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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 13, 2021
Pope Francis speaks as he visits the "Bethlehem Center" in Bratislava, Slovakia, Sept. 13, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis was in great form on his second day in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The pope drew enthusiastic responses as he delivered two talks, the first on Slovakia and Europe, the second on the church in this country, where 73 percent of the population is Catholic.

After celebrating Mass at the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican’s embassy, on Sept. 13, Francis drove to the ornate 18th-century presidential palace where he was given a state welcome by Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia’s first female president and the youngest president in this country’s 28-year history. Slovakia became a sovereign state when it separated peacefully from the Czech Republic in 1993.

After the state welcome involving a military guard, a band and a private conversation with the president, President Čaputová escorted the pope to the palace gardens where they addressed a gathering of state authorities and the diplomatic corps.

The pope and president address state and diplomatic authorities

Speaking first, Ms. Čaputová, 48, a lawyer and anti-corruption and environmental activist, welcomed the pope to a country that, she said, “after the fall of Communism, has undergone and is still undergoing great changes.”

She recalled that “Christianity and the Catholic Church have been a firm part of our cultural identity for centuries” and welcomed Pope Francis as “a bearer of much-needed inspiration for the future of humanity” and “for the future of our Slovakia and for the future of Christianity.”

Looking at him, she said: “Pope Francis, we welcome you as one of the greatest moral and spiritual authorities of contemporary humanity. Your way of proclaiming the Gospel and your personal moral example reaches out to people far beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.” The pope and President Čaputová have enjoyed a positive relationship throughout her presidency.

Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová: “Pope Francis, we welcome you as one of the greatest moral and spiritual authorities of contemporary humanity.”

Pope Francis began his speech by saying that he had come “as a pilgrim to a young country” that has “an ancient history” and “deep roots in the heart of Europe.” Slovakia, he said, “has always been a crossroads” and “a point of encounter between Western and Eastern Christianity.” He added, “This long history challenges Slovakia to be a message of peace in the heart of Europe.”

Referring to the blue stripe on the flag of Slovakia which symbolizes fraternity with the Slavic peoples, Francis said, “Fraternity is necessary for the increasingly pressing process of integration,” especially after over a year of the coronavirus pandemic. He said he hoped the European Union’s recovery plans would contribute to “an economic upturn” but warned that economic recovery by itself is not sufficient in an interconnected world where people risk succumbing to “the lure of profit” and where “battles for supremacy are waged on various fronts.”

Given this situation, and aware that there is some resistance in Slovakia to welcoming migrants, he prayed that Slovakia would “reaffirm its message of integration and peace” and that Europe “may be distinguished by a solidarity that, transcending borders, can bring it back to the center of history.”

Francis recalled that Slovak history “has been marked indelibly by the [Christian] faith.”

“It is my hope that faith, by its very nature, will encourage projects and feelings inspired by fraternity, drawing upon the epic experience of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius,” he said.

Francis said those saints, who evangelized this region early in the church’s history, “identified with all and sought communion with all, Slavs, Greeks and Latins alike, and their firm faith found expression in a spontaneous openness to others.” He told the Slovak authorities and nation, “This is the legacy you are called to preserve, so that in your time, too, you can be a sign of unity.”

He encouraged them “to always cultivate this vocation to fraternity, along with your native gifts of warmth and sincerity.”

Francis went on to refer to an ancient tradition in Slovakia of offering visitors “bread and salt” as a sign of welcome, which he experienced on his arrival yesterday. Reflecting on this, he said, “God chose bread to make himself present in our midst.” Bread is “something essential,” and in the Gospel it is “always broken.”

“This sends us a powerful message for our life as a community,” the pope said. “It reminds us that true wealth does not consist simply in multiplying the things we have but in sharing them fairly with those around us.” Moreover, he said, the broken bread “speaks to us of frailty; it demands that we take special care of the vulnerable in our midst. No one should be stigmatized or suffer discrimination.”

“At the basis of a just and fraternal society is the right of each person to receive the bread of employment, so that none will feel marginalized or constrained to leave family and homeland in search of a better life,” Francis said.

