During his planned visit to Slovakia, Pope Francis may attend the annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Sastin-Straze. Photo by Lubos Repta / Wikimedia Commons.

The itinerary for the pope’s Central European trip sends contrasting messages to a pair of regional leaders. From Dennik N.

Pope Francis’s September visit to Slovakia is becoming more and more likely, even though it has not yet been officially confirmed. According to preliminary information from the Vatican, the pope will spend up to three and a half days in the country. Apart from meetings with state officials, he also plans to celebrate masses in several places.

In recent weeks, Hungary has been trying to influence preparations for the visit, which it considers to be an unfair punishment for the positions of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The visit to Central Europe is planned for 12-15 September. Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Bratislava from Budapest, where he will celebrate a mass on Heroes’ Square as part of a eucharistic congress, spending only a few hours in Hungary. According to preliminary plans, he is expected to start his visit to Slovakia by meeting with President Zuzana Caputova, as well as other state officials.

In the following three days, his agenda will be mostly pastoral – celebrating masses and meeting believers in different parts of Slovakia. There is talk of his attending the annual pilgrimage in the town of Sastin-Straze, which is expected to take place on 15 September, and according to the daily Korzar, even of a mass in the [Roma] neighborhood of Lunik IX [in Kosice].

Official Silence

From the point of view of protocol, the pope’s partners are presidents, not prime ministers. The state part of his visit to Slovakia is therefore being organized by the office of the president, while the pastoral part is being prepared by the Conference of Bishops of Slovakia.

For the time being, neither the president’s office nor the bishops’ conference has officially commented on the visit.

Pope Francis’s visit to Slovakia will be a major event not only for the faithful, but also for the whole country, attracting international media interest for several days.

Even if the Vatican officially confirms the visit, it could still be derailed by a possible third wave of the pandemic, as well as by political problems in the country. Obstacles could include a breakup of the government or early elections, as the head of the Catholic Church strives to be strictly apolitical.

Hungary is Jealous

Why will the pope spend just a few hours in Hungary, but up to three and a half days in Slovakia?

Our diplomatic and government circles are not officially commenting on the visit, but a number of sources say this is a kind of reward for Slovakia for the country’s more conciliatory attitude towards migrants, for whom the pope feels compassion and often mentions in his speeches. While Orban and his administration treat refugees with contempt and built a fence against them on the border with Serbia, a more understanding migration policy in Slovakia is represented above all by President Caputova.

The plans for the visit may also have been also furthered by her meeting with the pope last December, which lasted longer than planned. After the visit, Caputova announced that Francis wanted to come to Slovakia, and he confirmed this in March. “I am very happy we will be able to welcome the Holy Father in Slovakia. His visit will surely be a symbol of hope, which we need so much,” the president commented.

When it comes to questions of values, Pope Francis is closer to the more pro-Western Slovakia than to Hungary, where Orban’s populist Fidesz party, an ally of authoritarian Russia and China, enjoys wide support.

He is also known for conciliatory remarks towards gays. Before becoming pope, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he agreed with the provision of legal protection to same-sex couples, even if only in the civil, not religious, sphere. Last year the pope commented, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

He also discusses issues of the environment more often than his predecessors.

A Slap to Orban

The U.S.-based National Catholic Register reported in early June that the pope does not want to meet representatives of the Hungarian government or President Janos Ader during his brief stopover in Budapest, surmising that this could even lead to diplomatic tensions. If Francis was indeed to spend only three hours in Hungary and three days in Slovakia, this would be a big slap to Viktor Orban, according to Hungarian sources quoted by the American news outlet.

“It would be outrageous,” an anonymous Hungarian priest told the website, adding this would be similar to the Pope spending several hours in Israel and then three days in Iran. According to the website, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo and Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen visited the Vatican in late May to lobby for a less embarrassing itinerary. 

Pro-government media in Hungary responded to news of the pope’s short visit with fury. Zsolt Bayer, one of the main ideologues of the governing Fidesz party, said that if the pope does not want to meet government officials, “he should be asked not to come at all.”

Andras Bencsik, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government weekly Demokrata, said the pope wants to humiliate Hungary because its leaders reject migration. “At this moment, the pope is behaving in an anti-Christian manner, causing extremely serious damage to the Christian world,” he said.

Hungarian Bishops: It’s a Hoax

The Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference responded to the report with a statement denying that the pope would not meet with Hungary’s political leaders. According to their statement, he is expected to individually meet with the Hungarian prime minister, president, members of the government, and other state officials before the mass in Budapest on 12 September. The bishops claim all information to the contrary is misleading and untrue.

Pope Francis’s visit will mark the fourth papal trip to Slovakia in recent times. Pope John Paul II visited the country three times between 1990 and 2003. John Paul II also made two visits to Hungary.

Miro Kern and Zoltan Szalay are reporters for Dennik N, a Slovak online and print newspaper started in 2014 by journalists who left their previous paper after a local oligarch connected with corruption scandals gained a significant share of the company. More English-language articles can be found here. Reprinted by permission.

Translated by Matus Nemeth.