Guests at the Castle: Frank Zappa and the Pope

10-09-2009

During Václav Havel’s first year as Czechoslovak president, Prague Castle saw a string of visitors from around the world. And they did not just include heads of state and other political dignitaries. On January 21 1990, one of the first foreign guests to be received by the new president was none other than the legendary American rock musician, Frank Zappa, who had been one of the inspirations for the Czech underground movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Havel himself.

A few snippets of Zappa’s conversation with President Havel survive in our archives. At one point, the ever-rebellious Zappa made an ironical quip at the expense of his own president:

“It would have been impossible for me in my own country to walk in and talk to George Bush. Impossible!”

Exactly three months later, President Havel welcomed Pope John Paul II. Amid rain and thunderstorms, several hundred thousand people attended Mass in Letná Park, a place that had played a central role in the Velvet Revolution just six months before. The Pope also led Mass in Saint Vitus’ Cathedral, addressing the congregation for nearly an hour in fluent Czech.

“I am meeting you”, he said, “in a cathedral which is the spiritual heart not just of this city and the Prague archdiocese, but in a sense of your whole country. Built above the tombs of your Saints, it is a living symbol of the history of the church in your nation, a history which is continuing through you.”

But the Pope was addressing a divided church. Under communism, some priests had compromised with the regime, while others had worked in secret, refusing to have anything to do with the communist-approved official structures of the church. Mistrust remained, and the Pope was keen not to alienate those who had worked “underground”, but at the same time to re-establish the authority of the church hierarchy.

“Some people,” he said, “in order to remain in the service of their fellow believers, allowed the former regime to force a kind of ‘modus vivendi’ upon them that not everyone agreed with. Dear brothers, please forget that bondage in which you were held, and with pastoral sensitivity renew the church in full unity under the leadership of your bishops.”

Václav Havel and Pope John Paul II in 1990, photo: CTKVáclav Havel and Pope John Paul II in 1990, photo: CTK This was a clear warning to the squabbling Czech clergy to respect the authority of the Vatican. But John Paul II saw the more serious division as being between the Catholic Church and the Czech nation itself. This is a far older divide that it has proved rather harder to heal.

The Pope was to visit the Czech Republic again twice, in 1995 and 1997, but neither visit aroused quite the enthusiasm of his first trip, just months after the fall of communism. John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, will be coming to this country at the end of this month, and will join in the celebrations of the Czech patron, Saint Wenceslas.

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10-09-2009