Travels in Europe's Once & Future Faith
April 2009By Thomas Basil
Thomas Basil is a 1996 convert to Catholicism. His earlier articles in the NOR have covered his travels to Russia, Poland, France, Holland, and Malta.
In 1950 the government of Czechoslovakia began building a granite statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Finished in 1955 and towering ten stories high on a hill overlooking Prague, communist authorities dynamited it in 1962 following Khrushchev's famous denunciation of his predecessor. Stalin's colossal statue endured seven years, and today exists only in photographs at Prague's Museum of Communism. This remarkable museum documents what life under socialism was really like, such as deluxe watches as prizes for any border guard who shot an escapee from Stalin's "workers' paradise," or the Baroque core of Prague left to fall into ruins.
But somehow the city's famous wax doll less than three feet tall has endured nearby since 1628, when the Little Infant of Prague was donated to a Carmelite monastery by a wealthy benefactor. For some 380 years the doll has attracted devotees of Christ the King, who humbled Himself as a child and asks for childlike trust. That this little doll has outlasted countless European tyrants and secularists seems a metaphor for Christianity on the Continent: small and weak yet still splendid, and perhaps with more of a future than we dare hope.
From 2001 to 2008 this author traveled to 16 European countries for business, attending Mass in each. This is what I encountered.
Most striking is formerly communist Europe's acute need of ACLU lawyers. In downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, I find a statue of Orthodoxy's St. Sophia in the spot where Lenin's statue once stood. Bulgaria's government pays over $600 million a year to fund the Orthodox Church. Bulgarian money is emblazoned with crosses and the image of the national patron saint, Ivan Rilski. In Croatia, historically Catholic before communist rule, public holidays today include the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Assumption of Mary, and St. Stephen's Day. In Moscow, TV news footage shows President Vladimir Putin making the sign of the cross and preaching at the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which had been the largest Orthodox church in the world until Stalin dynamited it in 1931.
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