“The Center of the Church? It’s not the Church!”: Pope Francis in Budapest and Slovakia

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:21 September 2021/Last Updated Date:14 October 2021

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At 6:10 a.m. on September 12, 2021, a flight with the pope on board, together with, his entourage and 78 accredited journalists, took off from Fiumicino airport for Budapest, where it landed around 7:45 a.m. Thus began the 34th apostolic journey of Pope Francis. The reason for the stop in the Hungarian capital was the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, which took place on September 5-12. Originally planned for September 2020, the normal four years after the previous Congress in the Philippines, it had been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.

The motto of the event was taken from Psalm 87: “All my springs are in you.” The logo shows that from the Eucharistic signs of the bread and the chalice a spring of water gushes forth and flows in waves that allude to the River Danube. This was not the first time Budapest  had hosted an International Eucharistic Congress, the previous being the 34th in 1938. The context of that time was quite different, naturally, as the world was sensing the approach of the Second World War.

Budapest: future, fraternity, integration

La Civilta Cattolica

Disembarking, the pope was welcomed by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén. Two children in traditional dress offered him flowers. From here he went to the Museum of Fine Arts, to Heroes’ Square, the largest square in Budapest, and also the most representative from a historical and political point of view. What dominates the place is the “Millenary Monument,” built in 1896 to celebrate the 1,000 anniversary of the conquest of the homeland. It depicts emblematic characters and symbols of Hungarian history.

The Museum of Fine Arts is housed in a monumental building on the western side of Heroes’ Square. The pope was welcomed at the entrance by President János Áder and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Together they went to the Romanesque Hall, where a meeting took place, at which the Vatican’s Secretary of State and Secretary for Relations with States were also present. The topics of the conversation were the environment and the family.

After the meeting, the pope took his leave and went to the Renaissance Hall, where he was greeted by about 35 local bishops.[1] Here Francis gave an incisive speech, full of ideas on how the Church should be present within Hungarian society and what message it should bear witness to within the socio-political fabric of the nation. In the first place, the pontiff asked the prelates to “preserve the past,” but at the same time to “look to the future.” It is necessary, in fact, “to preserve our religious roots and our history, while not keeping our gaze fixed only on the past, but looking to the future, looking forward to find ever new ways to proclaim the Gospel.” Episcopal ministry is not instituted to “repeat a message from days of yore, but to be a prophetic voice.” The perspective of the Church must not be that of watching over the ashes, but of opening itself to the challenges of the future in an evangelical way. After all, “behind a garment of religious traditions many dark sides can be hidden.” It is necessary to be vigilant.

Francis then gave some indications as to how to carry out this special mission. The first is to be heralds of the Gospel without giving in to the temptation “to retreat into the defense of institutions and structures,” which only make sense “if they serve […] to awaken in people the thirst for God and to offer them the living water of the Gospel.” The bishops are asked therefore “not to be primarily bureaucrats and managers,” but to “demonstrate a burning passion for the Gospel,” avoiding the attitude of being on the defensive, as if surrounded or besieged.

The second indication is to “be witnesses of fraternity.” With attention to the socio-political situation, the pope said in particular: “Your country is a place where men and women from other peoples have long lived together. Various ethnic groups, minorities, religious confessions and migrants have made yours a multicultural country. This is something new and, at least initially, can be troubling. Diversity always proves a bit frightening, for it challenges our securities and the status quo.”

The theme of diversity was one of the key focuses of the talk. In the face of diversity we can have two attitudes: “We can either retreat into a rigid defense of our supposed identity, or become open to encountering others and cultivating together the dream of a fraternal society.”[2] The Gospel choice is clearly the second one and “attachment to one’s own identity must never become a motive for hostility and contempt for others, but rather an aid to dialogue with different cultures.”

