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 Center” for the homeless in Bratislava.
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 center 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 center 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.
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.”
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.”
Pope encourages Slovakia to fraternity, hospitality and solidarity
Pope Francis on Monday encouraged Slovakia on the path to peace and integration through fraternity and hospitality, inviting its citizens to share their bread with others and add flavour to life with the salt of solidarity.
The Pope who is on the 34th foreign apostolic journey of his pontificate, made the call at the presidential palace in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where he addressed government officials, the diplomatic corps, and civil and religious leaders. After concluding the 52° International Eucharistic Congress in the Hungarian capital Budapest on Sunday, the 84-year-old Pope who underwent an intestine surgery in July, flew to Slovakia in the afternoon for a 3-day visit.
Commending the peaceful splitting of former Czechoslovakia into two nations 28 years ago, Pope Francis said Slovakia is called to be a message of peace in the heart of Europe. Noting that the blue strip on the Slovak flag symbolizes fraternity with the Slavic peoples, he said such fraternity is necessary for the increasingly pressing process of integration and peace. He hoped that Europe may bring back solidarity to the centre of history by transcending borders.
He upheld Saints Cyril and Methodious, the apostles of the Slavic peoples and co-patrons of Europe, as models of fraternity, saying they identified with all, and sought communion with all: Slavs, Greeks and Latins alike. Slovaks, he said, are called to be a sign of unity by preserving this legacy of spontaneous openness to others.
He thus encouraged them to fraternity along with hospitality, which, he said, is symbolized in the Slavic custom of offering bread and salt to visitors as a sign of welcome.
Noting that God chose bread to make himself present in our midst, the Holy Father said that Scripture commands us not to hoard our bread, but to share it. Just as the bread of the Gospel is always broken, he explained, true wealth does not consist simply in multiplying the things we have, but in sharing them fairly with those around us. “No one should be stigmatized or suffer discrimination,” he stressed adding, the Christian way does not look at others as a burden or a problem, but rather as brothers and sisters to be helped and protected. This call to sharing bread equitably calls for justice and fair laws, and their maintenance by fighting corruption.
The prayer for daily bread, the Pope continued, underscores the right to employment and job, saying without labour there is no dignity. At the basis of a just and fraternal society is the right of each person to receive the bread of employment, so that none will feel marginalized or constrained to leave family and homeland in search of a better life.
Explaining the symbolism of salt, the Pope said just as salt gives flavour to food, so too we need the flavour of solidarity. Society rediscovers its flavour through the gratuitous generosity of those who spend their lives for others.
With their dreams and creativity, young people in particular need to be encouraged in this. Often, he lamented, they end up disenchanted by a consumerism that makes life bland and dull. Underscoring the concern for others as the missing ingredient, the Pope said, the feeling of responsibility for someone else gives flavour to our lives and enables us to realize that what we give away is really a gift we make to ourselves.
Just as salt preserves food, the Pope hoped Slovaks will never allow the rich flavours of their finest traditions to be spoiled by the superficiality of consumerism and material gain or by forms of ideological colonization.
While a single thought-system stifled freedom under decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the Pope pointed out that today there is another single thought-system which is reducing progress to profit and rights only to individual needs. In this situation, he said, the salt of the faith acts by quietly and humbly sowing the seeds of God’s kingdom, especially by the witness of charity. The Beatitudes, the Pope stressed, are the inspiration for a Christian vision of society. Cyril and Methodius have shown that preserving what is good does not mean repeating the past, but being open to newness without ever losing one’s roots.
Many illustrious men and women of Slovakia, the Pontiff noted, endured imprisonment, yet remained interiorly free, offering a radiant example of courage, integrity, resistance to injustice, but above all of forgiveness, which is the salt of Slovakia’s earth.
In the current Covid-19 crisis, the Pope urged that instead of withdrawing and thinking only of ourselves we should set out anew, realizing that all of us are frail and in need of others. None can stand apart, either as individuals or as a nation.