Interview with Father L’ubomír Urbančok, Slovak traditionalist Catholic priest: “Like everywhere else, here too we are subject to a powerful influence which pushes us towards secularization and liberalization. “
Ferenc Almássy met with Father L’ubomír Urbančok in the city of Trnava, Slovakia, commonly known as the “Rome of Slovakia”. Slovak and ethnically Hungarian by his mother, polyglot, Father L’ubomír trained as an astronomer the University of Prague. This young traditionalist priest, in his early thirties, is very busy. Active on social media, he strives to popularize Latin Mass and to appeal to the younger generations. He does not hide his conservative views either, which he assumes and defends, especially in the Press.
In this interview, Father L’ubomír addresses various subjects: the state of the Church in Slovakia, a country deemed to be very Catholic but where, like everywhere else, churches are emptying – in particular since Covid; the Pope’s visit to Slovakia; the future of the mass in Latin; his conservative view on Pope Francis’ progressive positions; or the decline of the Faith and the strengthening of liberals in Slovakia.
Ferenc Almássy: Thank you Father L’ubomir for this interview with the Visegrad Post! You were the archbishop’s secretary in Trnava, now you are the general secretary, based in Rome. Now of course however you aren’t there. Aside from this position, you are responsible for the Latin Masses in the diocese.
Father Lyubomir: These are my most prominent tasks, but my most important job now is to focus on education.
Ferenc Almássy : And you’re active online. For instance, you’ve introduced many people to Latin masses.
Father Lyubomir: Yes.
Ferenc Almássy: Which is also very interesting, considering that a few months ago, the Pope – I am simplifying here – made a move against Latin mass. So I would start with this question: What is your opinion? What do you think of this document? Or: what do you think is the future of Latin Mass?
Father Lyubomir: Regarding the Holy Father’s document entitled “Traditiones custodes“, it represents an evolution which was foreseeable. We had been talking about the preparation of such an initiative for a very long time. Certain problems have been pointed out by Cardinal Burke, and also by other bishops: it would appear that this document contains a number of contradictions. With regard to the main argument presented by the Holy Father, namely that we sometimes find ourselves in a quandary regarding the parishioners who follow Old Rite Masses – per example, steming from the fact that they do not know the teachings of the Second Vatican Council – this is an understandable concern on his part. As Pope, this is his mission: to monitor what is going on in the Church. So that’s understandable. But as far as I am concerned, even before this document, when I was presented (as a priest) with the argument that there are parishioners who do not accept the Second Vatican Council, I always replied that I also celebrate New Rite Masses – reformed rite -, and that I confess parishioners who attend. And that I too could very well say that, among those who attend these Reformed Rite Masses, there are some who do not accept the teachings of the Church …
It is very sad that believers are made to believe that the liturgy of the Church itself would be a source of division: this Holy Mass in itself which we believe – as Catholics – renders unto us present Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Of this Christ, who came into the world to give his life out of love of Man and for the salvation of the world. For a Catholic, it is unimaginable that the Holy Mass would serve to divide believers within the Church. If the problem that the Holy Father seeks to resolve is division, then we ought to probably say to ourselves above all that the liturgy cannot be the cause of division … Throughout History, the Holy Mass has never been a source of division – and one of the main reasons I love Old Rite Mass is that it makes it easier for me to live in the community of saints. When I was ordained a priest, Grace allowed that I should go through Ars, in France – where I return regularly for my summer holidays -, and that I be granted, as a newly ordained priest, the privilege of celebrating mass on the Holy Curé d’Ars’ altar with his very own chalice. Which is a privilege reserved to newly ordained priests and bishops. It was then that I understood the magnitude of this force that emanated from the fact that I was celebrating Mass exactly as he had celebrated it … So I think that here lies what is most important, and it is what I always say to parishioners: that we must relate to our traditional Holy Mass like the poor sinners that we are, and that the very dense symbolism it contains is there come to our aid in our failings. So I try to avoid any controversy in this matter. Of course, you also have to speak openly, but without losing sight of the essentials. And the main thing for me is that the Holy Mass helps believers to meet God. The important thing for me is that we talk about the basics. And the bottom line is that.
