Pope Francis greets the Slovakian faithful (Photo: Matej Ďuriač)

Bratislava: "Our encounter with Francis"

Some signed up as volunteers whilst others sang in the choir. The spectacular sunrise watched alongside young children waiting for the Pope. An account from the small CL community in Slovakia.

During his return trip from Iraq, Pope Francis expressed his desire to visit Slovakia. This totally unexpected "preference" – Slovakia is a small and quiet country in central Europe last visited by John Paul II 18 years ago – was a great surprise that generated in us expectant awaiting.
The program of the pastoral visit included 4 days in Slovakia: from September 12 to 15. The cities chosen were Bratislava, where in addition to the various institutional meetings the Pope visited the nuns of Mother Teresa and the Jewish community; Presov where he wished to meet the Greek Catholic community that suffered greatly from persecution during the communist regime, and where Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass celebrated with the Byzantine rite in the local stadium; Kosice, where in addition to meeting the Roma community that lives in the Lunik IX neighborhood in which the Salesians carry out their great work of charity, the Pope listened to young Slovaks from the east of the country in the city’s stadium, in a dialogue of questions and answers. Among these, we were struck by an invitation that resonates with us: " Today, being really original and revolutionary means rebelling against the culture of the ephemeral, going beyond shallow instincts and momentary pleasures, and choosing to love with every fibre of your being, for the rest of your life. We were not put here just to make do, but to make something of our lives.”

Last, but most dear to us, was the encounter in Sastin, on September 15, where he celebrated the concluding Mass of his visit to our country. The date and place are significant. On that day we celebrate Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, patroness of Slovakia, and there is the beautiful basilica dedicated to her which is the destination of the pilgrimage that takes place every year and which sees faithful coming from all over the country and from various groups of Slovakian nationality who come, for example, from Hungary, Romania and what is now Serbia. In every city he visited, the streets were filled with people who wanted to greet Pope Francis, who spread a joyful gladness throughout the population, even among non-Catholic people, becoming the main topic of chat during coffee breaks in workplaces.

Since the day in which the dates of his visit were made official, this expectant awaiting moved us to organize several meetings of our community to plan how to participate in the September 15 event in Sastin.
The children of some of the families of our community, Katarina, Michal and Lucia, decided to sign up as volunteers; the director of our choir, Ingrid, went to join the choir composed of 100 voices that accompanied the Holy Mass with beautiful songs.

There were many unknowns, of course, particularly related to the pandemic. So much of the press and media kept saying not only that it was too risky to participate, but also that it would have been better if the visit had been cancelled. But as we saw at the last Fraternity Exercises, obstacles perceived as companions on the road are an opportunity to explore the depths of myself and the depths of Christ; they can be an opportunity to put myself on the line and thus experience what is real.

Thus, on September 15 we left by car from Bratislava at 4 am to reach a small town outside the capital where we had established the meeting place with the other friends from the surroundings of Bratislava. We arrived in Sastin at 5.30 am, which is 72 km from Bratislava. Along the access road there were already many volunteers and policemen directing the traffic and indicating how to get to the various parking areas. After parking, we walked towards the metal detectors at the access doors to undergo strict security checks. What immediately struck us was to see at that hour, before dawn, many young families with very young children also facing checks in order to meet the Pope. As we heard in the interview that the Holy Father gave to journalists during the flight back to Italy, he himself was struck by the presence of many families with children in all the cities he visited between Hungary and Slovakia. There were 50,000 of us who participated in this event, and 1,500 volunteers contributed to its perfect success.

To assign people seats, the organizing committee had established different areas by type: an area for families with small children, an area for the elderly, an area for the unvaccinated. Our group was thus divided, but it was an opportunity. I was not lost but challenged: how can I live this event? Around 6:30 a.m. a spectacular sunrise between the stage and the Basilica accompanied the recitation of the Rosary, while the whole area slowly filled up with people, against all odds.
In his homily, the Pope said that "Mary’s is a faith that sets her on her journey. After hearing the message of the angel, ‘went with haste into the hill country’ to visit and assist Elizabeth, her cousin. She did not keep thinking about herself within the four walls of her house. Rather, she experienced the gift she had received as a mission to be carried out; she felt urged to open the door and go out; she became completely caught up in God’s own “haste” to reach all people with his saving love.” This is also what the movement invites us to.

Read also - The Pope in Bratislava: "The Church and the adventure of freedom."

Then the Pope departed, but he sowed in the hearts of us all confidence in the love of Christ, as he told us: “Whenever he picks us up, he believes in us as if it were the first time. He never grows discouraged. We are the ones who get discouraged, not he,” as well as the consciousness that belonging to Christ in the Church is not something for the weak who have no other possibilities, but it is what makes the person themselves: "Today, there are so many disruptive forces, so many people ready to blame everyone and everything, spreaders of negativity, professional complainers. Pay no attention to them, for pessimism and complaining are not Christian. The Lord detests glumness and victimhood. We were not made to be downcast, but to look up to heaven, to others, to society.”

And while we were praying during Mass with the Pope, we were notified that Pier Alberto Bertazzi was dying. We kept him company, entrusting him to Our Lady of Sorrows. Thinking back today to those days, in gratitude for the encounter with Francis, the words of Fr. Giussani come to mind: "The ideal is that satisfaction that your heart launches you towards; something infinite that is realized in every moment. Like a road whose destination is great, and you walk, step by step, already making it present."

Eva, Matteo, and Rosangela, Bratislava, Slovakia