Francis also referred to “a context in which democracy still needs to consolidate.” To be even clearer, he used the image of the Chain Bridge, which connects the two parts of the city, Buda and Pest, calling for “new bridges of dialogue” and a Church with “a face that is welcoming to all, including those coming from outside, one that is fraternal and open to dialogue.” Here then is his explicit request: “As Bishops, I ask you always to show, together with priests and pastoral collaborators, the true face of the Church: a welcoming face toward all, including those who come from outside.” It was, therefore, a strong message that Francis delivered to the bishops, urging  them to be leaven in Hungarian society.

At the end, the pope greeted the participants individually, and then went to the next room, the Marble Hall, where the meeting with representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches[3] and some Jewish Communities of Hungary took place. Representatives of the Christian Communities and the Jewish Communities greeted the pope. Francis gave a wide-ranging speech imbued with the spirit of brotherhood and integration: “I greet you, my dear brothers in the faith of our father Abraham. I express my appreciation for your efforts to break down the walls that separated us in the past. Jews and Christians alike, you strive to view one another no longer as strangers but as friends, no longer as foes but as brothers and sisters,” he said. But it is not enough to knock down walls: “The God of our fathers always points us in new directions. Just as he transformed the desert into a highway to the Promised Land, so he wishes to bring us out of the barren deserts of bitterness and indifference, to that land of fellowship for which we long.” Here, then, is the invitation to “set out on a journey toward unexplored lands and unfamiliar places.”

The pope dwelt at length again on the image of the Bridge of Chains which unites the two parts of the city: “The bridge does not fuse those two parts together, but rather holds them together. That is how it should be with us too. Whenever we were tempted to absorb the other, we were tearing down instead of building up. Or when we tried to place others in a ghetto instead of including them.” We must not “yield to the logic of isolation and partisan interests.” And the pontiff recalled the poet of Jewish origin, Miklós Radnóti, who, imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved abyss of inhumanity, continued to write poetry until his death.

Francis then went out onto the square and, after a tour among the faithful, celebrated Mass in Latin, opened by a greeting from Cardinal Péter Erdő. The celebration took place in front of the symbol of the Eucharistic Congress: a flowering cross, almost 5 meters high, covered with a bronze vestment in which were set a relic of the True Cross, together with relics of Hungarian saints.

In his homily the pope called for a “renewal of discipleship,” moving from admiration for Jesus to imitation of him. His proclamation is that of a Messiah heading to the cross, not of a powerful Messiah. Peter rebelled before this prospect. “The way of God,” Francis said, “shuns imposition, ostentation and triumphalism; it aims at the good of others, even to the point of self-sacrifice.” Therefore, “the Christian journey is not a race toward success, but begins by stepping back, with a liberating decentralization, with removing oneself from the center of everything.” Then “the difference is not between who is religious or not, but ultimately between the true God and the god of our ego.” The Eucharist urges us “to feel ourselves as one Body, to let ourselves be broken for others.”

At the end of the Mass, the president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, Archbishop Piero Marini, addressed a speech of greeting and thanksgiving to the pope. After the closing rites of the Mass, Francis recited the Angelus, expressing his final wish: “This is what I wish for you: that the cross be your bridge between the past and the future. Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots. Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms toward everyone. 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.”

This was the conclusion of the first stage of Francis’ journey, with a message strongly focused on the future and on a Church and a society capable of building bridges, of dialogue and of fraternally welcoming diversity. After Mass, Francis headed for the airport, where the farewell ceremony took place before his plane took off for Bratislava. It landed there at 3.30 p.m., after less than an hour’s flight.

Slovakia: a country at the heart of Europe

The pope was welcomed by President Zuzana Čaputová at the foot of the front stairs of the plane. Two children in traditional dress offered him bread, salt and flowers as a sign of welcome. From here the pope went to the apostolic nunciature, where an ecumenical meeting took place. The president of the Ecumenical Council of Churches[4] addressed a greeting to him. The Holy Father gave a speech in which he recalled slavery at the time of the communist regime, but affirmed that now we must not fall into the temptation of inner slavery: “This is what Dostoevsky warned about in his celebrated Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in which he “reproaches Jesus for not choosing to become Caesar, in order to subdue men’s consciences and establish peace by force. Instead, Jesus continues to offer freedom, whereas humanity cries out for ‘bread and little else’.”

