Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the account of Pope Francis’ meeting with young people.
KOSICE, SLOVAKIA – No one should be left out of the church, Pope Francis said on September 14, as he visited an ostracized Roma community and condemned the long-standing segregation and discrimination in the second largest city of Slovakia.
“In the church, no one should ever feel out of place or left out,” he said, later adding that “no one should ever hold you or anyone else out. away from the church! ”
During his visit to the marginalized district of Lunik IX on the outskirts of Košice, the Pope told the ethnic minority that prejudice has no place in Christian life.
“The church is indeed a house; this is your home, ”he said. “Then I would say to you with all my heart: You are always welcome! Always feel at home in the church, and never worry about whether you will be at home there.”
Košice is home to a predominantly social Roma population population of 4,300 inhabitants, the largest in the country, where many inhabitants live without heating, water or electricity. During his visit here, Francis denounced the way in which the community had been rejected by much of Slovak society.
“You have been the object of harsh prejudices and judgments, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures,” he told them. “As a result, we are all poorer, poorer in humanity.”
“Restoring dignity means moving from prejudice to dialogue, from introspection to integration,” he said.
Francis met Roma, nomadic communities sometimes referred to as Gypsies, in the Vatican and on trips abroad, building on a tradition he started as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. During his visit to Romania in 2019, he asked for forgiveness for the church’s sins of discrimination against Roma.
As he sat in the heart of Lunik IX, with crowds of Roma crowded onto the balconies of their apartments and craning their necks out the windows to catch a glimpse of the Pope, Francis heard firsthand accounts of the realities of life in the community, both testifying to trials and difficulties but also tales of unexpected joys.
Ján Hero, a 61-year-old Roma father of five, told the Pope that his continued commitment to the Roma people had been a source of encouragement for him and his family.
“We believe that Jesus Christ helps us overcome tensions by living together with the majority and other ethnic groups,” he told Francis.
For 15 years the Salesian priests of Don Bosco have lived among the Roma of Košice. Before the arrival of the Pope, Salesian Fr Marian Peciar told NCR that their goal was to be close to the younger generation and to the poor among them.
“We just do what Don [John] Bosco wrote in our constitution, ”he said of the founder of the religious order in the 19th century who lived among the poor and underprivileged.
Peciar said many Slovaks were ashamed that the Pope brought the world’s eyes to the needy community, but for the priests and religious living among them, it gave a morale boost, knowing their work was being supported. by François.
“If Pope Francis is happy with our work, we are also very happy,” he said.
A young married Roma couple, Nikola and René Harakaly, told the pontiff that they had grown up in the district and that despite the difficulties, they had been encouraged by the local priests to receive the sacraments and to be educated.
Today they have managed to buy their own house in another part of Košice where they live with their two young boys.
Francis said that the “real life experience of living together” of the community is how many stereotypes that “otherwise seem insurmountable” can be overcome and made others follow their example.
“It is not easy to come out of prejudices, even for Christians,” he lamented. “It is not easy to value others, especially if we see them as problems or enemies, if we pass judgment without making the slightest effort to know them and listen to their stories.”
“How often are our judgments really prejudices, prejudices? How often do we settle for labels? The Pope replied. “In this way we disfigure with our words the beauty of the children of God, who are our brothers and sisters.
“People cannot be cataloged” or reduced to “prepackaged ideas,” the Pope said. “Our knowledge and appreciation of others must be based on our recognition that each of them possesses the inviolable beauty of a son or daughter of God, a reflection of the image of the Creator.”
When meeting the marginalized, the Pope told the crowd, this is where we meet Jesus.
“He awaits you wherever you need it, no comfort; wherever service reigns, no power; wherever incarnation, and not self-indulgence, is required,” Francis said. “These are the places where he will be found.”
After his meeting with the Roma people, the Pope reiterated his call to kiss so as not to be afraid to welcome and embrace each other when he encountered a roaring crowd of over 20,000 young people at the nearby Lokomotiva stadium .
“Hugging helps us overcome fear. Every time someone kisses us, we gain confidence in ourselves and in life,” Francis said.
“So let’s let Jesus embrace ourselves,” he continued. “Because when we embrace Jesus, we embrace hope once again.”