Pope Francis’ trip to Slovakia this Sunday will be “a historic moment,” according to the country’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Marek Lisanský, who has held the post since 2018, told CNA that the pope’s decision to visit the Central European country with a population of 5.5 million was surprising.

But he said that it would be “for sure a historical moment for Slovakia.”

“It shows Pope Francis’ continued support and huge attention paid to cultural and spiritual dialogue,” he commented.

The pope will arrive in Slovakia on Sept. 12, traveling from the capital Bratislava to the cities of Košice and Prešov, and ending the trip on Sept. 15 at the Marian shrine of Šaštín, where Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows is venerated.

Lisanský stressed that all the pope’s stops would be meaningful.

Bratislava, he said, is “our capital and symbol of our independence, but also a unique example of central European heritage and history, with Roman, Christian, and Jewish roots.”

The city is situated in southwestern Slovakia, near the border with Austria, and occupies both banks of the River Danube, Europe’s second-longest river after the Volga in Russia.

“Two thousand years ago, the Danube was the edge of the Roman Empire, with a Roman castle in the place of Bratislava Castle,” the ambassador explained.

More in Europe

“The first Great Moravian basilica was founded there 12 centuries ago. And in the 20th century, Bratislava witnessed the tragedies of the Nazi and communist regimes.”

Košice, in eastern Slovakia, is “a unique example of cultural dialog between all 13 national minorities living there peacefully for centuries,” he commented.

Prešov, also in the east, epitomizes the ecumenical atmosphere and dialogue of different Christian communities, he said, recalling that it is the seat of both the Greek Catholic metropolitan and the Orthodox patriarchate.

“The city also has a solid heritage of the Lutheran Church and Jewish community,” he said.

Finally, Šaštín is home to the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, the patroness of Slovakia.

Lisanský said that the shrine symbolizes “our spiritual life, Christian tradition, and special spiritual devotion to the Mother of our Lord for centuries.”

The ambassador suggested that Slovakia offered an example of dialogue with the coexistence of its 13 officially recognized national minorities: Hungarian, Roma, Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Czech, German, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, Russian, Jewish, Moravian, and Bulgarian.

(Story continues below)

Addressing diplomacy, Lisanský described relations between the Holy See and Slovakia as active and dynamic. There have been four official visits to the pope and papal audiences in the past three years. The last one took place in December, when President Zuzana Čaputová visited the pope, despite the obstacles presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

The ambassador said that Vatican-Slovakia relations focused on solidarity and brotherhood, as “mankind is facing a very complicated time, a time of the global pandemic, a time of large social, security, and environmental crisis.”

He highlighted “the concept of ‘universal brotherhood’ and solidarity of mankind as the only way of salvation for a sick world.”

“This is the essential thesis of Pope Francis: ‘No one is saved alone.’ Therefore, Pope Francis will once again call on the international community to help the suffering population,” he said.

Slovakia was under communist rule during the Cold War, forming the eastern part of Czechoslovakia. During the “Night of the Barbarians” in 1950, the communist regime destroyed 76 convents. That year, a pseudo-synod held in Prešov abolished the Slovak Greek Catholic Church, which would rise again only after the Prague Spring in 1968.

Lisanský said: “The history of the Catholic Church in Slovakia is also the history of persecution during the communist system. For more than 40 years, the Church was one of the most dangerous enemies for the communist regime and the object of persecution and violence.”

“Bishops, priests, monks, and nuns were arrested, sentenced to prison, or persecuted by the secret police.”

“But martyrs -- like the Blessed Greek Catholic bishops Pavol Peter Gojdič and Michal Buzalka, Blessed Titus Zeman, or Sr. Zdenka Schelingová -- are real witnesses of the faith of the 20th century. They proved and testified that violence could not win against the Truth.”

According to the ambassador, the underground Church led by the bishop (and later cardinal) Ján Chryzostom Korec played a crucial role. At the same time, the Holy See’s support -- which even increased under Polish pope John Paul II -- kept Christianity alive in the country.

Lisanský also pointed to “the exceptional mission” of the Pontifical Slovak Institute and College of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Rome, which was founded in 1963 and served as a bulwark for Slovakian Catholics under communism.

He also praised the role of the Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the prefect emeritus of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples who, at the age of 97, is the world’s oldest living cardinal.

This will be the first papal visit to Slovakia in 25 years. John Paul II, the last pope to visit, traveled to the country three times, in 1990, 1995, and 2003.

“Pope Francis is coming to join us and to inspire, to bring inspiration for the young generation, to unite a society marked by more than a year of pandemic crisis that has brought fear into all areas of life, to encourage the society that more than ever needs spiritual support and unity,” said Lisanský.

“The Holy Father comes to enable us to decide always for the good and not just a single particular individual interest, to promote solidarity, humanity, and respect to each other.”