Tensions rise over COVID vaccines as bishops organize Pope Francis’ visit to Slovakia

Slovakian flags fly at the presidential palace in the capital, Bratislava. The Slovakian flag flies at the Presidential Palace in the capital, Bratislava. | Jorge Andrade via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

As a visit from Pope Francis approaches, Slovakia is seeing rising political tensions and growing opposition to the COVID vaccine.

Last month, Slovakia’s bishops announced that only people who had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could attend events organized for Pope Francis’ Sept. 13-15 visit. Meanwhile, more than half of people in the central European country are unvaccinated, and a growing number say they do not want to receive the COVID vaccine at all.

“We knew there would be some problems with this,” Fr. Martin Kramara, the spokesman for the Slovakian bishops’ conference, told CNA, in reference to the obligation to be vaccinated.

Vladimír Lengvarský, Slovakia’s health minister, said in a July 20 press conference that the decision had been made in cooperation with the Slovakian bishops’ conference.

In his own statement to reporters, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský of Bratislava, the president of the bishops’ conference, said that the bishops “see this decision in the context of our demand that as many people as possible should be able to participate in the meetings with the Holy Father.”

Kramara told a group of journalists a week later that the vaccine mandate was a “condition of the state that we did not invent.” The bishops agreed to the condition because the alternative was limiting attendance at each event to 1,000 participants, the priest explained in a phone interview with CNA.

“For us, [the decision] was clear if the alternative was this,” he said. “I think that [the COVID vaccine] is also useful and even good for people’s health. But there are some groups which are against it and do not believe [in] it. There are people who, even for health reasons, cannot get vaccinated…”

“Naturally, we looked for alternatives, such as a rapid or molecular COVID-19 test that people could take. However, the state told us this will be the requirement.”

Slovakia has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 vaccination in Europe, with just 50.9% of the population having received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Aug. 25, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

A Slovak Academy of Sciences poll in July found that 36% of Slovakians said they did not want to receive the COVID vaccine, up from 30.9% in May.

The same month, hundreds of people gathered outside Slovakia’s parliament in protest of possible new vaccine rules.

According to one young Slovakian priest, the objection to the COVID-19 vaccine stems from political divisions, rather than questions about the ethical or moral implications of getting the shot, and some have seen the pressure to vaccinate as unjust.

“Political questions dominate,” Fr. Andrej Krekáč of the Slovakian Diocese of Žilina told CNA. A student of bioethics in Rome, Krekáč said that since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, he had seen a change to online discourse and an increase in misinformation.

“And then it’s not just about the vaccine, though that’s a part of the questions that are present,” he said. “There’s a skepticism of society, I’d say, a mistrust in politics, in the vaccine, in doctors, in the work of doctors, questions arise again and again…”

Krekáč said that this mistrust was further clouded by the Slovakian government’s restrictions affecting the Catholic Church during the pandemic.

“Many Christians, especially Catholics, see that the state has controlled even the life of the Church -- Masses were suspended for a long time, almost half a year -- so many believers were impacted by that,” he noted.

“Recently, we’ve seen that the state’s regulations are not always just, also toward the Church.”

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“Then when we talk … about the life of the Church and the visit of the pope to Slovakia, and then a regulation comes from the state, it is seen as an unjust regulation,” he explained.

The priest also said that some people think Pope Francis himself demanded that everyone be vaccinated, since he has frequently encouraged people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fr. Tomáš Šandrik, another Slovakian priest studying in Rome, said that the spread of the Delta variant had led some politicians to push for a vaccine pass for access to certain indoor settings, such as movie theaters and restaurants, which has further divided those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

“This is creating a lot of tension,” Šandrik underlined.

Pope Francis will arrive in Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, from Budapest on Sept. 12. His first two days will be devoted to meetings with smaller groups, including an ecumenical event with Christian leaders and encounters with political authorities, the local Jewish community, and Catholic bishops and clergy.

Francis will then fly to the eastern part of Slovakia. In Prešov, he will celebrate a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, and in Košice he will meet with the local Roma community. The day will finish with an encounter with young people in the Košice stadium.

His final day will include a prayer service with bishops at the national shrine of the Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Šaštín, followed by the celebration of Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

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Kramara, the bishops’ spokesman, told CNA that the two events in Košice could theoretically have up to 50,000 people in attendance. And the Mass at the national shrine in Šaštín, while it technically has no limit on the number of people who can attend, is expected to possibly draw 100,000 participants.

He said that the COVID-19 vaccination requirement had been the biggest difficulty the bishops faced in organizing the visit of Pope Francis to Slovakia -- both from a messaging and technical perspective.

Just figuring out how to handle event registration -- and how to verify participants’ vaccination status -- has been “a challenge,” he said.

On the bishops’ website for the papal trip, those registering have to attach a copy of their European “green pass” or “COVID certificate” to prove their vaccination status.

Those who are signing up also have to select a box stating that they agree to “not promote any political party, initiative, or other movements” at the papal event.

The bishops’ spokesman said that “the conditions, the circumstances are what they are, but it’s a great thing that the pope is coming, so let’s not let ourselves become discouraged by the circumstances.”

Fr. Šandrik said he hoped that Pope Francis’ visit would not inflame tensions over the COVID vaccine and other issues in the country.

“I hope what he says will also be understood well,” he commented.

Fr. Krekáč pointed out that Pope Francis is very intentional about which countries he chooses to visit, and “he doesn’t go everywhere,” expressing surprise that he chose the “little country” of Slovakia, which has a population of 5.5 million people.

He said that, as has happened elsewhere in Europe, many people in Slovakia have lost the sense of what it means to really live the Catholic faith of their forefathers.

“We often learn from history but we don’t know what to do today and in the future,” he emphasized. “And this maybe is also the challenge which the pope’s visit can give us – a new look at all this, how to live the faith.”

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