The strong appeal for freedom, which we will find again on other occasions during the journey, is united to the one that recalls the importance of unity: “How can we hope for a Europe that rediscovers its Christian roots if we ourselves are not rooted in full communion?”

Finally, the pope gave two pieces of advice. The first is contemplation, “a distinctive feature of the Slavic peoples,” who “know how to welcome mystery.” The second is action. In fact, “unity is not attained so much by good intentions and agreement about some shared value, but by doing something concrete, together, for those who bring us closest to the Lord. Who are they? They are the poor, for in them Jesus is present.” Here a clear focus of Francis returns, repeated many times during his pontificate: dialogue and encounter are based more on works than on words. At the end, around 5.30 p.m., the pope, still in the nunciature, had a private meeting with 53 Jesuits who work in the country.

At 9 a.m. on Monday September 13, the pontiff went to the Presidential Palace, the late Baroque Grassalkovich Palace, centrally located in front of the Hodžovo námestie Square. He was welcomed by President Čaputová at the entrance, where the welcoming ceremony took place. Two children on the red carpet presented him with bread and salt. After the anthems, the honoring of the flags and the presentation of the delegations, the president and the pope went to the Golden Hall of the Presidential Palace for a private meeting. Afterward, President Čaputová accompanied the pope to the adjoining Green Room, where they exchanged gifts and the presentation of the family took place. Then both went to the garden of the Presidential Palace for a meeting with the political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, businessmen and women and representatives of civil society and culture: in all, about 250 people.

The president gave a high-profile speech. “Christianity and the Catholic Church,” she said “have been an essential part of our cultural identity for centuries. We welcome you, however, not only as a representative of one of the largest religious families on this planet and its values, but also, and above all, as a source of inspiration, so necessary for the future of humanity. For the future of our Slovakia, and for the future of Christianity in it, the way in which you bring the message of the Gospel to our age is very important, not only as a ‘legacy of the fathers,’ but as a journey that transforms our present and points us toward tomorrow.”

In particular, she said: “You call for humility, mercy and human brotherhood. You call for a new culture of politics and a new ethic of economics. In your social encyclicals you warn against the greatest dangers of our time: populism, national egoism, fundamentalism and fanaticism. You stand up clearly against all those who want to exploit religion for political ends.”

Francis then delivered his message, saying he was a “pilgrim to a young country, yet one with an ancient history, a land of deep roots situated in the heart of Europe. Truly this land is, and has always been, a crossroads.” The breadth encompassed by his words makes this message also a message to Europe: “economic recovery by itself is not sufficient in a world that has itself become a crossroads, in which all are interconnected. Even as battles for supremacy are waged on various fronts, may this country reaffirm its message of integration and peace. And may Europe be distinguished by a solidarity that, by transcending borders, can bring it back to the center of history.” “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. The missing ingredient is concern for others.” We need to heal and cure the European soul.

Speaking about Slovakia and the separation of Czechoslovakia into two independent states, the pope recalled that “twenty-eight years ago the world followed with admiration the peaceful emergence of two independent countries.” This history then became a mission, “calling Slovakia to be a message of peace in the heart of Europe.” The theme of peace, reconciliation and unity is one of the strong messages at the heart of this apostolic journey.

Francis then affirmed that the history of Slovakia is indelibly marked by faith: “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, of love.” He then invited people to be inspired by Saints Cyril and Methodius – mentioned several times in his speeches – figures who have profoundly marked the entire history of the Slovak nation and who are considered the spiritual and cultural “Fathers” of the Nation.

