By Salvatore Cernuzio
Pope Francis greeted his 53 fellow Jesuits from all over Slovakia with a smile on Sunday evening, as he received them in the Apostolic Nunciature in Bratislava.
The encounter, with the members of the Society of Jesus of the local Church, is now a solid tradition of every Apostolic Journey.
The Pope listened to their questions, asked some himself, and encouraged their mission in an era of secularization and declining vocations. Never once did he appear tired, according to those present, despite the tour de force of the first day of a trip which, in 24 hours, saw him first in Budapest and then in Bratislava.
A family meeting
The encounter lasted about an hour and a half. “It went very well, in a serene atmosphere,” said Father Jozef Bartkovjak, head of the Slovakian section of Vatican News and correspondent in Bratislava, who was present at the appointment that he defined as “a family meeting.”
Although the Pope had not yet had dinner and had just finished a meeting with the Ecumenical Council of Churches, he “seemed quite fresh. He had already done several things, but he was fully present, he joked, he was lively. He gave us the impression as if we had gathered with a very dear friend, with whom it is a pleasure to be together. A person we know but did not know closely. We listened to his words and were able to tell him what we desire, what we do.”
Encouragement in the mission
The Pope strongly encouraged the 53 Jesuits (there are 80 Jesuits in total throughout Slovakia) to continue their mission in the country, which includes various apostolates, with particular emphasis on education and training, a theological faculty and two houses for spiritual exercises, which remained active even during the dark decades of the communist regime.
His encouragement is much needed in today’s difficult times, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also by the secularization that permeates all of Europe, and the decline in population and vocations.
“It’s something we suffer a lot from… In the past,” explained Father Jozef, “in the underground Church during the communist regime, the Jesuits carried out formation for new members, almost a hidden novitiate. This made it possible that our Province never skipped a generation; every year was covered, even during communism.”
Now there are new challenges ahead, but, according to the religious priest, “having such encouragement from the Pope helped, since he really made us feel his presence, and appreciated what we do despite the difficulties, helping us not to lose heart.”
“In fact, every Jesuit,” Father Jozef said, “who connects his vocation to that of the Successor of Peter has felt our identity strengthened. Being close to the Pope and not feeling any restraint was like a caress.”
Questions and answers
What made the visit even more free and familiar was certainly the confidential nature of the meeting. It took place behind closed doors and without the presence of the media.
The content of the encounter was not revealed by any participant, though several commented on the Pope’s state of mind.
“As I’ve said, it was all very spontaneous,” said Father Jozef. “Several questions emerged from the Jesuits present but also from the Holy Father. We were able to talk about anything, very freely.”
The appointment ended with a group photo, and while “the Holy Father seemed satisfied,” the Jesuits said they were “100% satisfied, in fact, 200% satisfied.”