Summer has yet to come for the Roman Catholic Church

Trnava Archbishop Róbert Bezák speaks about modernising as well as tradition.

R. Bezák R. Bezák (Source: Courtesy of the Office of the Trnava Archbishop)

When Róbert Bezák was chosen to become the archbishop of Trnava in 2009, to the surprise of many people including himself, he soon came to be seen as a symbol of a generational change in Slovakia’s Roman Catholic Church. Two years later, he prefers not to comment on any peccadilloes of his predecessors and dismisses it as part of the past while focusing on his mission and his quest to make Catholicism a living part of society. In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Bezák spoke about his mission, his views on the diversity of the contemporary world, and the role of Roman Catholicism, the religion of some 70 percent of Slovaks, in the world of the 21st century.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): When you were appointed as archbishop of the Trnava Archdiocese you were perceived as a symbol of a change. What is new about your approach?

Róbert Bezák (RB): My ambition is to link the present to the past glory of the archdiocese because Trnava has always been an important centre of Christianity in Slovakia; but I also would like to move it further into the wider European space. At the start I was thinking how to enable the Roman Catholic Church, and mainly our diocese, to be perceived as part of the central European space. And that is where my idea to open up our churches is rooted, so that they are not strictly only places of religion, but also places of art, music and culture. I was pleased to find that in the surrounding countries churches have already launched this dimension, so we got in touch with Vienna, Brno, Olomouc, Hradec Králové, and also with places in Germany and the Netherlands where they have also opened their churches for one day for other than religious purposes. I’m glad that we too have already had our first Slovak Night of Churches [in May 2011]. For me it was a dream-come-true because there were times when one couldn’t think of inviting people to church; during the communist regime the church was treated strictly as a private place and if one went there one had to reckon with risks.

TSS: Was the Night of Churches received positively or have you also heard negative voices in Trnava, which has the image of a rather conservative town?

RB: It was a kind of a test not only for the people of Trnava but also for my own colleagues, the priests. Many of them were telling me everything is alright, that people still go to church and we don’t need to promote the church as they do in the west. But I used my powers I have as an archbishop to try and move their thinking further. The truth is that Slovak Christianity lives its own life in a way. We have no important theologians whom we could present to the world. Perhaps it sometimes seems that our Christianity is the Christianity of pilgrimages and elderly people, but I believe that deep inside there is a potential of an intellectual approach. That’s why I felt like I needed to push forward modernisation and more openness of the Catholic Church. And I believe I’ve managed to do so a little bit. It’s not only about the Night of Churches. I’d like to move the Slovak Roman Catholic Church into the European flow in the theological, charity and social areas as well. We’ve got a lot to learn from our colleagues from the surrounding countries – how they help people in need.

TSS: What is the difference between the Roman Catholic Church in Slovakia and abroad?

RB: Sometimes they say we are too conservative, afraid of what’s new. It’s true. Slovaks are more comfortable with emotiveness and familiarity, while rationality is still to be discovered. But elsewhere it’s the emotions that are missing, also in religion. There is a lack of joy from closeness, from the encounter. And then, the historical development was different. The churches around us have had to deal with other religions, and with Protestantism, which has caused shifts within the Roman Catholic Church too. In Slovakia that was less significant. It was a rural country where life followed a natural rhythm – work in spring and in summer, harvest in autumn, and rest in winter. And the religion accompanied this natural rhythm of life. There were few cities to serve as intellectual centres. Our development was simply different and we need time. Many people who studied abroad are coming back to Slovakia nowadays. They speak foreign languages and bring along new ideas. So I believe the summer has yet to come for the Slovak Roman Catholic Church.

TSS: Looking inside the churches during religious services, Slovaks still seem to be attracted, in comparison with other European countries.

RB: Churches seem full. During communism no new churches were built and thus those that we’ve got seem filled. The question is what the depth of the experience is. Sometimes I ask myself whether our believers live their personal experience with faith or whether they just submit to formalism, tradition, and the expectations of their surroundings. Here I must admit there is a long way ahead of us, from the mass experience to the personal experience. Sometimes it seems many people haven’t processed certain religious values inside; that they are not trying to understand them – but they still make it to church and participate at least externally.

TSS: The Roman Catholic Church was criticised for promoting formalism when it ran motivational campaigns before the census encouraging people to mark their religion in the census forms. Does it make sense for the church to have these ‘formal members’ even if they do not live with the religion in any way?

