Slovakia – country to be visited by Pope Francis in September

In a small country on the border of Western and Eastern Europe, the majority of the population professes Catholicism. The communist past has been replaced by the relative prosperity of the European Union. However, despite its dominant position, the Catholic Church is in a long-term crisis.

 

 

Slovakia is quite a small country with 5 million inhabitants. It lies on the border of Eastern and Western Europe, between Russia and Germany, which has influenced its history for centuries. At present, Slovakia is a member of the European Union. Before the fall of the Soviet empire, it belonged to the communist bloc, among the so-called Soviet satellite states.   

Slovakia is a young country, gaining its independence only less than thirty years ago, in 1993. For many centuries it was part of Austria-Hungary and after its disintegration, together with the neighbouring Czech Republic, they created a joint state CzechoSlovakia.

Slovakia is still a relatively rural country, with about half of its population living outside the city. In recent years, however, it has undergone significant modernisation waves. It is currently a developed industrial country, where most per capita cars are manufactured worldwide.

The country is ethnically mixed, 10% of the Hungarian minority lives in the country and 5% of the population are Roma and 1% Ruthenians.  

There is a Catholic majority in the country

Slovakia is a conservative country where Christianity is the dominant religion. According to the 2011 Census, three-quarters of the population identified themselves with some kind of Christian religion, with 62% of the population being Roman Catholic. The specificity of Slovakia is that a relatively small, but compact minority of Greek Catholic believers live in the east of the country, who make up about 4% of the population.

The Greek Catholic Church is the Eastern Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite, which is in full communion with Rome. The liturgy and the manifestations of folk piety are very similar to the orthodox liturgy.

Although many Protestant intellectuals and national revivalists (especially in the 19th century) played an important role in the history of Slovakia, Protestant Churches are currently in a significant minority. The largest of them is the traditional Evangelical Lutheran Church. The second largest is the Calvinist Reformed Church, whose believers are predominantly Slovak citizens with Hungarian nationality.

Slovakia is a religiously closed society. There are only 18 state-recognised Churches in the country. With three exceptions, they are all Christian Churches. There is a law in the country that makes it practically impossible for other (new) Churches to officially register. Therefore, no official e.g. Islamic, Hindu or other religious association is now active in Slovakia. There is no official mosque, Hindu or Buddhist temple in the country. Islamic or Buddhist believers are thus forced to organise under non-religious structures. In practice, however, the religious life of non-Christians is not disturbed in any way, although they are practically not visible in public space at all.

Dominant Catholicism

Christianity arrived in Slovakia in the early Middle Ages, through Irish-Scottish missionaries. The Byzantine mission of Constantine and Methodius (9th century), who are considered to be those who evangelised the Slavs, had a great religious and cultural influence. However, the territory of today’s Slovakia was finally incorporated into Church structures as part of Catholic Hungary and later Austria-Hungary Empire. During the Reformation, Slovakia became almost completely Protestant for several decades, but very active re-Catholicization brought Slovakia back into the arms of Rome.

The 20th century was very significant for the history of Slovakia. The World War I marked the disintegration of Austria-Hungary. Slovakia merged with the neighbouring Czech nation, establishing a new joint state, Czechoslovakia.

From the more modern, Protestant Czechia, open to new ideas, new impulses arrived in Slovakia, which slowly began to change the country.

However, the modernisation of the country was interrupted by the rise of fascism in Europe. Shortly before the beginning of World War II, Hitler achieved the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Thus, for the first time in its history, Slovakia gained independence (for less than 7 years).

Slovakia was ruled by a Catholic political party, which, however, was completely dependent on the fascist German regime. It was the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, who became the first president of Slovakia. Thus, during the war years, the Catholic Church had significant political power in an independent state as well.

Like most countries under the influence of Hitler’s Germany, Slovakia did not escape the tragedy of the Jews being moved en masse to concentration camps. More than 60,000 Slovak Jews never returned from the concentration camps.

Faith during the totalitarian regime

After the end of World War II, the territory of Slovakia came under the influence of the communist Soviet Union. The union of Czechia and Slovakia was renewed, re-establishing Czechoslovakia.

Following the example of the Soviet Union, the communist regime began to be introduced also in Czechoslovakia. It became a totalitarian state, which very severely persecuted not only the political opposition, but also any hint of resistance or disapproval of ordinary people.

The biggest enemy of the communist regime were the Churches, especially the dominant Catholic Church.

The persecution of the Church culminated in the 1950s, when the police raided all monasteries. All property was confiscated by the state, monasteries were abolished and all monks from all over the country were concentrated in one place (separately men’s and women’s orders). Many brave priests or bishops were murdered or sentenced by state authorities to long terms of imprisonment in labour camps.

The state gained control of the entire Church structure, confiscated Church property, and individual diocesan priests became “employees” of the state. The state also controlled all seminaries; religious literature was practically not published at all. No priest or bishop could be ordained or officially act without the consent of the regime.   

The Greek Catholic Church was particularly tragically affected by the communist regime. It was officially abolished by the totalitarian regime and all churches and believers were forcibly transferred to the Orthodox Church, which, by jurisdiction, belonged to the Patriarchate in Moscow. The Greek Catholic Church was partially restored only after 20 years and fully restored only after the fall of the communist regime in 1989.

