PRAGUE – Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a low-key pilgrimage to the fiercely secular Czech Republic on Monday, reaching out to nonbelievers and calling on an increasingly diverse Europe to embrace Christian teachings.
Throughout the three-day visit, the crowds were contained, and so was the pope's rhetoric.
Although he often wades into contentious issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, this time a conciliatory Benedict — apparently unwilling to antagonize already apathetic Czechs — made no direct mention of either.
Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the 82-year-old pope was "very happy" with the response in the ex-communist country, one of Europe's most secular nations.
While acknowledging there is little the Vatican can do to radically change the situation, Lombardi said the church must send a loud and clear appeal as a "minority" and get out its message of love and hope.
"The solution is to encourage," Lombardi told reporters.
Benedict visited less than two months before Czechs celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which peacefully toppled a communist regime that had persecuted Roman Catholics and confiscated church property.
On Monday, a national holiday honoring St. Wenceslas, the nation's martyred patron saint, the German-born pope held an open-air Mass in the town of Stara Boleslav, just northeast of Prague.
At least 40,000 faithful — some from nearby Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia — packed a meadow to hear the pope point to Wenceslas as a model for leaders and urge the world to follow the ethical principles of Christianity.
"The last century — as this land of yours can bear witness — saw the fall of a number of powerful figures who had apparently risen to almost unattainable heights," Benedict said, speaking in Italian.
"Suddenly they found themselves stripped of their power," the pope said.
Those who deny God and appear to lead a comfortable life are in reality "sad and unfulfilled" people, he added.
The pope called Wenceslas, murdered by his pagan brother in 935 A.D. at the gate to a church, "a model of holiness for all people."
"We ask ourselves: In our day, is holiness still relevant? Or is it now considered unattractive and unimportant? he said.
The Vatican said 40,000 people turned out; Czech organizers put the crowd estimate at 50,000.
Some 30 people needed treatment during the Mass, mostly for dehydration and exhaustion, said Tereza Janeckova, a regional emergency services spokeswoman. Seven were hospitalized, including two who apparently suffered heart attacks.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland, who served as secretary to Benedict's predecessor, the late John Paul II, urged Europeans to heed Benedict's message.
"It is a crucial moment for the future of Europe, and Benedict speaks like a prophet," he told Sky TG24 television. "Don't abandon the roots from which you grew, because a tree without roots dies. If Europe abandons these roots, the future is uncertain."
In a special message to young people, the pope urged them not to be seduced by consumerism.
"Unfortunately, many of your contemporaries allow themselves to be led astray by illusory visions of spurious happiness, and then they find themselves sad and alone," he said.
And in his farewell before returning to Rome, Benedict quoted the great Czech writer Franz Kafka — "anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old" — and encouraged people to see beauty in God's creation and truth.
On Sunday, an open-air Mass in Brno in the southern Czech Republic, the country's Catholic heartland, drew 120,000 pilgrims.
Overall, though, the pope got a tepid response: No posters or billboards promoted his visit, and local media coverage was thin.
That came as no surprise in this nation where polls suggest half the population of 10 million don't believe in God.
Even the nation's top churchman seemed stuck in a funk.
In an astonishingly public display of self-deprecation, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk made his confession to reporters, saying: "I have achieved almost nothing during my 20 years" as archbishop.
But Lukas Jasa, 21, who trekked more than 200 miles from the country's east to glimpse the pope Monday, said he felt it was important to buck the secular trend.
"It's important for us to show that we're not just an atheist nation — that there are believers here," he said.