By Lydia O’Kane
By accepting an invitation to visit Slovakia, Pope Francis is coming to a country where Catholic values are still deeply rooted in society.
According to a census carried out in 2011, the number of Catholics in the Slovak Republic was 65.8%.
Of that number, 62% belonged to the Roman Catholic Church and 3.8% to the Greek Catholic Church. Out of a total population of 5,397,036 inhabitants, around 206,871 people in the country belong to the Slovak Greek Catholic Church, which celebrates the Byzantine Greek Rite.
While in the Slovakia, one of the highlights of Pope Francis’ visit will be to preside at the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in Prešov on the 14 of September. The Slovak (Greek) Catholic Archeparchy of Prešov is the Metropolitan archeparchy of the Byzantine Rite Slovak Greek Catholic Church which covers the Prešov region. It has two suffragan dioceses: the Eparchy of Košice and the Eparchy of Bratislava.
Fr Jaroslav Lajčiak, is the Protosyncellus (equivalent to a Vicar General) of the Eparchy of Košice. Speaking to Vatican Radio, he describes the Church in Slovakia as one which “is breathing with two lungs, the eastern and western tradition.”
Fr Lajčiak notes that the “two most important points of this visit in Slovakia are actually Šaštin where he (the Pope) will celebrate Holy Mass at the National Shrine,” and the celebration of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, which Pope Francis will preside over “together with others as a sign of unity.”
The Vicar General describes the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite as an historic moment.
Blessings and hope
The Pope “is coming to strengthen us in faith, to give us hope, to bless Slovakia,” says Fr Lajčiak, adding that this is the fourth visit of a Pope to Slovakia. Pope St John Paul II visited the country in 1990, 1995 and again in 2003. The Vicar General calls these past visits and the upcoming visit of Pope Francis is a “big honour” for this small European nation.
A Papal meeting
It was some months ago that Fr Lajčiak travelled to Rome, recalling a private audience he and his Bishop had with Pope Francis in January. “He was asking us if it is true that Slovakia is really so close to Budapest, that it is only 200 kilometres, and we told him yes Holy Father, not only Bratislava as the capital city of Slovakia… and we told him even Košice which is the second biggest city in the eastern part which is like 250 kilometres.” He goes on to say it was only afterwards that he heard about the Pope’s visit to his country.
Faith and Slovakia
Fr Lajčiak describes how, after the fall of communism in the 1990’s, there was a “big boom” in the nurturing of the faith in the country. Even now, he says, “Slovakia presents itself as the Catholic, as the faithful country in the European Union.” Alluding to the differences between the east and west of the country, the Vicar General says, “maybe the majority of the faithful are still in the eastern part; I would say we are not so influenced from the western culture.” The difference, he continues, is not that big, but it is there all the same.
Papal visit during a pandemic
The Pope makes his visit to Slovakia at a time when Europe continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. “Of course like in other countries, even Slovakia has had a lot of sick people from the coronavirus, even myself; I got the coronavirus last year,” he says. Fr Lajčiak goes on to say that he knows many people who were directly touched by the virus. He is keen to point out that Pope Francis, as the Successor of Peter, is the “right person to say something, to give us the hope, to say ‘don’t worry, go forward to God, trust him, he will help you.’” The Vicar General also notes that it is a difficult time for people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and for families who have lost loved ones. He points out that people are still afraid to go back to Church for fear of catching the virus.
During his visit to Slovakia, the Pope will meet with young people at the Lokomotiva Stadium in Košice. Asked about the reality for young people in the country, Fr Lajčiak comments that especially in the eastern part of Slovakia, many young people leave their homeland in search of jobs or to enhance their career or travel to the western part of the country where there are more jobs. The Vicar General says the Pope’s meeting with young people is of great importance, and is an encouragement to them in both their faith and their lives.
Recalling the words of Pope St John Paul II, who said that Slovakia has the very important role of helping to being the faith back to Europe, Fr Lajčiak expresses the hope that a small country like Slovakia can help to re-evangelise Europe.