Francis also referred to the many “writers, poets and men and women of culture who were the salt of the country. Just as salt burns when placed on wounds, so their lives often had to pass through the crucible of suffering. How many illustrious men and women endured imprisonment, yet remained interiorly free, offering a radiant example of courage, integrity and resistance to injustice! And most of all, forgiveness.” Against the background of the stories of martyrdom, the pope turned his gaze to the future of evangelization and mission.

An image of Church founded on freedom and creativity

After his farewell to the president, the pope went to the Cathedral of St Martin of Tours, the episcopal see of the archdiocese of Bratislava, which is located on the edge of the historic center, where the fortified walls of the city once stood. Here he met with the bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists. After a brief welcome by the president of the Slovak Bishops’ Conference,[5] Francis gave a speech. “I am here to share your journey – this is what a bishop and a pope is supposed to do – and your questions, the aspirations and hopes of this Church and this country,” he began. These are important words which define the way Francis interprets his Petrine ministry.

He then provided a precise image of the Church, something he often does during his journeys,  speaking to the men and women of the Church, piecing together a sort of ecclesiology adverse to retreat and closure. The Church “can walk together, can tread the paths of life holding high the living flame of the Gospel. The Church is not a fortress, a stronghold, a lofty castle, self-sufficient and looking out upon the world below. Here in Bratislava, you have a castle and it is a fine one! The Church, though, is a community that seeks to draw people to Christ with the joy of the Gospel, not a castle! She is the leaven of God’s Kingdom of love and peace in our world.”

With these words Francis wants to clearly refute the vision of a Church understood as a citadel separated from the world and the visions that in a spurious way appeal to monasticism to speak of an isolation of believers from the rest of society. The Church is humble, “a Church that does not stand aloof from the world, viewing life with a detached gaze, but lives her life within the world. Living within the world means being willing to share and to understand people’s problems, hopes and expectations. This will help us to escape from our self-absorption, the center of the Church… Who is the center of the Church? This is not the Church!” Here then is the invitation: “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?”

The pope recognizes three needs. The first is freedom. If it is wounded, humanity is degraded. “Sometimes in the Church too the following idea can take hold: better to have everything readily defined, laws to be obeyed, security and uniformity, rather than to be responsible Christians and adults who think, consult their conscience and allow themselves to be challenged.” But this is not good. Many, especially among the younger generations, “are not attracted by a faith that leaves them no interior freedom. They are not attracted by a Church in which all are supposed to think alike and blindly obey.”

The appeal then is to “to train people for a mature and free relationship with God. This relationship is important. 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 aims to be a ‘wellspring’ of hope in people’s lives.” This appeal to freedom of spirit and to a Church that does not debase it, but supports and encourages it against all rigidity is a strong theme of this trip, as well as of Francis’ pontificate in general.

Aware of the great social changes and democratic processes taking place, the pope is aware that freedom is still fragile. This is why he encourages people to be 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 pretense, without feeling the need to protect their own image. May the proclamation of the Gospel be liberating, never oppressive. And may the Church be a sign of freedom and welcome!” This is why it is necessary to “let oneself be provoked by real situations,” and not go ahead “repeating the past, without putting one’s heart into it, without the risk of choice.” The “fire of the Gospel,” said the pope, “disturbs and transforms us.”

The second requirement is creativity. Evangelization is never a simple repetition of the past. Cyril and Methodius themselves “invented new languages for handing on the Gospel; they were creative in translating the Christian message; and they drew so close to the history of the peoples they encountered that they learned their language and assimilated their culture.” We too must find “new alphabets” to proclaim the faith. Francis again voiced his opposition to a faith that is on the defensive: “Faced with the loss of the sense of God and of the joy of faith, people should realize it is useless to complain, to hide behind a defensive Catholicism, to judge and blame the evil world. No! What we need is the creativity of the Gospel. Let us be attentive. The Gospel is no longer closed; it is open. It is still alive, it is still active, it is still unfolding.” Creativity is also trusting God: it is God “who gives growth. Do not control life too much in this sense: let life grow,” he insisted, returning to the appeal for freedom.

