By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — Catholics and non-believers alike are waiting for Pope Francis’ September 12-15 visit to Slovakia, the spokesman for the bishops’ conference told journalists on Wednesday, saying that, if given the chance, he’d ask the pontiff to focus on boosting locals in their faith.
“For us, it would be very helpful if he encouraged us in our faith, for him to talk about Christ,” said Father Martin Kramara. “He’s the representative of Christ on earth, and he’s bringing Christ’s presence among us. The entire country is already talking about the pope ahead of the visit, but also about God. This has become an issue.”
The encouragement is particularly needed after the pandemic, the priest said, because churches closing their doors for three or four months during its peak brought “much disappointment,” with parishioners sharing with him their thankfulness at the efforts made to provide online Masses, but also the frustration at knowing it’s not the same to kneel at a church than in front of a screen. On the other hand, he said, many in Slovakia are still afraid of the virus and have yet to return to Mass.
“But people are looking for something to believe in, something in which they can trust, hence I believe the pope needs to come and talk to us about Christ, about God,” he said.
“Myself, as a priest, as a believer, I cannot wait for the pope’s visit in the love for Christ, but it’s possible that I’m not talking for all my countrymen, or the politicians, who might have a different set of expectations, but this to me, would be the key,” Father Kramara said, speaking with Rome-based journalists through Zoom.
Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Slovakia — including a six-hour stop in Budapest, Hungary, to close the International Eucharistic Congress — will be his first since his 11-day hospitalization earlier in July, and only the seconds since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with a March trip to Iraq being the first.
However, the schedule he’ll keep during his three-day visit shows the removal of part of his colon will not slow him down.
He’s set to deliver 10 speeches in three days, including the homilies in three open-air Masses — one of them in Hungary.
Though rich in history, Slovakia, as it is known today, is relatively young: Between 1918 and 1992, it constituted Czechoslovakia with its western neighbor. World War II thwarted the Slovaks’ first vote for independence in 1939. Sovereignty came on January 1, 1993, three years after the Velvet Revolution that led to the collapse of the communist regime that had controlled Czechoslovakia since 1948.
Though using Bratislava as his home base, Pope Francis will visit four of the country’s regions and try to meet with as many faithful as possible. An estimated 65% of the country’s 5 million people describe themselves as Catholic.
The government has announced that only those who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed to attend the papal events. According to Father Kramara, the Church tried to negotiate this, but the government was adamant: Either only those who’ve received both jabs can attend or they would severely limit the capacity of each venue.
“From the logistics point of view, it’s a lot more complicated than John Paul II’s visit, when anyone who wanted to take part could do so,” Father Kramara said. “Now, instead, we need for people to register, prove that they’ve been vaccinated. And we’re trying to relay this as clearly as possible.” The Polish pontiff was in Slovakia 18 years ago.
The decision to demand immunization to attend the papal events was announced by Slovak Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky and has caused some controversies, as the country has struggled with convincing people to get vaccinated. Yet, the decision is part of a wider set of proposals laid out that comprise the plans by the government to deal with the imminent third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Theatres, sporting events, restaurants, and hairdressers will keep their doors open, but only for those who are in possession of a valid European vaccination certificate. This, Lengvarsky said, is done hoping to help prevent a third national lockdown.
“It’s a traditionally Catholic country, even if at this moment we’re battling with the challenges of the first world as we become a wealthier nation,” Father Kramara said. “We too, see the religiosity of our people diminish, as well as Mass attendance on Sundays, that is lower than it was 20 years ago.”
Hence his hopes that the pope will focus on encouraging people in their faith.
Despite the cultural differences between the Latin American and Slovak cultures, Father Kramara said, “Pope Francis is widely loved in the country, and everyone, including state-run media, are talking about him. There’s a palpable enthusiasm, even among non-believers, who appreciate his message and his humble way of being, always trying to approach everyone.”