Ferenc Almássy: Slovakia is a country of 5.5 million people, which was once part of Czechoslovakia, it also went through communism, and despite everything, we are used to saying that it is a very Catholic country. What is it really like now? How is Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church faring in Slovakia?
Father Lyubomir: Indeed it is as you say; Not long ago, I came across an interesting article, which claimed that in the year 2000, the Vatican itself had a Europe-wide poll carried out, which showed that the most Catholic state was Slovakia – in terms of the number of priestly vocations per 100,000 Catholic inhabitants. That’s even more than Poland! If I remember correctly, Slovakia had 16 vocations per 100,000 inhabitants, to Poland’s 13. We can therefore say that, in a certain way, communism protected us from a type of secularism which began earlier in the West, as well as from the sexual revolution and May 1968. It ought to be noted that where repression is the strongest, the Christian faith spreads the most.
That is indeed a factor. At the end of communism, in the 90s, there was a real boom in vocations. In many cases, these were priests who, under communism, could not be ordained. For example, I knew a man who had waited 20 years to be able to be ordained a priest.
Indeed, these are beautiful stories, but even in this context it is no less important to understand that we too in Slovakia, like the Hungarians and the Poles, are now part of this Europe. And like everywhere else, here too we are subject to a powerful influence which pushes us towards secularization and liberalization.
Now, as to how we can react to these negative influences … It is important to understand what our identity is, that we are aware of what we believe in. And the weaker the Faith … But it is not based only on a tradition, but also on a knowledge: to know why we are Catholics. While I was studying in Prague, I once went for a walk with one of my female friends, when we were joined on our walk by one of her friends, who introduced herself by saying she came from a certain village in Slovakia. As soon as she said its name, I knew she was Catholic. Because this type of village still exists – although very exceptionally – where, figuratively speaking that out of a total population of 5,000 souls, 4,000 go to Sunday mass. There too, attendance has dropped sharply, but back then it was still like that. Suddenly, I didn’t bother asking her if she was Catholic or Protestant … I immediately asked her where she was attending mass in Prague. To which she replied that in Prague she didn’t go to mass. Looking at her, I asked her why she didn’t, despite coming from such a religious village. “Because here, it’s customary to no go to mass” – that’s literally what she answered. It was then that I understood the importance of awareness, of identity: how crucial it is that I know why I am attending Holy Mass. Why I am a Roman Catholic Christian. The great danger is that when you do something in large quantities, often quality suffers. And in my opinion, this is also true in matters of faith.
It could therefore well be that believers are less numerous today, that their numbers will decrease – that is in fact certain -, and we will also have to discuss the influence that Covid had in this matter … But what makes me confident is the certainty that quality will increase. Likewise, the influence of the Internet seems to me to be extremely positive, because the Church is unfortunately also going through a deep crisis, so much so that nowadays – it is sad to say – I meet very few, even among priests and bishops, who speak of fundamental questions. As a priest, it is important that I speak – among other things – about this: that, when I look at my parishioners, I see souls. When I meet someone on the street, I have to see not only a person, but also a soul. But how many are we in today’s church to share this view? And when I see this soul, and I know it may be in danger, it might risk eternal damnation – how many of us are still talking about this today? Or is it better, in order to improve our public image, to give all the“do-gooder” rhetorics, telling people to “love each other”, and other “easy-fit” slogans, whilst avoiding the essentials? The very worrying situation in the West is starting to spread at home too: seminaries are starving for candidates.
Ferenc Almássy: What is the relationship between the Church and state in Slovakia today?
Father Lyubomir: That’s a difficult question to answer. It is, in any event, a close relationship to some extent, as it is the state that provides much of the Church’s finances. So there is a unity: a close cooperation between Church and State.
Ferenc Almássy: Did this relationship develop as soon as the regime changed?
