By Inés San Martín, Rome Bureau Chief
ROME — Pope Francis’ first European trip during the COVID-19 era ended with a bang, as he said Mass for some 60,000 people in the national basilica of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, patroness of the country, an hour’s drive north of Bratislava, Slovakia.
There were no signs of a pontiff on the mend after losing 13 inches of his intestines in July during Pope Francis’s Sept. 12-15 tour that took him to Budapest, Hungary’s capital, to close the International Eucharistic Congress, plus four cities in Slovakia.
In his last remarks before heading back to Rome, the pontiff exhorted locals to “overcome the temptation of a static faith, which is content with any rite or ancient tradition,” just as “faith cannot be reduced to sweetener,” because “Jesus is a sign of contradiction. He came to bring light where there is darkness.”
The crowd was larger than originally anticipated, but there would have been even more people if police had not cut off the access roads ahead of time in a visit marked by excessive—bordering on oppressive—security.
In his homily, Pope Francis stressed that “we, looking at the Virgin Mother of Sorrows, open ourselves to a faith that becomes compassion, that becomes communion of life with those who are wounded, those who suffer, and those who are obliged to carry heavy crosses on their shoulders. A faith that does not remain in the abstract, but penetrates the flesh and makes us stand in solidarity with those in need.”
The pope’s schedule was packed during the trip, including two interreligious meetings, three open-air Masses, comments to civil authorities, and a visit to the largest Roma settlement in Slovakia, and probably all of Europe.
Throughout his remarks, Pope Francis’ message was on-point: In a region of Europe known for being fearful, if not flat-out unwelcoming to migrants, particularly Muslims, the pope insisted that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice to save all of humanity.
Speaking in Hungary, once the heart of Christian Europe, which today is leading the charge against Pope Francis’ call for the welcoming and integration of migrants, he said that the cross is, yes, an invitation to uphold Christian roots, but also a call to be open to everyone.
“Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots,” Pope Francis said Sunday, as he was wrapping up his seven-hour visit to Budapest to close the International Eucharistic Congress.
“Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone,” the pope said. “The cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness; to draw from the wellsprings, opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time.”
“My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted and considerate,” the pope said, in a clear reference to the anti-immigrant sentiment that has grown in the countries of the Visegrád group (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland), all of which have a strong Christian identity.
Pope Francis’ message during the four-day tour was a perfect amalgamation of religious messaging with some political views that have particular resonance for locals.
A perfect example of this was his homily on Sept. 14, when the Catholic Church marks the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He asked in his homily for the cross not to be reduced “to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status.”
On Tuesday, speaking in the home region of Europe’s largest community of Roma, also referred to as Gypsies, Pope Francis told them, and the Slovak society, to remember that they are not in the margins of the Catholic Church, but at its center, and that they should be at the center of society too, integrated and not hidden from view.
“All too often you have been the object of prejudice and harsh judgments, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures,” he said. “As a result, we are all poorer, poorer in humanity. Restoring dignity means passing from prejudice to dialogue, from introspection to integration.”
Speaking to the civil authorities of Slovakia, a country that for decades was under one-party Communist rule, Pope Francis warned against the “single-thought” system of consumerism and ideological colonization.
“In these lands, until just a few decades ago, a single-thought system stifled freedom,” Pope Francis said. “Today another single-thought system is emptying freedom of meaning, reducing progress to profit and rights only to individual needs. Today, as then, the salt of the faith acts not by reacting in worldly terms, by engaging in culture wars, but by quietly and humbly sowing the seeds of God’s kingdom, especially by the witness of charity.”
As has become customary for the Argentine pontiff at the end of his trips outside of Italy, during the flight back to Rome, Pope Francis answered questions from the 78 journalists who had traveled with him. The English-speaking reporters asked him about pro-abortion politicians and the ongoing debate to deny them — or not — the Eucharist, in light of the division the case of Catholic President Joe Biden has caused among the bishops of the United States.
The pope’s answer, as ever, was nuanced, being very clear on the Church’s view of abortion as murder, communion as something that belongs to those who are part of the “community.” He described situations of politicians receiving the Eucharist despite their public support of policies that openly challenge Catholic teaching as a “pastoral matter” that should be addressed by the pastor of the person.