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It wasn't supposed to be this hard.

In November of 1989, half a million Czechs gathered in Prague's Wenceslas Square to shake their keys against a tired regime—and the regime collapsed. One month later, on December 29, the dissident playwright Václav Havel was elected president and inaugurated in Prague Castle.

His first act was a symbolic one: He crossed the castle courtyard and entered St. Vitus's Cathedral, where 90-year-old Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek celebrated Mass to thank God for "the great hope" of this new era. Then, as the most powerful politicians in the country sat in silence, the Czech Philharmonic began to play Antonin Dvorak's setting of the ancient hymn of praise to God, the Te Deum. The church could speak with a public voice once more.

When communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, the churches of Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania looked at such events with an optimistic eye. After four decades of withering repression, it seemed religious life could bloom again—and everyone expected that it would.

In those first years of freedom, evangelical Christianity seemed "Western" and intriguing because it had been so long forbidden. At the same time, every country had traditional churches—Reformed, Catholic, or Orthodox—that made Christianity seem patriotic.

This was the case especially in Poland. In 1989, opinion polls pegged confidence in the Catholic Church at 92 percent, and church attendance was also high. In 1994, the wave had crested and attendance fell for the first time. By the following year, the number of young men entering the priesthood had fallen by a third from its peak a decade earlier, and confidence in the church had dropped to 62 percent. Slowly, ...

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In the Magazine

October 2005

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