RB: As long as someone is still willing to say he or she is a Catholic, it shows something. Even if the religion has no practical dimension in the life of that person there is still the inner identification with Christianity. And that’s a good sign too. The question is whether we should perceive it in this very simple sense, or whether Catholicism should also be a force present in society. That is where statistics are not enough. I’d be glad if it wasn’t only about statistical data; I’d like Catholicism to be more visible practically. But the fact is that we live in a society that considers numbers. Democratic society counts votes. And the Roman Catholic Church is also considered according to how many votes it has got. This dimension of democracy is thus also important for us. The more votes, the happier we are; but we are aware that it is not the most important expression of Christianity in Slovakia.

TSS: What does the Roman Catholic Church offer to its believers today as they face new dilemmas? It does not always seem to be able to respond to current issues.

RB: The Roman Catholic Church is not an abstract institution; it’s composed of people. And together we are looking for answers. I don’t have them ready either; this world often surprises me with its opinions, its dynamics. I grew up not knowing what a computer or a cell phone is and today I can hardly do without them. Questions come faster than the answers. The life and morality of people moves at a tremendous speed and sometimes the only answers we’ve got are those from the past and they don’t always fit the present. The Roman Catholic Church must look for its own way to modernise itself. In Slovakia we lived for 40 years [during communism] only in our private lives, closed in the churches, and it was only very recently that we opened them up. But we also need to preserve our own identity rather than trying to please people at any price. The search is a common effort. I want to believe in the good will of people to search for the meaning of life, the meaning of relationships, and I want to believe that this concerns not only the elderly, but also young people who want to be happy. So we also want to ask what being happy means and search for the answers in the Bible. What is essential is close to everyone. Perhaps the costumes are different but the man is always the same.

TSS: One of the current challenges is diversity in all areas of life. For instance, non-heterosexual people are demanding their rights and want to be accepted and respected by society and that is not always in line with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

RB: Various differences are an issue within our Christian families too. For instance, the rising number of divorces does not concern only the worldly space, but also the Christian one. New phenomena within human relations appear. On the one hand they say that love doesn’t need a document – which is a problem for the Roman Catholic Church because it wants people who love each other to say it aloud and sign their commitment – on the other hand there are people who so very much want the document for homosexual couples. And the truth is that the Roman Catholic Church looks at some human relationships and expressions of love and sexuality with its “thousand-year-old” view. It’s not a dynamic organisation that lives only for the present moment. When I as a bishop talk to people about marriage, it is based on the tradition that has been here for 2,000 years and even before. I'm not moving in a space where I could say whatever crosses my mind. There are some divorced people among my relatives as well and I accept it. I feel sorry for that, but I tolerate it; but sometimes I ask myself where the borderline is. Does tolerance mean that everyone can do whatever they want?

And then the question is how much we can accept each other. So that it’s not that “you must accept me but I don’t like the fact that you are a Catholic and that you have your principles, because then your opinion about contraception and abortion is wrong”. Sometimes it seems that Christianity should more and more open itself to the world and accept its opinions but it is expected not to present its opinions and adjust. But many of our opinions are Biblical, such as the creation of a man and a woman, Adam and Eve. On some issues the Bible really offers clear borders. I feel we might approach a point that will be hard to pass through. There are many questions that might be easy to talk about but in the end it may not be that simple. I’d be glad if the Roman Catholic Church stayed responsible, even at the expense that it won’t be immediate in its statements about these issues.

TSS: Diversity is starting to show in the religious area and it is likely that the inflow of immigrants will intensify and they will bring their own religious traditions that are different from those established in Slovakia. Is the Roman Catholic Church ready for that?

RB: That will be the test of our ability to love, not only emotionally but also rationally. I’m looking forward to that because I think that it will tell us something about ourselves too. As long as everything is alright we don’t even know who we are. But it is in hard times that it really shows what it means to live as a Christian: whether spouses are willing to remain faithful to each other, whether they’ll be willing to protect life. That all shows only when the world around moves along a different track. The religions that will come here will be something like a competition for us. And the best one – not the most aggressive one, but the one with the best heart and the willingness to help – could be the winner. Not everything is equally strong. I’d like to see that Christianity still has something to say, because it talks about Christ, about the mutual sacrifice in love and about the offer of life. That is what we want to develop also in the practical dimension: charity, helping the homeless, helping the people excluded from society. This is what can resonate strongly also in those who don’t believe. Christianity could play a major role there. Just like Mother Theresa, who was precious because she offered help to people, even though another religion prevailed in India. But that religion perhaps wasn’t that strong in helping people. So let many other religions come and I believe mine will show its great force.

TSS: Does ecumenical dialogue work well in Slovakia?

RB: In that area we are still only searching and I’m afraid we are too focused on external matters that make religions different from each other – forgetting that every real religion is an invitation to love. This is how we should approach others, without trying to devour them, letting them live their own identity. There is a lot of work ahead. We are trying to cooperate in our small area with other churches. At the end there is always the same encounter, at the same place.

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