Father Lyubomir: It always was, including under communism, and it remained that way. The first amendment to the related Communist law was just two years ago. The Church is funded by the state in proportion to the number of practising Catholics. This rule does not apply only to Catholics. Under the current agreement, the amounts are redefined at each census. Currently we are awaiting the results of a census carried out in recent months. The Church has tried to put pressure on believers so that they, when participating in the census, participate as Catholics. We do not yet know how successful we have been; in any case, what certainly did not help the success of the operation was that Slovakia kept its churches closed for a very long time – probably the longest in Europe – so much so that when bishops decided to publish a pastoral letter to encourage believers to live their faith, they could only do so through the Internet. Regardless, according to the results of the previous census, 68% of the Slovak population is Catholic. The new figure will probably give a much lower proportion.
Ferenc Almássy: And the remaining 32%?
Father Lyubomir: There are Greek Catholics and many Lutherans.
Ferenc Almássy: Is the latter growing?
Father Lyubomir: No, no Church would increase its numbers.
Ferenc Almássy: The rest are then perhaps agnostic?
Father Lyubomir: They must have described themselves as individuals without religious convictions. It is interesting to note that this time, certain groups – it is not known who is behind these groups – carried out a very violent campaign: they even communicated by means of posters, to put pressure on people and get them to declare themselves without religious convictions. Some have even described themselves as “followers of pálinka” [brandy from the Carpathian Basin, with a high alcoholic percentage], an ingenious means of increasing the number of those who will be counted as non-religious. And all this is not unrelated to the current political situation in Slovakia, because our President of the Republic, Zuzana Čaputová, comes from an ultra-liberal party. Which is quite paradoxical since she was totally unknown six months prior to the elections. She became known through a media campaign – carried out mainly on the Internet -, which promoted the activity she had carried out in connection with the landfill located in the territory of a small town near here, named Pezinok – or Bazin in Hungarian. And this campaign has taught us that, overnight, she decided to become President of the Republic. In the meantime, she has been divorced twice, and is now raising two children with a new lover, with whom she probably lives in cohabitation. Moreover, she declared herself in favour of abortion, and, the most paradoxical, is that the Archbishop of Trnava – appointed by Benedict XVI, who then forced him to resign because of his very liberal ideas – himself supported Čaputová’s campaign. Regarding Monsignor Bezák, it should also be noted that after being forced to resign, he worked, until June of this year, as a religion teacher in a Protestant high school, before leaving – he is probably retired now.
So we can say that this liberal propaganda is very powerful here, and I assume that it has a lot to do with this process of division and demolition of the Slovak Church. For, as I said before, we have many believers who lack all knowledge of the faith. As for our President of the Republic … at first glance, she is a lady that you might consider pretty, she is kind, smiling, always speaks very vaguely, and, for a majority of Slovaks, that was probably enough to convince them to vote for her, even as Catholics. One can of course also wonder to what extent these elections offered a real alternative; but still, as a Roman Catholic, I cannot approve of a candidate who came out in favour of abortion. She, of course, says that it is up to each woman to decide freely on the matter, even though she herself would not make such a choice. But she was still a founding member of this ultraliberal Slovak party – indeed the very first Slovak party of its kind. In the last election, they almost got into parliament, and current polls show their voting intentions are on the rise. I am talking about the party called Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), which naturally also supports the LGBTQ agenda.
Ferenc Almássy: You mentioned Covid, and the consequences it has had on the Church – and in particular the fact that, over the eighteen months, church attendance has declined significantly. Interestingly, some Polish priests – including an archbishop – recently broke the silence, by declaring that after a year and a half, now, we are exaggerating by taking steps that we have never taken in times of war, nor in any past epidemics. How can we explain that it is in very Catholic Poland and very Catholic Slovakia that we have found, that we are finding at this very moment, and will perhaps continue to find the most brutal measures against the Church?
