Pope Francis in Slovakia - What he said and did (Part 2)

News: Pope Francis

Pope Francis has wrapped up a four-day trip to Hungary and Slovakia, arriving back at the Vatican Wednesday afternoon after concluding his first international trip since March.

During the first half of his trip, the pope made a brief stop in Hungary, where he met with civil and religious leaders and celebrated the closing Mass for the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress. He then flew to Slovakia, where he addressed civil officials, Catholic leaders and members of the Jewish community. You can find The Pillar’s summary of the first half of the papal visit here.

The second half of the Central European trip included visits to three Slovakian cities, where the pope participated in several meetings and religious celebrations. He also answered questions from the press on his return flight to the Vatican.

Here’s a Pillar recap from the second half of the papal trip: 

Where he went

Pope Francis celebrated a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, attended by an estimated 40,000 people, on Tuesday. The event took place in Prešov, where many of Slovakia’s 200,000 Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics reside. 

The pope also visited a Roma settlement in Košice, where he denounced racism and prejudice. The Roma community faces significant levels of poverty, with many people lacking access to running water, electricity, and other necessities. While in Košice, the Holy Father also addressed 25,000 young people in Lokomotiva Stadium, answering questions that they presented to him.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Šaštín, with some 60,000 attendees. He then returned to Rome, holding his customary in-flight press conference on the plane.

What he said

Presiding over a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the pope spoke of the need to fix our gaze on the cross and allow Christ to transform us so that we can bear witness to him. We must recognize the weakness that Jesus embraced on the cross if we are to be authentic witnesses, humble and loving, he said.

How do we learn to see glory in the cross? Some of the saints teach us that the cross is like a book: in order to know it, we have to open it and read it. It is not enough to buy a book, take a look at it and put it on a shelf in our home. The same is true for the cross: it is painted or carved everywhere in our churches. Crucifixes are found all around us: on necks, in homes, in cars, in pockets. What good is this, unless we stop to look at the crucified Jesus and open our hearts to him, unless we let ourselves be struck by the wounds he bears for our sake, unless our hearts swell with emotion and we weep before the God wounded for love of us. Unless we do that, the cross remains an unread book whose title and author we know, without its having any impact on our lives. 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.

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In his address to the Roma community, Pope Francis emphasized the Church as a family where they should always feel welcome and at home. He also spoke about the importance of encounter and cooperation to overcome prejudice.  

Judgement and prejudice only increase distances. Hostility and sharp words are not helpful. Marginalizing others accomplishes nothing. Segregating ourselves and other people eventually leads to anger. The path to peaceful coexistence is integration: an organic, gradual and vital process that starts with coming to know one another, then patiently grows, keeping its gaze fixed on the future. And what is the future?...It is our children. The future belongs to them; they are the ones to guide us: their great dreams must not collide with barriers that we have erected. Our children want to grow together with others, without encountering obstacles and exclusion. They deserve a well-integrated and free life. They are the ones who should motivate us to make far-sighted decisions based not on hasty consensus, but on concern for our common future. Courageous decisions must be made on behalf of our children: to promote their dignity, to educate them in such a way that they can grow up solidly grounded in their own identity and be given every opportunity they desire.

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The pope spoke to a group of young people, answering their questions about the nature of love, suffering, and forgiveness. He encouraged them to embrace the crosses in their lives, with the help of Christ, and spoke of the never-tiring mercy of God, who is always waiting to extend a merciful embrace through the Sacrament of Confession. He also encouraged young people to remain connected to their grandparents, repeating a theme he has emphasized numerous times throughout his papacy.

For love to be fruitful, don’t forget your roots. What are your roots? Surely, they are your parents and especially your grandparents. Take heed: your grandparents. They prepared the soil in which you have grown. 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. Bombarded by virtual messages, we risk losing our real roots. To grow disconnected from life, or to fantasize in a void, is not a good thing; it is a temptation from the evil one. God wants us to be firmly grounded, connected to life. Never closed, but always open to others! 

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At Mass on Wednesday, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Pope Francis highlighted the faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying her faith was an impetus to embark on a prophetic and self-sacrificial journey. The pope also spoke about her witness to compassion, and what that means in the face of suffering.

Mary, Mother of Sorrows, remains at the foot of the cross. She simply stands there. She does not run away, or try to save herself, or find ways to alleviate her grief. Here is the proof of true compassion: to remain standing beneath the cross. To stand there weeping, yet with the faith that knows that, in her Son, God transfigures pain and suffering and triumphs over death.

In contemplating the Sorrowful Mother, may we too 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. A faith that does not remain abstract, but becomes incarnate in fellowship with those in need. A faith that imitates God’s way of doing things, quietly relieves the suffering of our world and waters the soil of history with salvation.

What else

Following his custom of holding a press conference on the flight home from an international trip, Pope Francis answered half a dozen questions from journalists on the plane ride Wednesday. 

The pope was asked by English-speaking journalists about the reception of communion by politicians who support legal abortion. The topic has been prominent in the United States, as U.S. President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, has become increasingly more supportive of legal abortion since the 2020 presidential campaign. In recent weeks, the president has reversed his long-standing affirmation that life begins at conception and said he is directing a “whole-of-government” response to oppose a Texas law banning abortion after an unborn baby’s heartbeat can be detected. 

“Those people who are not in the community cannot take communion, because they are out of the community,” the pope said. “It is not a punishment: Communion is linked to the community.”

Abortion is “homicide,” he said, and the Church’s prohibition on it is absolute. He noted that his answers are meant to address general principles and that he does not know the details of individual U.S. politicians.

Francis also urged priests to act as pastors rather than politicians with those who are in this situation, saying, “And what should the pastor do? He shouldn’t go around condemning. And he must also be a pastor with those who are excommunicated, and be so with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

For more about the pope’s comments during the in-flight press conference and the Church’s teaching on abortion and communion, check out The Pillar’s explainer.