Bratislava, Slovakia – Around 35,000 people have so far registered for events surrounding Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Slovakia next month, a figure much lower than initially expected.
The Holy Father is scheduled to travel to Bratislava and other parts of Slovakia between September 12-15 after a brief passage in neighbouring Hungary. During his visit, he is expected to meet with the country’s top three constitutional leaders, including President Zuzana Caputova whom he received during an audience in the Vatican last December.
Slovakia prepares for first papal visit in 18 years
Pope Francis will celebrate a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite in Presov, eastern Slovakia, before meeting with the local Roma community as well as Slovak youth in Kosice. He will then hold a prayer service at the national shrine of the Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Sastin (Trnava region), and celebrate a Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Quoted by local media, spokesman for the Slovak Bishops’ Conference Martin Kramara noted that the population’s interest is lower than expected.
Approximately 10,000 and 7,000 people have so far registered online to attend Pope Francis’ public appearances in the eastern Slovak cities of Presov and Kosice.
A bigger crowd is expected in Sastin, where more than 16,000 people are due to attend, an event that could theoretically draw 100,000 people.
As Slovakia gears up for the first papal visit since 2003, the controversy surrounding the obligation to be fully vaccinated in order to take part in pastoral events could be behind the lower-than-expected attendance.
Obligation to be fully vaccinated sparks tensions
Supporters of the decision, including Prime Minister Eduard Heger and President Caputova, explained that the move was designed to allow as many people as possible to attend the masses celebrated by the pontiff even in case of a worsening epidemiological situation.
As per the current government regulations, the alternative would be to limit each event to a maximum of 1,000 people.
In response to numerous requests to change the mandate, spokesman Martin Kramara insisted that “we’ve clearly said several times that this isn’t possible”.
Quoted by the National Catholic Register, a number of Slovak priests nevertheless expressed concerns the visit, initially touted as a symbol of hope and reconciliation in difficult times, will only inflame tensions and exacerbate already strong divisions on the issue of anti-Covid vaccines and possible health passes.
Organizers of the pastoral visit have also been keen to dismiss rumours that the vaccine mandate was the decision of the Catholic Church, or even of Pope Francis himself as some critics have alleged pointing to the Holy Father’s well-known support for the vaccine.
Slovakia divided on Covid vaccines and green passes
According to Father Andrej Krecak of the Slovak Diocese of Zilina, many faithful were already frustrated with previous government regulations on religious events, with the latest vaccine mandate for the pope’s visit seen as the last straw.
“Many Christians, especially Catholics, see that the state has controlled even the life of the Church – masses were suspended for a long time, almost half a year – so many believers were impacted by that,” he argued.
Slovakia, where an important majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU (only 40% of Slovaks fully inoculated), with strong anti-vaccine sentiment compared to many of its neighbours.
“The conditions, the circumstances are what they are”, Slovak bishops’ spokesman Martin Kramara admitted. “But it’s a great thing that the pope is coming, so let’s not let ourselves become discouraged by the circumstances.”