Father Lyubomir: This is a difficult question for me, and I would like to introduce a distinction. I find it very positive that in Poland, a few months ago, Monsignor Gądecki broke his silence to say that the Church, unless she had previously consented to it, will never again accept being affected by containment measures as those recently imposed. Then, of course, there is this current Prime Minister, in power for a little over six months, who describes himself as a true believer, but belongs to some sort of charismatic group, and whom it is very difficult to understand – through his words, even less through his actions – what exactly he believes in. I may have heard that he pointed out that it was wrong to take such steps against the Church – the trouble is, even before he became Prime Minister, he was already part of this government, and should therefore have had the opportunity to take a stand against said measures.
Here, as soon as anyone dared to express a somewhat critical opinion on the matter, they were looked down upon. Among our bishops, our archbishop is unfortunately the only one – and I want his name to be remembered: Monsignor János Oros – to have dared to speakout. This is the only position taken that has been acknowledged, as found in the Gospel of Saint John the Baptist’s voice, crying out in the desert. Then, much later, the bishops’ conference issued an appeal asking the state to reconsider the situation. But here we are, we come back to what I have already mentioned on several occasions: the question of knowing where our conscience is, and what rights are ours. Because if I am convinced that it is the sovereign right of the Church to exercise its activities, to proclaim the Good News, then I have no need to ask anyone for permission to exercise this activity. That right is mine. Because in doing so, I de facto recognize a right of state interference. In this area, we can again and always take an example from the United States of America. Because there, liberalism – taken in the positive sense of the word – really means that I am free, and that it is up to me to decide what to do. That’s why I like to say that the real liberals, literally, are us: the Catholics. Because we must certainly believe in what God has revealed to us: our Catholic faith – but for everything else, everyone can have, as free men – by virtue of the freedom that God conferred on him – their own opinion. As for the “freedom given to us by the state” to worship God, it is a freedom of which history gives us no example. And, day after day, we accept it without flinching … We could talk about France, where our faith only lives in very small groups. As I told you, I like to go to spend my summer holidays there, and as I like the Old Rite Holy Mass, I like to frequent communities which practice it, and there faith is truly alive, I see many young families, and many vocations. These believers were able – and here we can also mention certain charismatics, such as those of the Emmanuel de Paray-le-Monial community – to go very seriously to their cathedrals’ squares, to protest and pray. These are the kind of reactions that I missed here, and I see it as a sign: for me, this means that with us, faith really only exists on the outside, but that it’s not really alive.
Ferenc Almássy: Do you mean that this faith could be in fact a social habit, an obligation?
Father Lyubomir: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. There is a very marked trend here. Therefore, when you say that Slovaks are good Catholics, believers, I must unfortunately answer you that it is more about cultural habits. Of course we also welcomed Dennis Prager, and he made several videos in which he competently says, following the tradition of Saint Thomas, that customs are of great importance, and that happiness is a series of little habits. But I can not stay with the habits. In daily life, we too, priests, believers, get up in the morning, I say my priestly prayers, I celebrate mass, I have a number of activities which are the same every day. All of this is of great importance, but it is not enough.
Faith must be alive, to determine every minute of my life. What bothers me, in all these European debates, and also in our national debates, is that we are forbidden to speak openly about the causes of the fall in the number of believers. Because if anyone claimed that even faith is no longer able to motivate man today, that would be a lie. How could I believe that Christ, whom so many have followed – if only out of curiosity – would not also attract men of our time? So these are very important questions that we must ask. But I may have strayed from the topic …
Ferenc Almássy: It doesn’t matter, this conversation is fascinating. But let’s come back to the topic of the relationship between Church, state and Covid. How do you think this will influence you in the future? – in other words: what to expect in the near and distant future of the Church?
Father Lyubomir: Again I have to give a very general answer, namely that, as I have observed – to revert to the first question -, traditional Holy Mass … I am not saying that it is better … I don’t like this kind of comparison: what is worth less, what is worth more … but we again forget to look at the problem: what causes disaffection for religious practice? And why do we refuse to see that certain things have a pulling power over believers today, and if it worked in the past, why shouldn’t it be valid today? Isn’t it curious to note that this same liturgy, which the Church has preserved for a millennium and a half, keeps intact its power of attraction over people? And shouldn’t we be happy about it?