The third requirement is dialogue. A free and creative Church is “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.”

From the Cathedral, Francis went to the apostolic nunciature for lunch. At 3:45 p.m. he went to the Bethlehem Center of the Missionaries of Charity, located in the Petržalka neighborhood. Here, for more than 20 years, the international community of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s religious sisters has been taking care of the homeless, the indigent, people in need of help and especially the sick, amidst the tall buildings of social housing. The pope spoke with the residents of the house. In the courtyard there was a choir of children who performed some songs. Before saying goodbye, Francis recited the Hail Mary with those present, handed over a gift and concluded the meeting with some spontaneous words and his blessing.

At 4:30 p.m. he went to Rybné námestie Square, which is in the heart of the old city, near St. Martin’s Cathedral. Here stood the Neolog synagogue, demolished in 1969 by the communist government, along with the entire ghetto, to make way for the Slovak National Uprising Bridge, also known as the New Bridge. The Jewish community had frequented the synagogue that had been founded in 1871. Today, the square  contains the Holocaust Memorial, designed as a place of public remembrance.

The pope was welcomed by the president of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in the Slovak Republic, who greeted him with a speech in which he recalled that in the place where they stood “the Christian temple and the Jewish temple stood side by side. The inhabitants of the multi-ethnic city prayed here to the one God and experienced together the moments of joy and concern that life brought. Architecture, therefore, embodied the coexistence of communities until the time of darkness came.”

After the testimony of a survivor and an Ursuline nun – whose congregation hid Jewish children and their families at the time of the Nazis – Francis gave a speech. “I am here as a pilgrim to touch this place and be touched by it,” he began. He recalled that “the name of God has been dishonored” by hatred and “unspeakable acts of inhumanity,” but also by “forms of manipulation that would exploit religion in the service of power or else reduce it to irrelevance.” This is for us a “time when the image of God shining forth in humanity must not be obscured.” Today “the world needs open doors” and fraternity. To Abraham God said: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” So, in Slovakia, “land of encounter between East and West, between North and South, the family of the children of Israel continues to cultivate this vocation, the call to be a sign of blessing for all the families of the earth.”

Around 6 p.m., in the nunciature, the pope received a visit from Speaker Boris Kollár of the National Council of the Slovak Republic, together with Prime Minister Eduard Heger, accompanied by their families.

Against triumphalist Christianity

Around 8 a.m. on September 14, Francis flew from the airport of Bratislava to Košice. From there he went to the Mestská Športová hala, the municipal sports hall of Prešov, the third largest city in the country and capital of the Šariš region. There he was welcomed by the Metropolitan of Prešov, Archbishop Ján Babjak, a Jesuit. The pope and the metropolitan then boarded the popemobile for a tour of the square.

At 10:30 a.m. the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom began, presided over by the pope in Italian. This was a very important event for the metropolitan Greek-Catholic Church, sui iuris in Slovakia, which is part of the large family of the Eastern Catholic Churches.[6] We recall that between 1950 and 1968 the Greek-Catholic Church in the former Czechoslovakia was outlawed by the communist regime.

Francis gave a homily that echoed that of the previous Sunday regarding the scandal of the cross, noting the risk that we might “fail to accept, except perhaps in words, a weak and crucified God, and prefer instead to dream of a God who is powerful and triumphant. This is a great temptation. How often do we long for a Christianity of winners, a triumphalist Christianity that is important and influential, that receives glory and honor? Yet a Christianity without a cross is a worldly Christianity, and shows itself to be sterile.” Having mounted the cross, Christ can be reached by anyone: “No one on earth should ever be so desperate as not to be able to find him, even there, in the midst of anguish, darkness, abandonment, the scandal of his or her own misery and mistakes. There, at the very place we think God cannot be present, to there he came.” Hence the pope made an appeal to safeguard the cross from its instrumentalization: “Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status.” The person who has the cross “in his or her heart, and not only on his or her neck, views no one as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or sister for whom Jesus gave his life.”

