Pope's words at Romani housing estate in Slovakia gave hope to those attending
Pope Francis on Tuesday urged the approximately 1 000 attendees of his appearance in Košice at Luník IX, the biggest housing estate inhabited by Romani people in Slovakia, to abandon prejudices and stereotypes and to integrate the Romani minority, who number at least 400 000 strong in the country of five million, and his words sparked hope among those attending the gathering. "These were unforgettable moments that - I am convinced - will have a direct impact on the future of many Romani children from this housing estate and from all over Slovakia," Slovak MEP Peter Pollák, himself a Romani community member representing the strongest governing movement in the country, Ordinary People and Independent Figures (OLaNO), told the press.
"During my first personal meeting with Pope Francis at the International Pilgrimage of Roma in 2015 his words at the Vatican moved me when he said that Romani people were at the center of the church's attention. Today he fulfilled those words," the MEP said, adding that Luník IX's Romani community is frequently condemned by outsiders.
According to the MEP, the Pope had come to spread a message of love, reconciliation and understanding. "He brings hope to impoverished Romani children, who deserve not just the attention of the church, but of all of society," the MEP said.
"He is a Pope who does not divide people, but who brings them together. His visit is also a bequest to all believers, proof that God does not differentiate, that God loves everybody, including the poor," the MEP added.
Ján Hero, a Romani community member who welcomed the Pope, expressed appreciation for the fact that the "representative of Jesus Christ on Earth", through his actions, was confirming what he has said about the need to come out of the churches, to go into the streets, and to seek out people on the outskirts of society, and by visiting a Romani housing estate, the Pope has managed to bring "the message of hope" there as well. Hero's wife Beáta, who is Slovak, welcomed the Pope's words, which she also perceived as personal encouragement to those who come face to face with prejudice.
The couple adopted two Romani children before giving birth to another child and said that they are "pleased that our children do not have prejudices, that they love each other, and that they love other children from Romani families." As for the Mayor of Luník IX, Marcel Šaňa, who is also Romani, he called the Pope's visit the experience of a lifetime and is proud of how the meeting with the head of the Catholic Church was a success for the Romani community.
"I believe the people who live here have experienced something similar to what I experienced as a believer," the mayor said. "It was actually emotionally very strong for me, a very interesting experience I will never forget for the rest of my life."
The mayor had hoped the Pope would actually walk among those attending the event, but time for that kind of interaction was unfortunately not built into the program. While there are still places on the housing estate where the water service is only turned on at two certain times of day, the mayor is assuring the public that after a quarter century of neglect, life at the housing estate is changing for the better.
The fact that the Pope was addressed at Luník IX by a young Romani couple who had grown up there and who had managed, with the aid of local clergy, to graduate from school and then fully integrate into society, is perceived by the mayor as encouragement for other young Romani families dreaming of a better life. As for Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for the Romani Community Andrea Bučková, she commented on the gathering as follows: "I myself experienced unforgettable, quite moving moments today during the meeting with the Holy Father at Luník IX."
"I am happy that we Romani men and women are in Pope Francis' heart and that he honored us with his presence. He himself chose this location because the impoverished, the weak and the marginalized have their dignity, too, and God loves everybody," the Plenipotentiary said.
"I believe we will not forget about people on the periphery of society after the Holy Father's visit ends and that we will take the bequest he has left us here in Slovakia to heart," the Plenipotentiary said. Slovak MP Peter Pollák, Jr, also a Romani community member, said he appreciated the Pope's words about the need to tear down fences and build bridges.
The MP made the remarks in a video posted to social media just after Pope Francis' visit ended. Pavol Hrabovecký of the Faculty of Theology in Košice told the Czech News Agency that: "When he was speaking in the cathedral during his gathering with the priests there, the Pope said one very interesting, spontaneous sentence: I am planting a seed that may yield fruit."
"That is quite important, especially for the situation at Luník IX. This is not just about local Romani people and Slovaks, but the Pope wants to send a signal to all of Slovak society - whether we are taking an interest in these people, whether we are at least doing something for them," the theologian said.
"I don't know what the Pope's visit can do, but the seed he wants to plant is something we can support through our own change. If we manage to do that, then his visit will be a success," Hrabovecký said.
A female religious, Sister Silvia Zábavová, spoke of the Pope's visit as a great gift and said that she has been working among Romani people for so long that she herself feels Romani. "What I really like about him (the Pope) is that he shows a God who is not just holy and sublime, but also human, so close to all of us, irrespective of what kind of people we are and who we are," the nun said.
"He's like a father who comes to you and encourages you," she said of the feeling of satisfaction the Pope's visit among Romani people in particular has awakened in her. Cleric Peter Bešenyei, the secretary of the Council on Roma and Minorities at the Slovak Bishops' Conference, said he believes that "There are moments in people's lives that change their future, and so I believe this, too, is a milestone and something will shift - not throughout the entire housing estate, but in individuals who may be willing to do something with themselves, too."
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