Pope Francis travelled to the far east of Slovakia on Tuesday to meet with the country's Roma in a gesture of inclusion for the most socially excluded minority group in Slovakia, who have long suffered discrimination, marginalization and poverty.
Francis' visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Kosice is one of the highlights of his four-day pilgrimage to Hungary and Slovakia. It's his first trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in July and marks the restart of his globetrotting papacy after a nearly two-year coronavirus hiatus.
Lunik IX is the biggest of about 600 shabby, segregated settlements where the poorest 20% of Slovakia's 400,000 Roma live. Most lack basics such as running water or sewage systems, gas or electricity.
The "pope of the peripheries" has long sought to meet with society's most marginal during his foreign trips, making sure to always include visits to slums, ghettos or prisons where he can offer words of encouragement, solidarity and welcome.
Francis was starting the day by celebrating a Byzantine rite Mass in Presov, near Slovakia's second city, Kosice, in recognition of the country's Greek-Catholic believers. Organizers expected some 40,000 people, and well before Francis' arrival they had filled the outdoor arena as a choir sang hymns.
"We came here at 3 a.m. to get the best spot," said Slavka Marcinakova, a local resident from Presov. "Pope coming to Slovakia - you have an opportunity like this only once in a lifetime, we are so happy for that." Among those on hand for the Mass was Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the longtime aide to St. John Paul II, the Polish pope who made three visits to Slovakia during his quarter-century papacy.
The Rev. Michal Ospodar, a Greek-Catholic priest from Kosice, said Francis' visit would encourage the local faithful who endured persecution under atheist communist rule.
"Our church suffered a lot in the past because we were loyal to the pope," he said. "Because of that we feel thankful that the pope came to our region and that we can meet him in person." Francis, 84, has appeared in good form during his trip, clearly enjoying being back on the road again after the coronavirus, and then his intestinal surgery in July, kept him cooped up in the Vatican. On Monday, he was welcomed by Slovakia's Jewish community in a significant moment of reconciliation, given the decades of distrust and tension following the Holocaust, when 68,000 Slovakian Jews perished in Nazi death camps.
Slovakia was led during World War II by a Catholic priest and president, Jozef Tiso, who oversaw some of the harshest anti-Jewish laws in Europe.
After the Mass and Roma encounter, Francis was meeting with Slovakia's young people. He returns to Rome on Wednesday after celebrating his main big Mass in Sastin near the capital, the site of an annual pilgrimage each Sept. 15 to venerate Slovakia's patron, Our Lady of Sorrows.
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