Paradoxically, the period of persecution of Christians by the communist regime in Slovakia became the period when the Catholic Church in Slovakia gained the greatest prestige. Several independent groups were secretly formed in the “underground”, trying to live the authentic Christian faith. Many of them smuggled religious literature from abroad or manually typed on typewriters books that were officially banned. An unofficial “underground” pastoral care was carried out and theological courses were organised secretly inprivate  flats.

Even though there were also organised “networks” of underground communities, many groups did not communicate with each other for security reasons and did not even have to know about each other. Therefore, the experience of faith and lived theology was quite heterogeneous between individual communities.   

Towards the end of the communist regime in Slovakia, “Catholic dissent” was the strongest and most massive opposition force. The network of underground Christian communities was able to organise a massive signature event for religious freedom (which was significant because individual believers came out of anonymity for the first time and thus exposed themselves to the danger of repression) or a memorable peaceful “candle” demonstration in the centre of Bratislava, where despite great resistance of public authorities more than 5,000 believers gathered. After a few minutes, this demonstration was dispersed using water cannons and the organisers were arrested.

Vdieo presents official police video recording of the event (1988) with authentic orders of police officials to dissolve the demonstration. 

 

The communist regime was able to effectively isolate Slovakia from happenings in the world. The Second Vatican Council took place in the sixties and despite invitations from the Vatican, the communist regime allowed only two older Slovak bishops to participate, both, however, died shortly after the council. Few revivalist ideas of the Council reached Slovakia. Apart from the reform of the liturgy, the Slovak Church practically did not change after the council at all. Slovakia thus mentally remained in the captivity of the anti-modernist spirit of the First Vatican Council, which significantly affects the situation in the Church even today.

Despite the real, highly effective isolation of underground Christian communities from modern theological currents of thought, many of them, through their own authentic living of faith, came to very similar conclusions as the greatest contemporary theologians in their theoretical theological works.

An example could be one underground Catholic community, which came to an agreement that the time came, and it was necessary for pastoral care that women were ordained as Catholic priests. Ľudmila Javorová was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1970. The ordination was performed by the secret bishop F.M. Davídek, who himself received his episcopal ordination in a secret way in the environment of the underground Church. At least 7 women were ordained as priests by Davidek. In 1996 the Vatican declared the ordinations as invalid as they were women. Javarová lives today in Brno in the Czech Republic.

Fall of the communist regime and new freedom for the Church

For all believers, the fall of the communist regime in 1989 was a huge relief. The Catholic tradition turned out to be able to survive the decades of the totalitarian communist regime. Bishop Korec (later appointed Cardinal), who was ordained as a bishop secretly during the totalitarian regime and became one of the most respected main representatives of the “underground” Church, became the main figure of the “newly-free” Catholic Church.

The first years after gaining freedom meant a huge boom for all Churches. People returned to churches on a mass scale. Hundreds of new church buildings were built (the communist regime had not allowed any new churches to be built before). A flood of religious literature appeared in bookstores. Hundreds of new candidates for the priesthood enrolled at the seminaries.

However, the Church was not able to get the most out of the newly acquired freedom. Once again, significant efforts were made to influence the country’s political direction, and the Church again aspired to dominate the society. The state returned to the Church a great portion of the property that the communist regime had deprived the Church of. However, the Church was unable to effectively manage the acquired property.

Nationalist tendencies began to manifest themselves in much of society (including the Church). Disagreements between Czechs and Slovaks culminated in 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into two independent states – the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Probably one of the most important legacies of Czechs and Slovaks with a global impact is the fact that the division of the country took place in a peaceful manner, after mutual agreement, when it was not necessary to fire a single shot (only hundreds of bottles of champagne were popped at celebrations in the streets).

After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Slovak bishops gained even more influence in society than they had had before, as the share of Catholics in Slovakia was significantly higher than in the former joint state.

However, the influence of the Church played a highly positive role as well. In 2003, a referendum was held on Slovakia’s accession to the European Union, which was supported by the bishops. It can be assumed that without their support, this key referendum would not have been successful.

What is Slovakia like today?

European trends have been penetrating also Slovakia in recent years, however. The wave of secularism and the loss of credibility of the Church is causing an outflow of believers. The Church is losing contact with the younger and partly also the middle generation. However, believers do not protest against the Church, but rather “vote with their feet.”

In order to restore the lost relevance of the Church, the Slovak bishops bet on the outbreak of a cultural war in society. In 2015, the Church, through the NGOs it influences, initiated a nationwide referendum aimed at the LGBTI community to tighten the already strict state laws regarding the LGBTI area. It also organised several mass marches “for life” with a pro-life agenda, which were attended by tens of thousands of people.

However, even these mass activities, which largely polarised society, did not increase the relevance of the Church. The Church has shifted significantly to the conservative spectrum, and an unbiased observer might get the impression that being a devout Catholic in Slovakia means predominantly being a supporter of conservative ideology.

The Census, which took place in the spring of this year, is expected to show a significant decline in the population registered with the Catholic Church. In recent years, the Catholic Church has faced a great outflow of believers and a loss of trust in society.
In addition, the COVID pandemic has shown several hesitant Catholics that it is possible to live without regular church attendance as well.

This is the Church that Pope Francis will find during his visit in September.

Traditional, mass, conservative.

Church that is closed and self-centred, losing relevance to people every year.

Church that lacks a vision for the future.

 

Rastislav Kocan, Bratislava, Slovakia
Vice-chairman of ok21 – Open Christianity for 21st Century
e-mail: kocan (AT) ok21.sk