SASTIN, Slovakia (AP) — Pope Francis urged Slovakians on Wednesday to look out for the neediest among them as he ended his first post-surgery trip with a huge open-air Mass that drew tens of thousands of people amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Cheering, maskless crowds lined Francis’ motorcade route through Sastin, 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) from Slovakia’s western border, and they were rewarded with a slow-moving popemobile jaunt and a smiling, waving Francis as he arrived at the vast field.
Organizers said 60,000 people attended the Mass, the biggest crowd at any event during the pope's four-day pilgrimage to Slovakia.
The venue was the Our Lady of Sorrows national shrine, Slovakia’s most important one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where St. John Paul II prayed in 1995. Each Sept. 15, pilgrims from Slovakia and beyond flock to Sastin on the feast day of Slovakia’s patron, with some this year spending the night on the dusty field to get a better spot.
“You can imagine that I’m excited because he’s from Latin America,” said Erick Montalvo, a pilgrim from Mexico. “You feel it like you are kind of close to him because of that. And that’s a very nice feeling.”
During his homily, Francis urged the pilgrims to open their hearts to compassion and live a faith “that identifies with those who are hurting, suffering and forced to bear heavy crosses.”
He called them to live a “faith that does not remain abstract, but becomes incarnate in fellowship with those in need.”
The Mass was Francis’ only big event Wednesday before he returns to Rome after a four-day pilgrimage to Budapest, Hungary and Slovakia, a largely Roman Catholic country of 5.5 million people.
The pilgrims had to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to receive a barcode that gave them entry to the site. A few thousand non-vaccinated pilgrims were allowed in with proof of a negative test or having been cured of the virus. Hardly anyone in the crowd wore face masks.
With the delta variant dominating, new coronavirus cases have been on the rise recently, reaching 760 on Tuesday, the highest figure since April. Another four people died of COVID-19 on Tuesday for a total of 12,566.
Slovakia has been badly hit by the virus and was the nation with most COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world in the middle of February.
The country now has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU, with slightly more than 2 million having been fully vaccinated.
The purely religious finale capped a visit that featured delicate state diplomacy. Francis met with right-wing populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Day 1 and outreach to Slovakia’s Jewish and Roma communities.
The trip was Francis’ first since undergoing intestinal surgery to remove a 33-centimeter (13-inch) chunk of his colon in July. He has appeared in good form and spirit throughout the grueling itinerary, seemingly energized by the crowds after being cooped up in the Vatican for over a year of COVID-19 restrictions.
Francis has at least two other trips planned before the end of the year: a quick trip to Glasgow, Scotland, to participate in the U.N. climate conference in November, and a trip — not yet confirmed by the Vatican — to Greece, Cyprus and Malta in December.
Karel Janicek reported from Prague. Philipp Jenne contributed to this report.