KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) – Pope Francis traveled to Slovakia’s far east on Tuesday to meet with the country’s Roma in a gesture of inclusion for Slovakia’s most socially excluded minority group, which has long suffered discrimination, marginalization and poverty.
Francis’s visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Kosice is one of the highlights of his four-day pilgrimage to Hungary and Slovakia. It’s his first trip since he underwent bowel surgery in July and marks the restart of his globetrotting papacy after a nearly two-year hiatus from coronavirus.
Lunik IX is the largest of some 600 segregated and dilapidated settlements where the poorest 20% of Slovakia’s 400,000 Roma live. Most lack basic elements like running water or sewage, gas or electricity.
The “pope from the peripheries” has long sought to meet with the most marginalized in society during his trips abroad, making sure to always include visits to marginal neighborhoods, ghettos or prisons where he can offer words of encouragement, solidarity and welcome.
Francis began the day by celebrating a mass of the Byzantine rite in Presov, near Kosice, in recognition of the Greek-Catholic believers in the country. During the chant-filled open-air mass, Francis recalled the persecution suffered by all Christians during the communist government.
“Here I think of the martyrs who in this nation gave witness to the love of Christ in turbulent times, when everything advised silence, cover up, not profess the faith,” he said. “How many generous people suffered and died here in Slovakia for the name of Christ!”
Organizers had expected about 40,000 people, and long before Francis’s arrival they had filled the outdoor sports field while a choir sang hymns. They cheered and wildly waved the yellow and white flags of the Holy See as Francis drove his popemobile around the site before the service.
“We came here at 3 am to get the best place,” said Slavka Marcinakova, a local Presov resident. “The Pope comes to Slovakia; he has an opportunity like this only once in his life, we are very happy about that.”
Among those attending the Mass was Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, a former assistant to St. John Paul II, the Polish pope who made three visits to Slovakia during his quarter-century papacy.
The Rev. Michal Ospodar, a Greek-Catholic priest from Kosice, said Francis’s visit would encourage local worshipers.
“Our church suffered a lot in the past because we were loyal to the Pope,” he said. “That is why we are grateful that the Pope has come to our region and that we can meet him in person.”
The 84-year-old Francis has appeared in good shape during his trip, clearly enjoying being back on the road after the coronavirus, and then his bowel surgery in July kept him locked up in the Vatican. On Monday, he was greeted by the Slovak Jewish community at a significant moment of reconciliation, given the decades of mistrust and tension that followed the Holocaust, when 68,000 Slovak Jews perished in Nazi death camps.
Slovakia was led during World War II by a Catholic priest and president, Jozef Tiso, who oversaw some of the harshest anti-Jewish laws in Europe.
After the Mass and the meeting with the gypsies, Francis met with the young people of Slovakia. He returns to Rome on Wednesday after celebrating his great main 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.
AP visual journalists Andrea Rosa and Luigi Navarro contributed.
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