By Lydia O’Kane
The history of the Church in Slovakia goes backs 1100 years. It tells us that in 880, after missionaries came to Great Moravia from Aquilea, and following the arrival of the Byzantine mission, Pope John VIII, established a Diocese in Nitra.
A church and its history
Fast forward to 1776, and on March 15 of that year Pope Pius VI, responding to the request of Empress Maria Theresa, established three new dioceses on the territory of present-day Slovakia: Banská Bystrica, Spiš and Rožňava.
The Greek Catholic Diocese of Prešov was set up in 1818.
With the dawn of the 20th century and the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, new states came into existence in 1918, and several changes occurred in the ecclesiastic territorial jurisdiction.
In 1945, the Second World War II finally ended, bringing victory to the allies. Unfortunately, Slovakia continued to suffer and face new difficulties. In 1948, there was the communist "palace revolution".
In the intervening years, the Church was severely deprived of her most important institutions. Several bishops were imprisoned and the rest of them isolated in their homes, with limited access to the world. More than 300 diocesan priests were forbidden to perform their pastoral service. Many were left isolated or sent to concentration camps and prisons.
The so-called “Velvet Revolution” in November 1989 saw the fall of the communist regime.
One of the first positive signs following this event was the unhindered appointment of new bishops for all vacant dioceses. Towards the end of the 20th century, the Church in Slovakia had two cardinals (Jozef Tomko in Rome and Ján Chryzostom Korec in Nitra).
St John Paul II visited the Republic of Czechoslovakia on 21-22 April 1990.
Challenges facing the Church in Slovakia today
Now, Pope Francis is coming to Slovakia, which is known for its deep and strong faith. “It’s not just a phrase,” stresses the Auxilary Bishop of Košice, Marek Forgáč. “It’s a real fact which was tested in different periods of time during the history. Last time, it was the well-known period of communism, and they have quite a lot of martyrs and people who were persecuted and suffered during this period.”
He goes on to say that “now the situation changes very much, from some point of view today’s situation seems to be even more difficult. After the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ Slovakia became part of the Western Civilization, and along with a lot of good things, Christians here are confronted with problems such as relativism and materialism, but I think that a lot of people look forward to meeting the Pope.”
He notes that ever-present in the western world today is the crisis of authority and the crisis of institutions, which, he says is also present among Christians in the Church. Young people, he points out, prefer “to believe but not to belong to any religious institution and these are some challenges in our country, in the Church of Slovakia, and I believe that the visit of the Holy Father strengthens the faith of the people in Slovakia, especially young people and they are really looking forward to it.”
Bishop Forgáč emphasizes that in a period where people have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pope’s encouragement is needed at this time. “We expect his message of peace and tranquility,” he says.
Like other European countries, the Church in Slovakia is facing challenges, such as a lack of vocations to priesthood and the religious life. Bishop Forgáč also points out that statistically although up to 70% of people identify as being Christian in Slovakia, it is just a number. “We have to look and see the reality, and we have to see that there is a certain crisis of Christian faith in our country,” he says.
During his career, the bishop used to be a university chaplain which gave him the chance to engage with young people and to see for himself the issues that affect them. He says that the Pope has the ability to speak to them in a way they can relate to. He also adds that one of the highlights for him during this visit will be the meeting with young people in Kosice, which he says will be an important moment for young people in Slovakia.
Byzantine Divine Liturgy
One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit is the celebration of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in memory of Greek Catholic martyrs which takes place in the square of the Mestská športová hala in Prešov.
“The Greek Catholic community,” the Bishop explains, “is still quite small regarding the numbers, but it’s very strong regarding the history. The Community was strongly persecuted during the communist era.”
He also points out that the border between the Eastern and Western Church comes right through the country. “The Greek Catholic community is one of those small Eastern Churches which are united with the Pope and thus they are like -using their technical term- an interface existing between the east and the west in the Church. And the Pope presiding over the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in Prešov not only confirms that he often focuses on minorities but also confirms this connection between the east and the west.”
Effects of the pandemic in Slovakia
As the COVID-19 continues to impact populations in both Europe and beyond, Bishop Forgáč explains that for people in Slovakia, restrictions due to the pandemic have been quite severe. For a lengthy period, he says, “all the churches were closed… it was not possible even to visit the church.” The feedback that the Bishop has been getting from his priests is that things are slowly getting back to normal, but that some people are still staying at home and not coming to church. “We need to work pastorally, very hard, and we need to be very open for believers in Slovakia,” Bishop Forgáč says, so that the faithful can come back to the Church just like they did in pre-pandemic times.
Hopes for visit
Asked what his hopes are for Pope Francis’ visit to Slovakia, the Bishop says that “the highest authority of the Catholic Church is coming and is bringing a message for us, and this may become a sort of enforcement of faith and strengthening of our faith.”