Pope Francis opened his first full day in Slovakia by meeting with church and state leaders ahead of an encounter with the country’s Jewish community to honour its Holocaust dead and atone for Catholic complicity in Second World War-era racial laws and crimes.
Francis arrived at the presidential palace on Monday, and later at the capital’s St Martin cathedral, looking well and rested on the second day of his four-day pilgrimage to Hungary and Slovakia which marks his first international outing since undergoing intestinal surgery in July.
“I’m still alive!” Francis quipped when asked by an Italian journalist how he was feeling as he walked up a ramp into the cathedral for a meeting with Slovak priests and nuns, where he cracked a series of jokes in a sign he was in good spirits, too.
Francis, 84, has been recovering after having 13 inches of his colon removed for what the Vatican said was a severe narrowing of the large intestine.
He has seemed in good form, though he used a golf cart buggy indoors on Sunday during a rigorous day in Budapest to limit a long walk, and has been delivering some speeches sitting down.
On Monday in Bratislava, he told President Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia’s first female president, that the coronavirus pandemic had been the greatest test in recent history, but that it should offer a lesson for the future.
“It has taught us how easy it is, even when we are all in the same boat, to withdraw and think only of ourselves.
“Let us instead set out anew from the realisation that all of us are frail and in need of others.”
Ahead of a rigorous two days hop-scotching around Slovakia, Francis is spending Monday in Bratislava where the highlight of his visit is an afternoon encounter at the capital’s Holocaust memorial, built on the site of a synagogue destroyed by the communist regime in the 1960s.
He goes into the event having called on Sunday for Christians and Jews to work together to stop the rise of antisemitism in Europe, saying it is a “fuse which must not be allowed to burn”.
Slovakia declared its independence from Czechoslovakia on March 14 1939 and became a Nazi puppet state with a politician and Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso becoming the country’s president.
Under his rule, the country adopted strict anti-Jewish laws and deported some 75,000 Jews to Nazi death camps where some 68,000 perished.
Tiso was sentenced to death and hanged in 1947.
Now, only about 5,000 Jews live in Slovakia, a largely Roman Catholic country of 5.5 million currently ruled by a four-party centre-right coalition government.
Just last week, the government formally apologised for the racial laws that stripped the country’s Jews of their human and civil rights, prevented their access to education and authorised the transfer of their property to non-Jewish owners.
Marking the 80th anniversary of the Jewish Code adopted on Sept 9, 1941, the government said in a statement on September 8 that it “feels a moral obligation today to publicly express sorrow over the crimes committed by the past regime”.
The code was considered one of the toughest anti-Jewish laws adopted in Europe during the war.
Slovakia is now home to the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia party, which has had members in Slovakia’s Parliament since 2016.
The party openly advocates the legacy of the Slovak Nazi puppet Second World War state.
Its members use Nazi salutes and want Slovakia out of the European Union and Nato.