At the end of the liturgy the pope went to the Jesuit retreat house in Prešov. Here he greeted briefly, but with great cordiality, the staff of the house (busy preparing for  the reception of the bishops present) and then the small Jesuit community. He then moved to the St Charles Borromeo Major Seminary of the Archdiocese of Košice – the second largest city in the country – located in the heart of the city. The building houses the Faculty of Theology of the Ružomberok Catholic University. Here the pope had a private meal.

At 3:45 p.m. he went to Luník IX, one of the 22 districts of the city of Košice, where there is the highest density of Roma population in Slovakia. The development of the district began at the end of the 1970s. Today the area is inhabited by 4,300 Roma. The problems with the infrastructure are considerable. On July 1, 2008, the Salesians decided to set up their own mission there, and on November 30, 2010, the Church of the Risen Christ was consecrated. The place of worship is part of the Salesian Pastoral Center in the neighborhood. A model of integration, assistance and evangelization of the Roma community, the Center is composed of a house for priests, a gym, a space for group meetings and, of course, the church.

The meeting with the Roma community took place in the square in front of the Salesian Center. It is in continuity with the meeting that the pope attended in Romania in 2019, again with the Roma community, and in which he expressed all his pain for the suffering to which this community had been subjected.

Francis was greeted by festive songs and the greetings of the people gathered in front of the stage and looking out of the windows of the dilapidated buildings. After some testimonies, he gave a speech of greeting, in which he began by stating that “no one in the Church ought ever feel out of place or set aside.” One is always at home in the Church. Francis acknowledged that too many times the Roma have been “the object of prejudice and harsh judgements, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures. As a result, we are all poorer, poorer in humanity.” They must recover their dignity. And he invited the Roma themselves “to overcome your fears and to leave behind past injuries, confidently, step by step: in honest work, in the dignity born of earning our daily bread, in fostering mutual trust.”

At 4:30 p.m. the pontiff headed to the Lokomotiva Stadium in Košice for a meeting with young people, in which Blessed Anna Kolesárová, a young Slovak woman killed during World War II by a Soviet soldier for defending her chastity, was remembered. Anna was beatified in the Lokomotiva Stadium on September 1, 2018. The pontiff was welcomed by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, aged 97, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and currently the Church’s oldest cardinal.

Francis took a few laps in the popemobile, accompanied by the enthusiasm and songs of the approximately 25,000 young people present. Then he listened to some testimonies. He responded to the words of the young people with a speech, often interacting with those present. He insisted on dreams and originality: “Today, being really original and revolutionary means rebelling against the culture of the ephemeral, going beyond shallow instincts and momentary pleasures, and choosing to love with every fiber of your being, for the rest of your life. We were not put here just to make do, but to make something of our lives.” He asked young people to verify their dreams, because “the dreams we have tell us the life we desire.” This advice is very important. It requests discernment to discover what one truly desires: “Give no heed to those who appeal to dreams but instead peddle illusions: they are manipulators of happiness,” he insisted. Standardization is the risk, the temptation.

Along with dreams, roots must also be recovered: “Cultivate your roots, visit your grandparents; it will do you good. Ask them questions, take time to listen to their stories. Today, there is a danger of growing up rootless, because we feel we always have to be on the go, to do everything in a hurry. What we see on the internet immediately enters our homes; just one click and people and things pop up on our screen. Those faces can end up becoming more familiar than those of our own families.”

At the end of the meeting, around 6 p.m., the pope went to the airport for the flight that took him to Bratislava at 7:30 p.m.

September 15

After leaving the Nunciature at 7:50 a.m., the pope headed to the National Shrine of Šaštín. Every year Saštín welcomes thousands of pilgrims to the Basilica of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, patroness of Slovakia, one of the most important Marian shrines in the country. Its history dates back to the 16th century, when a small chapel at a crossroads received a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows with the dead Christ on her knees. On April 22, 1927, Pius XI, with the decree Celebre apud Slovaccham gentem, declared the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows patroness of Slovakia, while with the decree Quam pulchra of November 23, 1964, Paul VI elevated the church to the status of a minor basilica.