Then, in words that must have encouraged the anti-corruption president, Francis said, “Bread broken and equitably shared reminds us of the importance of justice, of giving each person the chance to find fulfilment.” He said: “We need to cooperate in building a future in which laws are applied fairly to all, based on a system of justice that is not up for sale. If justice is not to remain an abstract ideal but to be as real as bread, a serious battle against corruption must be undertaken and, above all, the rule of law must be promoted and must prevail.”

Finally, he said, “bread is also inseparably linked to an adjective ‘daily’...which means daily work.”

“At the basis of a just and fraternal society is the right of each person to receive the bread of employment, so that none will feel marginalized or constrained to leave family and homeland in search of a better life,” Francis said.

Then, turning to the salt that is given to visitors, Francis recalled that “salt is the first symbol that Jesus used to teach his disciples”—they are to be “the salt of the earth.” He recalled that “salt gives flavor to food” and said that in society, “organized and efficient structures will not suffice to improve our life as a human community. We need flavor, the flavor of solidarity.”

“In Europe, all too many people live lives of weariness and frustration, overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of life and incapable of finding reasons for inspiration and hope,” Francis said. “The missing ingredient is concern for others.”

Pope Francis recalled that in Slovakia, as in nearby lands, “until just a few decades ago, a single thought-system stifled freedom” but noted that “today another single thought-system is emptying freedom of meaning, reducing progress to profit and rights only to individual needs.”  

“Today, as then,” he said, “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.”

Pope Francis’ lively speech to bishops, priests, religious and seminarians

Having bid farewell to the president and the authorities, Francis set out by car for Saint Martin’s Cathedral for his encounter with the bishops, priests, religious and seminarians. On route, he spotted a group of women with children on the roadside waving to him, so asked the driver to stop the car and then he got out, to the consternation of the police and his security detail, and went to greet the women and children and gave them rosary beads.



Francis was given a rapturous welcome as he entered the restored 14th-century Gothic cathedral, where 11 kings of Hungary were crowned between 1563 and 1830 when Slovakia was part of Hungary.

“I have come as your brother,” he told them as he began a talk in which he frequently departed from his prepared text, at times drawing laughter and applause. He recalled how members of the first Christian community “were constant in prayer and they walked together in concord.” 

“This is what we need most of all: a church that can walk together, that can tread the paths of life holding high the living flame of the Gospel,” Francis said.

He reminded them that “the church is not a fortress, a stronghold, a lofty castle, self-sufficient and looking out upon the world below.... The church, though, is a community that seeks to draw people to Christ with the joy of the Gospel. She is the leaven of God’s Kingdom of love and peace in our world.”

Francis told the bishops, priests and religious: “We need to become immersed in the real lives of people and ask ourselves: What are their spiritual needs and expectations? What do they expect from the church? It is important to try to respond to these questions.” He said three words came to his mind as partial answers: freedom, creativity and dialogue.

Pope Francis to priests and bishops: “We need to become immersed in the real lives of people and ask ourselves: What are their spiritual needs and expectations? What do they expect from the church? It is important to try to respond to these questions.”

Speaking of freedom, he said: “Without freedom, there can be no true humanity, for human beings were created free in order to be free. The tragic chapters of your country’s history provide a great lesson: Whenever freedom was attacked, violated and suppressed, humanity was disfigured and the tempests of violence, coercion and the elimination of rights rapidly followed.”

“Freedom is always a process,” he added, “at times wearying and ever in need of being renewed. It is not enough to be free outwardly or in the structures of society to be authentically free. Freedom demands personal responsibility for our choices, discernment and perseverance.” He acknowledged that “this is indeed wearisome and even frightening. At times, it is easier not to be challenged by concrete situations, to continue doing what we did in the past, without getting too deeply involved, without taking the risk of making a decision.” 

“This is the great temptation,” Francis said.

“Until just a few decades ago, a single thought-system stifled freedom” in Slovakia, the pope said. “Today another single thought-system is emptying freedom of meaning, reducing progress to profit and rights only to individual needs.”

