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In Slovakia: communism, consumerism, and evangelizing the ‘seekers’

For a lot people, Slovakia is hardly the first nation that comes to mind when they think of Catholic countries in Europe. They might first think of Italy, where Vatican City is, of Portugal, where Our Lady of Fatima appeared, or of Poland, where Pope St. John Paul II grew up.

Bishop Jozef Hal’Ko. Credit: Archdiocese of Bratislava/Facebook.

But the small Central European nation of Slovakia boasts a deep Catholic tradition, maintained even through decades of communism in the 20th century.

Perhaps the best-known Catholic figure in Slovakia today is Bishop Jozef Hal’Ko, 60, the auxiliary bishop of Bratislava, the country’s capital.

Hal’ko’s public defense of the Catholic faith and social media activity have made him a well-known personality in his country.

The bishop’s main social media activity is his Na minútku series — “One minute” — in which the bishop preaches briefly about each Sunday’s Gospel.

Bishop Hal’Ko talked with The Pillar about his pastoral activities, secularization in Europe, and the mission of evangelization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For many people, Slovakia is not an especially well-known country. Could you first give us a general overview of the Catholic Church in Slovakia?

For 50 years, the Catholic Church lived under the rule of communism in Slovakia; it's been only 25 years since we were freed from this regime. Slovakia is a majority Catholic country - 62% of the people are Catholics.

The country has plenty of Catholic schools and one Catholic university, as well as many chaplaincies in non-Catholic universities. We’re always trying to reach out to those who are more distant from the Church.

We have religious education in schools so children can be prepared to receive First Communion and Confirmation within schools.

Currently, the bishops’ conference of Slovakia has 17 bishops, and around 2000 priests serve in the country.

The Catholic Church also includes a minority of Byzantine Catholics.

You recently returned from your ad limina visit with Pope Francis, along with the other Slovak bishops. What is the vision the pope wants for the Church in Slovakia?

He told us bishops a very fundamental thing: Be close.

Be close to God, be close to your priests, and be close to each other.

He showed us a picture of the good shepherd. A good shepherd goes in front of the herd to lead them, behind it to protect them, and in the middle of it to understand them. This is the basic picture of the mission of a bishop.

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You preach a lot about the laity and professional life as a form of apostolate. Why do you think this is important?

Jesus spent 30 years working in Nazareth as a carpenter. This is an elevation of everyday life.

Then, he went out to teach and preach for three years, but his teaching had the background of this experience as a normal person for 30 years.

And it matters greatly that the Son of God took 30 years of his life just to be with people.

Evangelization is not only a mission of bishops, priests, and “professional” missionaries, but of all the baptized.

I always say this to young people who come to receive confirmation: You have many friends, you’re close to your teachers, your colleagues. You reach places a bishop and a priest rarely have the chance to reach. You’re in the media, in class, in nature, in sports, in the culture. Young people have the power to show Jesus in the most normal way. To show that God is within us, with us, and in us.

So everyday people can reach those who are not in the Church and who feel that the Church’s walls are very tall. How can we talk with people who are in a different atmosphere, with a different mentality, and different values? The laity has a role in making a connection and showing people that Jesus is here for us.

Even though part of Central Europe and Eastern Europe was under communism for over half a century, it seems to be less secularized than the West. Why do you think this is?

That’s the paradox of the Iron Curtain. In a way, it protected us from the tsunami coming after the Second Vatican Council.

However, I think that today, with social media, there’s a reduction in these differences. Secularization is also a harsh reality in Slovakia.

Interestingly, young people seem to be more open to speaking about spiritual things, but they’re also not coming to Church.

But they are seekers. 

In Slovakia, the percentage of people who don’t identify with any religion grew from 13% to 23% between 2011 and 2021.

Do you think that the Church can really speak a language that people can understand these days?

This is a very important question.

There are two elements. First, to wholly defend the values of our faith, but also to explain the Gospel with words that young people can understand.

Because the Church is not a gallery, nor a museum, nor a heritage park - but a dynamic society of pilgrims walking in life.

We, as priests and bishops and all evangelizers, must talk about God without compromising our values, but also speaking about Jesus with creativity to the people living in this time.

This is our challenge here: to bring the Gospel to young people, which is a word with inner spiritual power, even for people of today.

