not accidental that his efficacy should come to the fore precisely in Prague. After all, Prague has been the court of the old German or Roman Emperors, respectively, and the city makes such a majestic impression that no other city known to me can compare with it, not even Paris or Vienna. The Little Jesus came exactly when the political and imperial grandeur came to an end in Prague. Is he not the secret Emperor who will someday put an end to all misery? After all, he holds the reins even though people believe they are the rulers.”
The Lives of the Saints make great travel guides. I set out to find the church with the Infant of Prague and was delighted to have Pope Benedict XVI accompany me through a text I found from the papal audience in which he reflected on his September 2009 Apostolic Visit to the Czech Republic. He said:
The love of Christ first revealed itself in the face of a Child. In fact, on my arrival in Prague I made my first stop at the Church of Our Lady of Victory where the Infant Jesus, known precisely as the “Infant of Prague”, is venerated. This image refers to the mystery of God made man, to the “close God”, the foundation of our hope. Before the “Infant of Prague”, I prayed for all children, for parents and for the future of the family. The true “victory” for which we ask Mary today is the victory of love and life in the family and in society!
The two-week spring university included lectures on such topics as: Migration as a Historical, Political and Legal Phenomenon; Frontiers in an Integrated Europe? From Iron Curtain to Schengen; and European Countries and Migration – Case Study Sessions on Germany, Britain, Turkey, and United States. I enjoyed learning a bit about the current refugee migration routes, the policies of various countries in the European Union, and the Schengen Area common visa policy. We discussed the distinctions between refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers and we became familiar with various conventions, declarations, and human rights policies.
Thanks to an UBER driver who happened to mention that the dormitory at which I was staying is located right near a beautiful monastery, I had the opportunity to attend Masses there. The Břevnov Monastery was founded by Saint Adalbert, the second Bishop of Prague, in 993 AD. It was the first Benedictine male monastery in Bohemia and has the oldest tradition of beer brewing in the Czech Republic.
One of the highlights of the spring university was the three-hour guided walking tour of the city on the first day. We convened at the statue of St. Wenceslaus, the country’s patron. The only reason I recognized his name is because of a Christmastime homily during which a priest had sung a few lines from the “Good King Wenceslaus” carol, of which my favourite lyrics is:
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Shortly thereafter, we stopped at a plaque commemorating Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc. Palach was a Czech student of history at the Charles University who, on January 16, 1969, set himself on fire in the place where we stood in Wenceslaus Square as an act of political protest. A burns specialist who provided care to Palach who lived a few days after the act reported, “It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but [to] the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.”
I reflected on Palach’s story, straddling the heroism of martyrdom and the despair of nihilism. We were told that not much happened as an immediate result of Palach’s death (and Zajíc’s who imitated Palach a month later), but that the two were invoked as national heroes during the Velvet Revolution.
We also heard a fair bit about Charles IV. Despite the title being a tad anachronistic, he was voted “the greatest Czech ever.” This year marks the 700th anniversary of Charles IV and so there are some commemorative efforts taking place throughout the city. Charles University was founded by him in 1384, making it the first university in Central Europe. The four original faculties were medicine, law, liberal arts (philosophy), and theology. This statue of Charles IV at the Charles Bridge is surrounded by depictions of these four founding university disciplines.
On Friday afternoon, I decided to visit a private school of politics called the Cevro Institute, which was hosting a Prague Conference on Political Economy. It’s an institute that has just launched a yearlong English-language MA program in Politics, Economics, and Philosophy, with a specialization in Austrian school economics. I attended Mark Pennington’s lecture, “Why Most Things Should Probably Be For Sale” and Benjamin Powell’s lecture on “Migration, Economic Calculation, and the European Situation.”
For a Saturday daytrip, we visited the Konopiště Chateau, the castle-museum of the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered World War I. Grade 10 Social Studies was really brought to life!
On Sunday, I went to Mass at the Academic Parish of Prague, where I had the opportunity to say hello to Father Tomáš Halík, a Czech priest and philosopher who risked imprisonment for illegally advancing religious and cultural freedoms after the Soviet invasion of his country. He is a leading international advocate for dialogue among different faiths and non-believers and, in 2014, he won the Templeton Prize. I consider the list of Templeton Prize laureates a syllabus for studying noble lives. Thus, it was a great joy to meet him and to thank him for writing such wonderful books about the hiddenness of God. I thanked him especially for his chapter in “Night of the Confessor” about John Paul II and he gave me a knowing smile when I mentioned our mutual historical friend, Etty Hillesum.
On my final day in Prague, I had a great reunion with my friend David. He and I hadn’t seen one another in seven years! We met at the British Council Global Changemakers Youth Conference in London. How amazing that a Paraguayan and Canadian who met in England could reunite in Prague! We picked up our conversations (and debates!) right where we had left off.
On the Charles Bridge he read to me this favourite passage by Václav Havel:
Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons …Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
I cannot imagine my days in Prague without St. Wencelaus, Edith Stein, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Václav Havel, and Tomáš Halík. After all, what attracted me to Prague and contributed to the majestic impression the city made on me is surely, and above all, the humanizing beauty of moral heroism.
One must not fear truth, because it is a friend of man and of his freedom; indeed, only in the sincere search for the true, the good and the beautiful is it really possible to offer a future to today’s youth and to the generations to come. Moreover, what is it that attracts so many people to Prague if not its beauty, a beauty that is not only aesthetic but also historical and religious in the broadest human sense? Those who exercise responsibility in the political and educational fields must be able to find light in that truth which is a reflection of the Creator’s eternal Wisdom; and they are personally called to bear witness to it with their lives. Only a serious commitment of intellectual and moral rectitude is worthy of the sacrifice of all those who paid the price of freedom so dearly! – Benedict XVI