He told his audience: “A church that has no room for the adventure of freedom, even in the spiritual life, risks becoming rigid and self-enclosed…. Some people may be used to this. But many others—especially the younger generations—are not attracted by a faith that leaves them no interior freedom, by a church in which all are supposed to think alike and blindly obey.”

He urged the bishops, clergy and religious: “Do not be afraid to train people for a mature and free relationship with God. This approach may give the impression that we are diminishing our control, power and authority, yet the church of Christ does not seek to dominate consciences and occupy spaces but rather to be a ‘wellspring’ of hope in people’s lives.”

He reminded them that “much has changed quickly and many democratic processes have been launched, but freedom remains fragile” in Slovakia, “especially where people’s hearts and minds are concerned.” For this reason, he said, “I encourage you to help set them free from a rigid religiosity. No one should feel overwhelmed. Everyone should discover the freedom of the Gospel by gradually entering into a relationship with God, confident that they can bring their history and personal hurts into his presence without fear or pretence, without feeling the need to protect their own image.” He prayed that the proclamation of the Gospel may “be liberating, never oppressive” in Slovakia.

Turning to “creativity,” Francis reminded them that their religious heritage “was born of the preaching and ministry of the outstanding figures of Sts. Cyril and Methodius,” who taught that “evangelization is never mere repetition of the past. The joy of the Gospel is always Christ, but the routes that this good news travels through time and history can be different.” Referring to Cyril and Methodius’s creation of the first Slavic alphabet, he said, “They invented a new alphabet for the translation of the Bible, the liturgy and Christian doctrine.” 

“If by our preaching and pastoral care we can no longer enter by the usual way, let us try to open up different spaces, and experiment with other means,” Pope Francis said.

“They were creative in translating the Christian message,” the pope said, “and they drew so close to the history of the peoples they encountered that they learned their language and assimilated their culture.”

Francis said this is what Slovakia needs today: “It is the most urgent task facing the church before the peoples of Europe: finding new ‘alphabets’ to proclaim the faith.” 

Departing from his prepared text, Francis spoke at length about the vital need for pastors to prepare their homilies well and told them to limit homilies to 10 minutes. When he finished speaking on this, they applauded vigorously, but he quipped, “It was the nuns who applauded most because they are the victims of our homilies!”

Referring to “dialogue,” Francis said: “A church that trains people in interior freedom and responsibility, one able to be creative by plunging into their history and culture, is also a church capable of engaging in dialogue with the world, with those who confess Christ without being ‘ours,’ with those who are struggling with religion and even with those who are not believers. It is a church that, in the footsteps of Cyril and Methodius, unites and holds together East and West, different traditions and sensibilities.”

He noted that “unity, communion and dialogue are always fragile, especially against the memory of past injuries that “can breed resentment, mistrust and even contempt.” But, he said, “wounds can always turn into passages, openings that, in imitating the wounds of the Lord, allow God’s mercy to emerge. That grace changes our lives and makes us artisans of peace and reconciliation.” He recalled a Slovak proverb, “If someone throws a stone at you, give him bread in return” and said that this outlook is truly evangelical.

He confided that he was struck by an incident in the life of Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, a Slovak Jesuit who was persecuted by the Communist regime, imprisoned and sentenced to forced labor until he fell ill. When he came to Rome for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, Francis said, “he went to the catacombs and lit a candle for his persecutors, imploring mercy for them.” 

“This,” the pope said, “is the Gospel!”

He concluded, “I encourage you to persevere in your journey in the freedom of the Gospel, in the creativity of faith and in the dialogue that has its source in the mercy of God, who has made us brothers and sisters and calls us to be builders of harmony and peace.” After he imparted his blessing, they gave him a standing ovation.

Pope Francis concluded his second day in Slovakia by visiting the Bethlehem center for the homeless and then meeting representatives of the Jewish communities in Bratislava. Tomorrow, he continues his packed visit by traveling by plane to the Eastern cities of Košice and Prešov.

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