On the one hand, there are complaints that churches are emptying … Last year, Dutch Cardinal Eijk published a book of great beauty, which shows that, even though we might think that the Church is dead in Holland, there are small very lively communities, and he recognizes that it is precisely among the followers of the Old Rite that they are found. So the whole answer to your question depends on this: can we, yes or no, speak freely about the reasons why there are places where the number of believers is increasing, and places where it is decreasing? In those parishes where Old Rite Masses are practised, for example, it is increasing. You will find there young families, young priests. Why do communities of this kind have so many priestly vocations?
These are questions that everyone in the Church refuses to talk about. And until we talk about it, we can’t answer the question of the future of the Church.
The future of the Church – as Cardinal Sarah has so beautifully said, in books that have been translated into Hungarian, or Father Balázs Barsi, one of my favourites in Hungary – is this: the more she will proclaim the Good News of Christ, the more believers it will attract; if, on the other hand, she tries to stay on good terms with the world, her closer to her end she gets. But the Church will never have an end: it is Christ who guarantees it in his Gospel – Christ, who never said that the world will be inhabited only by believers. It is very important that we understand this, because the rest of us do not think only in a formal fashion – the criticism that the Holy Father has offered of the Old Rite: is that we should not stop at forms, and it is warranted. Because this form of liturgy helps us, by leading us to more intimate depths. And it’s about national identity, it’s about faith, because these things are interrelated. As long as we live our faith this way, we will find answers that could not be clearer to all these questions abounding in the debates of our generation – for example the debate one surrounding the LGBT question.
We Europeans are Christians – yes, but there you have it: what does “being a Christian” mean? It points to that same faith in Christ, whom our ancestors believed as we did. On a human scale, of course, there have always been problems, and always will be – idealising the past would be wrong. But it is all the more important for the Church to affirm that this world is not an earthly paradise – contrary to what Communists sought to convince us of. This is precisely why the Church must also speak of eternity. As long as we are here on Earth, life will never be perfect. Despite everything, what should motivate us is the expectation of the perfect life that is promised to us in the afterlife.
Ferenc Almássy: On September 12, the Pope was in Budapest, then he visited Slovakia. What is the significance of this papal visit?
Father Lyubomir: Now, this is a very delicate question you are asking me. It is a great honour for any state to receive Saint Peter’s successor – the importance of which stems from the fact that said Saint Peter received from Christ the following mission: “to strengthen yours in their faith”. This is what we expect of the Holy Father: that he strengthens us in our Catholic faith. This is his mission, and from this point of view, the announcement of his visit was excellent news. On the airwaves of Mária Rádió (which broadcasts from Budapest), I catechized on the theme of the Eucharist, in preparation for the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest – of which I have very moving memories. One day, while I was catechizing from a historical point of view, speaking of the visit, in 1938, of Cardinal Pacelli to Budapest, an old gentleman, phoning to the radio, told us that, as a little child, he took part in this event, and told us how it was important to him. Even today, he remembers seeing Cardinal Pacelli – who later became pope under the name of Pius XII – parading the Eucharist. These visits are therefore wonderful events and offer a unique opportunity to encourage many people in their faith.
On the other hand, unfortunately, it must be said that in Slovakia, the state has reduced the Church to such extremes that only the vaccinated would be allowed to attend the Holy Father’s visit; after which they backed off, but the unvaccinated had to attend separately. This is, of course, a normal thing wherever this green pass system – which I do not approve of of course – has been applied, but in these countries this system not only allows access for the vaccinated, but also access for those who (like me) have recovered from the disease, and those who test negative. By announcing, two months before the papal visit, that only the vaccinated could attend, the idea was probably – given that Slovakia is one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe – to take the opportunity to encourage the people to get vaccinated. Only here it is: that did not happen. Two weeks prior to the the visit, of nearly half a million places available at the four masses announced, only 30,000 places had been reserved. Finally, there were around 100,000 reservations. There are even many priests who could not attend because they were not vaccinated. So it eventually became a sad event, and most people – including priests I know – were able to watch the visit on television at best, but were unable to attend in person – for the reasons I just explained. Now, that just happens to be in contradiction with what the Holy Father often says – an idea which I really like very much: that he would like the shepherds to smell like their flock (in Italian: il pastore deve avere l’odore delle peccore).
