Bratislava, Slovakia, Sep 9, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).
When Pope Francis touches down in Slovakia on Sunday, he will find a country greatly changed since a pope last set foot on its soil, according to a local bishop.
Bishop Jozef Haľko, an auxiliary bishop of Bratislava archdiocese, said that the “atmosphere around the Church” had altered since Pope John Paul II visited in 2003, in his third trip to the central European country.
“Pope Francis’ visit to Slovakia must be viewed in the context of St. John Paul II’s visits,” the 57-year-old bishop told CNA.
“Already during communism, before 1989, a large petition was launched asking that the pope be invited to Slovakia. The communist secret police had stifled this voice of the people, even persecuting those who had organized the collection of signatures.”
“Still, they were not able to stop this popular movement. The letters, in one way or another, got to John Paul II. The pope was moved by it. For this, he came three times.”
The Polish pope visited Slovakia for the first time in 1990, four months after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Slovakia was still part of the state known as Czechoslovakia. He traveled to Prague and Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia since it became an independent state in 1993.
In 1995, John Paul II visited Bratislava, Nitra, Šaštín, Košice, Prešov, Spišská Kapitula, Levoča, Poprad, and the Tatra Mountains, which form a natural border between Slovakia and the pope’s homeland, Poland.
In 2003, John Paul II went to Banská Bystrica, Rožňava, and Bratislava.
“The older generations keep a strong memory of the visit,” Haľko said.
He explained that in the following 25 years Slovakia has changed profoundly.
“In the 1990s, there was enthusiasm after the fall of communism. This enthusiasm also involved the Church, perceived as the only officially existing body to fight the communist regime,” he recalled.
But the new generation “does not perceive things that way, the Church is no longer considered because of what it did during communism,” he said, adding: “The atmosphere around the Church has thus changed.”
Haľko, who was named a bishop by Benedict XVI in 2012, said it was difficult to assess whether there is more or less trust in the Church today. But he suggested that the decline in the number of vocations was a strong indicator, though it is part of a wider European trend.
“Secularization cannot be denied. It is powerful. It enters much more deeply into the mentality, into the unconscious consciousness, through social networks and the media,” he said.
Though communism collapsed, some of the scars remain. And though the perception of the Church has changed, the memory of what the Church did must be kept alive, Haľko said.
“During communism, priests remained with their backs straight, made no compromises. Their behavior must have an impact nowadays. Facing the new ideological and liberal trends, we must counter them by drawing on the example of those who remained in the Church in difficult times,” he stressed.
“The big call is to be grounded in the truth and to be understandable to modern man, without diluting the Gospel’s words. Our testimony must speak of the Kingdom of God every day.”
Haľko hopes that Pope Francis’ Sept. 12-15 visit will help to revive this spirit.
Speaking of the younger generation of Catholics in Slovakia, he said: “There are more or less spontaneous groups of young people who pray, sing, who spend their holidays together.”
“It is a legacy of communism when certain people had organized the movement of circles,” he said, explaining that groups of around 15 people used to meet together, assisted by clandestine priests, including the Slovakian Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec.
“It shows there is also a spiritual potential with young people. This dynamic gives hope for the future,” he commented.