KOSICE, Slovakia – Pope Francis traveled to far eastern Slovakia on Tuesday to meet with the country’s Roma in a gesture of inclusion for the country’s most socially marginalized minority group, which has long suffered from discrimination and poverty.
Lunik IX is the largest of some 600 dilapidated and isolated neighborhoods where the poorest 20% of Slovakia’s 400,000 Roma live. Most lack basic items such as running water or sewage systems, gas or electricity.
Even before the pope’s arrival, residents said on Tuesday that something had already changed, both tangible and not.
“We have new roads, new stairs, they fixed everything,” said resident Alexander Horvath. “Everything was destroyed before.”
“People are different, you can feel the Holy Spirit in the air,” said resident Mario Tomi. “You can feel the freedom in the air.”
The “Pope of the Outskirts” has long sought to meet the most marginalized in society on his travels abroad, making sure to always include visits to slums, ghettos or prisons where he can offer words of thought. encouragement, solidarity and welcome.
Francis started the day by celebrating a Byzantine rite mass in Presov, near Kosice, in recognition of the country’s Greco-Catholic believers. During the outdoor, song-filled Mass, Francis struck European politicians who often brandish crosses to underline their Christian credentials.
“Crucifixes are found all around us: on our necks, in houses, in cars, in pockets,” he said. “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 organizers said more than 30,000 people attended and received the Eucharist on teaspoons, as is done in the Eastern Rite.
Long before François arrived, they had filled the site with a choir singing hymns. They applauded and waved wildly the yellow and white flags of the Holy See as Francis walked through the crowd in his popemobile before the service.
“We came here at 3 am to get the best seat,” said Slavka Marcinakova, a local resident of Presov. “The Pope is coming to Slovakia – you only have an opportunity like this once in your life, we are so happy.”
Among those present for mass was Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the longtime assistant to St. John Paul II, the Polish Pope who made three visits to Slovakia during his quarter-century pontificate.
Reverend Michal Ospodar, a Greek Catholic priest from Kosice, said Francis’ visit would encourage local worshipers who were persecuted during the atheist Communist regime.
“Our church has suffered a lot in the past because we were faithful to the Pope,” he said. “For this reason, we are grateful that the Pope has come to our region and that we can meet him in person.”
Francis, 84, appeared in good shape on his trip, clearly enjoying getting back on the road after the coronavirus, then his bowel surgery in July kept him locked up in the Vatican.
After Mass and the meeting with the Roma, François met the young people of Slovakia. He returns to Rome on Wednesday after having celebrated his main high mass in Sastin near the capital, the site of an annual pilgrimage every September 15 to venerate the patron saint of Slovakia, Our Lady of Sorrows.
Karel Janicek reported from Prague, Czech Republic. Adam Pemble, Andrea Rosa and Luigi Navarra contributed to this report.