At 9:10 a.m. Francis arrived at the Shrine, where he met privately with the Slovakian bishops for a moment of prayer. After a popemobile ride among the 60,000 faithful, he celebrated Mass in Latin. He gave the homily, recognizing three characteristics of Mary’s faith: the journey, prophecy and compassion.

Mary’s faith is a faith that sets out, with the need for a mission to be fulfilled: “She felt urged to open the door and go out; she became completely caught up in God’s own ‘haste’ to reach all people with his saving love.” Mary’s faith is not static, nor is it “satisfied with some ritual or old tradition.” Her faith is prophetic, because it bears witness to God’s work in history which “overturns the logic of the world.” One must not forget that “faith cannot be reduced to a sweetener to make life more palatable. Jesus is a sign of contradiction. He came to bring light to the darkness, exposing the darkness for what it is and forcing it to submit to him.” “This has nothing to do with being hostile to the world,” the pope continued, “but of being ‘signs of contradiction’ within the world.”

Finally, Mary’s faith is compassionate: “The suffering of her dying Son, who had taken upon himself the sins and infirmities of humanity, pierced her own heart.” The proof of compassion is to “remain at the foot of the cross.” So we too, “in contemplating the Sorrowful Mother, may we open our hearts to a faith that becomes compassion, a faith that identifies with those who are hurting, suffering and forced to bear heavy crosses.” It is as if in this stage Francis wanted to summarize in Mary the traits of the Church itself that he illustrated during his apostolic journey.

From the sanctuary Francis headed to the airport of Bratislava, where the President of the Republic awaited him for the farewell ceremony. The flight, which took off at 1:45 p.m., landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport at 3:30 p.m.

* * *

This journey confirmed the pope’s attention to small and medium-sized countries and his attentive gaze to the East. Also confirmed is his strong interest in the future of Europe. The constant appeal for freedom, creativity and unity is emphatic. It should be noted that both in the brief stop in Budapest and in Slovakia the pontiff met representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and those of the Jewish Community. The suffering and martyrdom experienced for the faith in the two countries involved Christians of various confessions and Jews. These ecumenical and interreligious encounters gave a deep breath of fraternity, which was united to the spiritual nature of this journey begun under the banner of the Eucharist and concluded with a strong Marian accent. Francis had anticipated this at the Angelus of September 5, stating: “These will be days marked by adoration and prayer in the heart of Europe.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.10 art. 2, 1021: 10.32009/22072446.1021.2

[1] The Hungarian Bishops’ Conference brings together the prelates of the 17 ecclesiastical jurisdictions of Hungary (14 of the Latin rite and 3 of the Byzantine rite), together with the Military Ordinary and the Abbot of Pannonhalma. Its present president is Bishop András Veres of Győr.

[2] The italics within the quotations from the pope’s speeches are always ours.

[3] The Ecumenical Council of Hungarian Churches was founded in 1943, and is a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC-CEC). It includes 11 churches, which cooperate with 20 other Hungarian churches and Christian organizations. Currently it is presided over by the reformed bishop Joseph Steinbach.

[4] The Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Slovak Republic has 11 member Churches, representing almost all non-Catholic Churches in the country. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has the status of observer. The president is Msgr. Ivan Eľko, bishop general of the Evangelical Church in Slovakia.

[5] The Bishops’ Conference of Slovakia is composed of the prelates of the 11 ecclesiastical jurisdictions (8 of the Latin rite and three of the Byzantine rite) and of the Military Ordinariate. Its current president is Monsignor Stanislav Zvolenský, Archbishop of Bratislava.

[6] Today it has 515 priests – of whom 32 are religious – 103 religious, 208,690 faithful, 66 seminarians, 276 parishes, 23 schools and ecclesiastical institutions.