Presov, Slovakia

Pope Francis said on Tuesday that the cross should not be used as a political symbol and warned against Christians trying to be triumphalist, in an apparent criticism of the use of religion for partisan ends.

Francis flew to the city of Presov, in eastern Slovakia, where he presided at a long service known as a Divine Liturgy, a Byzantine rite used by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

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Pope Francis arrives to lead the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Presov, Slovakia, on 14th September. PICTURE: Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa

The Pope wove his homily around the theme of Christian identity, saying crosses and crucifixes were often used superficially by Christians.

Speaking to about 30,000 worshippers, he said many Christians had crucifixes or crosses around their necks, on walls in their homes, in their cars and in their pockets but had no real relationship with Jesus.

"What good is this, unless we stop to look at the crucified Jesus and open our hearts to him," he said. "Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status."

In 1950 in Presov, the communist authorities forced the Eastern Rite Catholics, who owe their allegiance to the Pope, to join the Orthodox Church. A number of Eastern Rite clerics who refused were jailed.

Appeal to religion
In Hungary, where the Pope stopped briefly on Sunday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has appealed to religious sentiment in his anti-immigrant and nationalist politics, saying that Hungary's Christian heritage risked disappearing.

After his meeting with the Pope on Sunday, Orban said he asked the pontiff "not to let Christian Hungary perish". The Pope said in Hungary that the country could preserve its Christian roots while opening up to the needy.

At the liturgy on Tuesday, Francis also again appeared to warn Christians against the use of their religion in so-called culture wars that he believes hurt the common good.

"How often do we long for a Christianity of winners, a triumphalist Christianity that is important and influential, that receives glory and honour?" he said.

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Pope Francis leads the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in Presov, Slovakia, on 14th September. PICTURE: Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa.

In Slovakia, the far-right Kotlebovci-People's Party Our Slovakia says it stands on three pillars - Christian, national and social - and has vowed to prevent immigration of mostly Muslim refugees.

"The cross is not a flag to wave, but the pure source of a new way of living," Francis said, adding that a true believer "views no one as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or sister".

A number of political parties in Europe, including several far-right parties in the east, use crosses on their party flags or symbols.

In Hungary, one of Orban's government allies, the tiny Christian Democratic Peoples' Party (KDNP), uses a cross on their symbol. The far-right nationalist Our Homeland Party (Mi Hazank) uses the Byzantine cross, which has two horizontal beams.

"People cannot be pigeonholed"
Later, during a visit to one of the most impoverished communities in Slovakia, the Pope condemned prejudice and discrimination against Europe's Roma, saying it was wrong to pigeonhole entire ethnic groups.

Speaking at the bleak Lunik IX settlement on the outskirts of Slovakia's second biggest city, Kosice, the Pope - speaking while overlooking the dilapidated concrete apartment blocs where about 4,300 people live next to the city garbage dump, said "[w]e cannot reduce the reality of others to fit our own pre-packaged ideas; people cannot be pigeonholed."

"All too often you have been the object of prejudice and harsh judgments, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures," he said, after addresses from a Catholic priest who helps in the community and from several residents.

"As a result, we are all poorer in humanity," he said.

There are around 440,000 Roma living in Slovakia, most of them in the eastern part of the country of 5.5 million.

The Roma, who migrated to Europe from India in the 10th century, have long faced persecution around the world, living on the fringes of society and struggling for work.

In Lunik's squalid and dangerous living conditions, many residents burn whatever they can during the winter to stay warm because many buildings lack heating, making for poor air quality.

"He is bringing some joy to this place," a Roma woman told reporters through a translator.

The jobless rate among Slovak Roma stands far above the national 7.7 per cent level.

In April, Slovakia adopted a strategy to improve the Roma situation by 2030 with a focus on employment, education, healthcare and housing.

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Pope Francis attends a meeting with members of the Roma Community at Lunik IX district in Kosice, Slovakia, on 14th September. PICTURE: Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa

Addressing residents from an open stage covered by white cloth with flower designs painted by Roma children, the Pope said that God saw people as equal. Some residents watched from balconies with peeling paint.

"Judgment and prejudice only increase distances. Hostility and sharp words are not helpful. Marginalising others accomplishes nothing. Segregating ourselves and other people eventually leads to anger," he said.

Father Marian Deahos, who works with Roma people in a nearby town, said stereotypes made integration and communication difficult.

"The biggest problem is that everybody thinks gypsies, Roma people, are inferior," he told a reporter.

"Everybody thinks that they steal, that they don't want to work. Everybody thinks they should stay in a ghetto like this and not be part of society among us," he said.

In his address, the Pope asked the Roma to go forward "step by step, with honest work, in the dignity of earning your daily bread."

Message to youth
Later at the large Lokomotiva stadium in the Slovakian city of Kosice, the Pope addressed thousands of youth. Despite the evil in the world and the many who are concerned only with themselves, Francis said, “don’t let this affect you.”

“Don’t be dismayed or yield to those who tell you that nothing will ever change,” he added. “Once you start believing that, you will soon yield to pessimism, the sickness that ages us from within; your youth will quickly grow old.”

He warned younger generations against the “spreaders of negativity” and “those who appeal to dreams but instead peddle illusions.” He urged them not to give in to pessimism or glumness. “We were not made to be downcast, but to look up to heaven,” he said.

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Pope Francis meets with young people at Lokomotiva Stadium in Košice, Slovakia, on Tuesday, 14th September. PICTURE: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia).

After riding among the faithful aboard his popemobile, Francis listened as three young people described their experiences and asked questions about faith, forgiveness and love. In his speech, marked by a strong pastoral undertone, the Pope offered words of advice.

“Today, being really original and revolutionary means rebelling against the culture of the ephemeral, going beyond shallow instincts and momentary pleasures, and choosing to love with every fibre of your being, for the rest of your life,” he said.

Responding to the testimony of a young couple, the Pope said love is never easy. Like in the great stories told in books and movies, love requires “adventure, heroism,” he said. “If we look to the crucified Jesus, we find both boundless love and the courage to give one’s life to the utmost, without half-measures,” he added.

When it comes to the sacrament of confession, where Catholics ask God for forgiveness of their sins, the Pope urged young faithful to not be silenced by their sense of guilt.

“Feeling ashamed is a good sign, but like any other sign, it points to the road we need to follow,” he said. “Don’t let shame imprison you, because God is never ashamed of you. He loves you in the very place where you feel ashamed. And he loves you always.”

The Pope returns to Rome on Wednesday. 

- Additional reporting by GERGELY SZAKAC in Budapest, Hungary; With CLAIRE GIANGRAVE, of Religion News Service.