A Pope for the People

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Pope John Paul II first visited Slovenia between 17th and 19th May 1996, at the invitation of Milan Kucan, who was then Slovenia’s president. The Pope’s mission started with a visit to Brezje, where he prayed in front of the Virgin’s statue. After a function at Brdo pri Kranju, he moved on to Ljubljana where he blessed the new door of the city’s Cathedral, made by the well-known artist, Mirsad Begic. That evening, he also blessed those people who had committed their lives to the Catholic Church. The highlight of his visit came the next day, when 100,000 people turned out at StoZice stadium, on the outskirts of Ljubljana, to celebrate Mass with the pontiff. As he was known for being very close to the young, he chose to celebrate his 76th birthday surrounded by an ecstatic crowd of dancing youngsters from Postojna, thousands of whom wore yellow and white scarves bearing the motto Father, confirm us in our faith around their necks. In expressing his gratitude, he uttered the now legendary words (spoken in Slovene): PapeZ ‘ma vas rad (your Pope loves you). Some parts of his visit were closed to the media, including the Pope’s birthday lunch held in Brdo, which was attended by senior Church dignitaries from Slovenia. However, not all went to plan and some guests were up to an hour late due to traffic congestion, which caused the hosts no end of anxiety and embarrassment. In the manner that came to symbolise the Pope, he insisted that the meal shouldn’t begin before everyone gathered at the table. People loved the Pope. He was shown affection by almost everyone because of his natural charisma, simplicity, wit and sense of humour, which he often put on display at public ceremonies. When thousands of youngsters began to sing Happy Birthday to him in English for his 76th birthday, he stopped them and asked: “Wait a minute, am I in England or in Slovenia?” They immediately switched to singing in Slovene and the Pope smiled and seemed satisfied. After the Pope’s departure, there were many open debates centred on the visit. One of the strongest polemics, regarding the church and the remnants of the former communist regime in the country, was a sharp dialogue between the former Slovenian Archbishop, Dr Franc Rode, and the president of Slovenia at the time, Milan Kucan. In his editorial for the Osservatore Romano, prior to the Pope’s visit, Dr Rode mentioned that there was an atmosphere of fear in Slovenia due to the pre-independence structure that remained in power. Mr Kucan replied: “Personally, I don’t feel an atmosphere of fear. I suppose there probably are people who feel such an atmosphere. You should ask them about the reasons for such feelings, I’m sure that the atmosphere in Slovenia is tolerant and democratic enough for anyone who believes in his or her rights.” A New Saint for a New Nation? In fact, the Pope’s first visit to Slovenia also had some historical emphasis. It coincided with the 1250th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival on Slovene soil, when, in 746, two Carinthian princes were baptized. It also marked the 1200th anniversary of the Aquilea-Cividade Synod, which laid the groundwork for missionary and pastoral work among the people living south of the Drava River. Slovenia was also celebrating the 1111th anniversary of the death of the Slavic apostle, St Metod, as well as the 1000th anniversary of the writing of the Freising Manuscripts, the oldest surviving Slovene religious and cultural documents and the first catechismal-liturgical texts in the Slovene language. The Holy See was one of the first countries to react to the crucial political changes that occurred in the country during the early 1990’s. Under Pope John Paul II, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the supreme representative of the Vatican, the Holy See officially recognized the sovereignty of Slovenia on 13th January 1992. It established diplomatic relations with Ljubljana on 8th February 1992 and recognized, on 19th February 1993, the independence of the Slovenian Episcopal Conference, which had been established on 20th June 1983 under the auspices of the Yugoslav Episcopal Conference. On 24th June 1992, the Vatican appointed a nuncio to Slovenia. There were expectations that the Pope would beatify Bishop Anton Martin Slomsek during his first visit to Slovenia. But that had to wait until his second visit in 1999. During the beatification ceremony in Maribor, witnessed by 200,000 people crammed, on a hot and sunny September Sunday, into the esplanade of Betnava castle, the Pope said: “You must be proud, that a person like Slomsek was born in your country. He did a tremendous job for your history and your language!” No event had ever gathered such a large number of people together in Slovenia before. The celebrations went on for the whole day. In the evening he left from Maribor Airport but not before inscribing, for the second time, in the golden book of Maribor and receiving a very special gift from Maribor’s major, Boris Sovic – a bottle of wine from the world’s oldest vine, which is over 400-years old!. He Died as He Lived The death of Pope John Paul II affected the whole world, and traditionally Catholic Slovenia was no exception. The government declared Friday, 9th April, as an official day of mourning, and urged all Slovenians to pay their respects by observing a three-minute silence and to cancel all public events on the day. Flags flew at half mast from the time of the Pope’s death until after his funeral. Slovenia’s President, Janez Drnovsek, its Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, and the country’s Foreign Minister, Dimitrij Rupel, all attended the Pope’s funeral in the Vatican. The Slovenian Roman Catholic Church was represented by Ljubljana’s Archbishop and Slovenian Metropolitan, Alojz Uran, Maribor’s Bishop, Franc Kramberger, and Koper’s Bishop, Metod Pirih. After the funeral, journalists asked Mr Drnovsek what he had most admired about the Pope, to which he responded: “He was a big man. He did not hide his illness, he did not hide his suffering, and he gave hope to people. But most of all, he lived and died as a human!”