By Lydia O’Kane
During his Apostolic Visit to Slovakia, Pope Francis is drawing attention to the poor and the marginalized by making a private visit to “The Bethlehem Centre” for the homeless in Bratislava.
After signing the Centre's "Book of Honour", the Pope listened to some testimonies of volunteers and thanked the Sisters of Charity for their witness.
"I pray for you; please pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady protect you", he said during the private meeting that took place on Monday afternoon, on the second day of his Apostolic Visit to Slovakia.
The Centre is run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity, founded by St Teresa of Calcutta, and is situated in the largest borough of Bratislava on the banks of the River Danube. The district of Petržalka shares a border with Austria and is home to 110,000 people. It is also known for the many blocks of flats built in the 1970s and ’80s by the communist regime. In the ’80s and '90s, it was known as the “Bratislava Bronx” due to the high crime rate in the area.
The Missionaries of Charity came to this area in 1997, transforming a kindergarten into a house for homeless people, receiving only the poorest of the poor. The sisters also go and search out those on the margins of society living under bridges in the city. Despite the tireless work of the sisters, this hidden gem of welcome and support is still unknown to many who live in the city.
The house provides long-term assistance and there are usually about 20 to 40 people in need living at the centre.
Fr Juraj Vittek is parish priest of the nearby church of the Holy Family, which is the biggest parish in Petržalka and had the honour of welcoming St John Paul II on his visit to Slovakia in 2003.
His parish tends to the spiritual needs of the centre and members of the parish also help out at the house.
“The sisters come to Mass once a week in our parish Church,” he says. The priests of the parish also celebrate Mass at the centre on Saturdays as well as hearing confessions and anointing the sick.
Fr Vittek says the children of the parish also play their part by preparing gifts for the poor and singing for them.
Assisting those in need
Describing the facilities at the house, the Parish Priest stresses, “They need everything; they come in poor condition, they need to be washed and they need food, healthcare, and many of them are alcohol and drug-addicted.”
Speaking about the rate of homelessness in Bratislava, Fr Vittek says that although the numbers are not precise, official statistics show “there are 2,000 to 4,000 homeless people in the capital. The major part of homeless people from all over the country come to the capital because there is more chance to find a job.”
Welcoming Pope Francis
Asked about the Papal visit itself, Fr Vittek says, “It seems unbelievable to us that Pope Francis comes to visit our country; our city and our parish.”
“I spoke with some of the poor,” he says, “and they said to me that they cannot understand how is it possible that the Pope comes to them in this modest and forgotten place, unknown to many people that live around, so there is a lot of excitement.”