I’ve told young people in Slovakia that from the moment of baptism, we have a “wi-fi” connection between our heart and the Heart of Jesus.

We tend to see religion as this historical thing, a tradition of the past. But no, no. It’s a “livestream.” The living Jesus is here and changes our lives, He shapes our decisions and our thoughts and, most importantly, calls us all to reclaim a personal relationship with Him, which is the ground of everything.

Priests, and all of us as apostles, must put having a personal, profound relationship with Jesus first---and preach about it.

That’s all.


You’re a bit controversial in certain sectors in Slovakia because you publicly defend the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, especially with regards to homosexuality.

Why continue defending this when the world  — and even the Church, according to some — is moving the other way?

Pope Francis has said that the Church’s teaching in these matters can’t change.

So, again, we must love every person. Every man, every woman. When someone comes to me saying they have a homosexual inclination, for me, this is not a reason to reject them or underestimate them.

But I am a Catholic priest who identifies with my Church and its teachings, so when people come to me with this, I must tell them what the Church teaches. If they’re living in a homosexual relationship, that is a sin.

And this is not only my opinion but also the opinion of the Church and natural law.

If someone comes and tells me they have these inclinations, I will think the same of them as before they told me.

My identity as a priest is to confer mercy. To give the mercy of God to people.

I’m there for everyone, waiting for the moment to tell them that Jesus loves them. If they agree, I’ll confess them and tell them that their sins are forgiven and that I absolve them. But I cannot say that sins do not exist! I myself have experienced sinfulness. Each and every one of us are sinners.

But with the mercy of God, we can be better every day.

You're very active on social media. Why do you think it’s important to evangelize through social media?

Social media is a digital continent with a lot of inhabitants.

Evangelization, centuries ago, meant we had to physically go to a place and proclaim that Jesus is the Lord.

But today, I can, through this device (raises his phone), proclaim publicly that Jesus is the Lord and that he shows us the road to salvation.

And, also, ironically, I can tell young people, through a phone, to put down their phones and give space to God!

Then, it also helps me meet people. Young people know me through social media, and then I can tell them that I will be in this or that city between July 5 and July 10, for example, and I’m open to receiving them and talking with them during those days. 

I’ve had very positive experiences with that.

So, Facebook is a means to open people up so they can also come and meet face-to-face. It helps people express themselves, criticize, ask questions, and enter into a dialogue. It’s a first step.

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When you lived through communism, you were denied access to theological education by the communist regime. Now even though Christians are freer to live their faith, there's a lot of pressure to conform to the times.

How did you deal with this back then during communism and how do you do it now?

In a way, there is no point in comparison. During communism, there was simply no freedom. Priests who were active in evangelization were sent away. Today, I am free to say, write, and read what I want.

However, today our responsibility is great because, now that we’re free, we’re also responsible for doing what we ought to do and avoiding what we should avoid.

In the times of communism, this was clearer. You could clearly see who the enemies of truth were, now it is not so clear; many say that they defend the Church and its teachings, but it’s unclear if they do.

However, it would be nonsense to say that it was better in the times of communism. That is not true.

In some aspects, our society today is the product of a mentality forged during communism.

Today will not change in one night or in one week. These are long processes that last a few generations.

In 1989 we had a very consumerist mentality that deceived us. We got rid of communism but received all the dangers of Western consumerism.

But things change.

I recently baptized a Ukrainian woman who used to be an atheist. And I baptized her and preached in Russian, which was very special to me.

Why? Because the communists taught me Russian a long time ago, and now I can use the Russian language to baptize people!

How can lay people become apostles in today’s world?

I say this to young people during their confirmation: You cannot do anything greater than giving testimony of your living faith in your environment.

We cannot be afraid. Invite people to read the Gospel with you, pray with you, and come to Eucharistic adoration.

The background of it all is to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is present in the Eucharist. When we have that, we can be apostles.

The problem in Slovakia is that young Catholics in some circles feel the pressure to conform; it can be difficult to be young and Catholic.

But I tell them that it is normal that people reject the things of God and the Gospel because the Gospel calls us to conversion, to a new life. It is normal that people don’t want to change.

But our conversion is not ours, but the victory of the Holy Spirit in us. It is, like Saint Paul says, Christ living in us.

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