By Lydia O’Kane in Bratislava
In Slovakia, as in other Slavic and Baltic nations, guests are traditionally greeted with bread and salt as a sign of welcome and hospitality.
As Pope Francis steps off the plane in Bratislava on Sunday afternoon, it is the kind of welcome he can expect from the people here.
Preparations are reaching their peak in Slovakia’s capital city. The first signs you see that a very special guest is coming are the large billboards with large images of Pope Francis, along the road from the airport welcoming him to the country.
In the centre of Bratislava itself, there is a bustle of activity ahead of the Pope’s visit at the city’s imposing Cathedral of St Martin to the bemusement of curious tourists who make their way inside.
Past and future
This Apostolic Journey is being billed as a spiritual visit, but also one in which the Pope will draw attention to those who suffered under totalitarian regimes, with an eye to the future. Countless stories recount the ordeals endured during the Communist and Nazi eras in Slovakia. Just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral itself is a memorial to the Holocaust, built on the site of a Synagogue that was pulled down to make way for a bridge over the river Danube.
Wreaths still mark the spot where a commemoration took place on September 9 honouring victims of the Holocaust and racial violence.
Communism too, brought hardships for society and for the Church in this country, with many priests forbidden to perform their pastoral service. Many people here can still remember childhoods lived under communist rule.
Although times have changed, especially in the last 30 years since the Velvet Revolution, the shadow of an increasingly secular Europe is a concern for the Church in Slovakia.
A census carried out in the country some years ago showed that up to 70% of people surveyed identified as Christian. However, the bishops here point to new threats, including the risk of materialism and relativism, and warn that the Church in Slovakia cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
Like many countries in Europe and beyond, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on society here. Young people were forced to study from home, and they worry about their future. Many of them come to the major cities in search of work, while others look to other parts of Europe and further afield in search of better job prospects. With this in mind, the Church in Slovakia is hoping that Pope Francis will give the youth of this country a message of encouragement to “go forward” in faith.
A visit with many facets
Pope Francis’ visit to Slovakia although short, has many facets highlighting concerns close to his heart. He will visit the Bethlehem Centre for the poor and homeless, and the Roma Community at Lunik IX in Košice.
Leaving one of the high points of this visit until last, the Pope will visit the National Shrine at Šaštín to pay homage to Our Lady of Sorrows.
The Pope comes to Slovakia as a pilgrim, and the hope here is that he will light the way towards a reinforcement and strengthening of the faith.