Priests, bishops and the Holy Father, too, are not there only for the vaccinated. There must be great freedom in this matter – and this many tend to forget this. Despite this it is true that the Holy Father has recommended that people get vaccinated – but this is only a trivial matter. The Pope enjoys the primacy in order of documents, but among the documents that can be called official, the first is the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which declares – with the approval of Pope Francis – that it is up to individuals to decide alone and freely whether or not they want to be vaccinated. What has happened in Slovakia is therefore – one might say – the following paradox: we invite the Holy Father, but the state – contrary to official Vatican documents – has forced the Church to restrict access to this event, excluding the unvaccinated. We can therefore say that it hindered the work of the Holy Father, as shepherd of the whole Church, and the accomplishment of his mission during his visit. Perhaps that is the answer I shall give you. As for politics, I would like to stay out of it.
Ferenc Almássy: This is understandable, but I would still like to ask one last question – as we are already talking about the Pope and his well known liberal politics – one could even say: progressive. What effects do they have on the more conservative Catholics of Central Europe, and in particular of Slovakia?
Father Lyubomir: All popes are very influential. So it makes sense that, even for a President of the United States, meeting the Pope is not that easy. If he wasn’t an important figure, why would all the heads of state rush to his door? But we have to distinguish personalities from their function: even Benedict XVI, himself a theologian who loved to write, when he wrote his book entitled Jesus of Nazareth, signed “Joseph Ratzinger”. And in his preface, he writes that he intended this book to provide a subject for debate – prompting everyone to comment on it, even if it was unfavourably. It is very important to understand this: the Pope is only considered as the supreme teacher of the doctrine of the faith, during specific moments in which he speaks as the very first doctor of faith within the Church. And these moments don’t happen every day. Suddenly, many try to pass personal opinions of the Holy Father for ecclesial teachings. But the Holy Father’s conversations on board of a plane, his conversations with journalists, etc. often only betray his own personal opinions. What matters to us is what the Pope says as Pope, and we pray that the Pope’s mission is to strengthen believers in their faith: that is the command Jesus gave to Peter.
I remember the time when, as a seminarian, I studied canon law in Rome; the professor who taught us the philosophy of law asked us: does the Suprema Potestas mean that it is the Pope who has supreme power within the Church? Now there are four definitions of the power exercised by the Pope over the Church. One of them asserts that he is the supreme power – Suprema Potestas in Latin: he is the supremus legislator, that is, the highest source of Church law. “But does that mean – the professor asked us – that if Pope Francis called me on the phone this afternoon to say ‘Eduardo, it’s me, Francis, and I order you to get married!’, would he have the right to do so? I remember being the only one raising my hand, tit for tat, no! ’- which got me a lot of outraged looks. Couldn’t the Pope do whatever he wants? Well no! The Pope is only Pope as long as, in the service of the doctrine of the faith within the Church, he is there to strengthen believers in their faith. And so are we, it is very important that we do not consider the person of the Holy Father differently, that we pray a lot for him, and that we take care not to forget that the history of the Church is full of cases in which, unfortunately, the actions of the Pope did not really help encourage faith. This too is a reality. But for us, this too must serve as an example, to make us appreciate that despite disproportionate obstacles the Church still manages to move forward, and this should encourage us. It is important that this encourages us in our faith, that we know that, sinful as I am – I too, although I may be a priest, I have my faults, I am often wrong – despite everything, it is I whom God elected, just as he had chosen twelve simple fishermen, to become the first apostles. It would, of course, be wrong to oversimplify, but they were really simple people. And we can see how Saint Peter himself behaved: he denied Christ three times. This is why I would answer that question diplomatically.