Slovak Public School Kids Go to Catholic Mass on This Day

First Day of School

September 12, 2011

By Allan Stevo

As American kids celebrated Labor Day, Slovak kids went back to school.  Because there is a centralized system of education, some guy sitting in a government office in Bratislava says when every grade school and high school – both state schools and church schools – goes back to school.  This year that was on September 5.

In some communities in Slovakia, that also meant that hundreds of kids walked down the street that stretched from their public grade school’s doors to the local Roman Catholic Church, where they prayed for a good year ahead.

Separation of church and state isn’t all that significant an idea in Slovakia the way it is in the U.S.

In the U.S., the mere act of prayer in a public school is controversial.  “It can be enough to trigger a court case,” I pointed out to a table of Slovak adults earlier this week.

“That’s how it was during communism,” one said “They wanted to stop you from worshiping.”

This comparison isn’t all that accurate, in my opinion, but the idea that the law be used to keep a person from worshiping freely is one that Slovaks can easily relate to communism, in a very general way.  Both the American and former Czechoslovak governments appear to be an essentially atheist governments telling people when they will and will not worship.  The U.S. Government is far from atheist – invoking God’s name wins politicians big points in the polls, so of course the government wouldn’t be atheist.  Hopefully a more important issue in the equation is that the US has had a long history of trying to avoid oppression of minority religious groups.  America has not always been successful at that, but it’s still worth noting the intent.

The idea that a minority religious group might not want to attend a Roman Catholic mass isn’t all that controversial of an idea in Slovakia, because hurt feelings aren’t enough to sway most Slovaks into a big political ‘to do.’  Some minority religious groups in Slovakia are:

Lutheran –,

Greek Catholic –,

Reformed – – website in Hungarian only,

Orthodox –,

Baptist Brethren –,

Brethren –,

Methodist –,

Czechoslovak Husite (I was unable to find a website for this church – Update 17 Sept 2011 – thank you to D. Misina for sending this to me –,

Apostolic –,

Seventh Day Adventist –,

Old Catholic –

I can guarantee that many, many Slovaks, whether Roman Catholic or a member of another religious group, would just respond to a member of a minority religious group’s hurt feelings by saying “Just don’t go to church on September 5 then.  What’s the big deal?”  Simple, straightforward, “just get over yourself” is the Slovak solution to a lot of things that become headline news in the U.S.

In Slovakia, it even goes one step further than simply sending kids off to mass on the first day of school.  Priests and pastors in Slovakia are state employees.  In the year 2011 in Slovakia, pastors and priests have their salaries paid from tax coffers.  Teachers in church schools also have their salaries paid by from state coffers.

While one may think this weak separation of church and state is good for religious institutions, I am of quite the opposite opinion.  I think the Slovak government’s support of Slovak churches is harmful to the well-being of churches.  Pastors and churches in Slovakia don’t have to hustle for money, because pastors are employed by the state and their salaries guaranteed.

Imagine how much harder you’d have to work as a pastor or priest if you knew that there was a very real chance that your church might go under in the next six months.  If your church didn’t grow, if that offering plate didn’t continue to pay the bills, you’d be fired and shipped off to some hidden corner of Slovakia that you really wouldn’t want to be in.  The risk of failure helps to build more robust churches.  “Pressure makes diamonds,” said Patton.

The risk of failure can be motivational.  The government guarantee that they won’t fail, leaves me with the feeling that the churches are not working toward their full potential.  It’s contradictory to what you’d expect – state support of churches seems to harm churches. The same is true for other nonprofit organizations, in my experience.  Those that can generate private funds are the most impressive.  They have clearly expressed what they intend to do with funds raised, have convinced people of the worth of those projects and of the organization, and will likely be held accountable by those who gave them the funds.

I believe removing churches from that same process of voluntary contribution is harmful to churches. In fact, I see that it is harmful to them simply by comparing organizations and churches that take government funds – throughout the world – and those that don’t.  Those that stand on their own are churches that have more energy.

I’m always impressed when I hear of the story of Dudince – a village that built its Lutheran church in the 1990’s without state funding – or Oravska Polhora – a village that built its Roman Catholic church DURING COMMUNISM against the will of the government and without state funding.  The Brethren Church in Bratislava on Cukrova Street  was built quietly in the same way.  It doesn’t even look like a church from the outside. Examples like these show that the community is a cut above the others by being able to rally people around a cause and get them to open their pocketbooks.  Privately funded institutions are a rare solution in Slovakia, where a common solution for charity is that the state be approached to fund the charity.

It’s sort of backwards, and an abuse of the authority to tax when the Parliament says “sure, we’ll fund your charity” instead of saying “if your charity’s so good, why don’t you go out and find donors on your own.”  I’m not for a moment saying that I don’t believe that there are charities out there who do good work and are deserving of more money; I’m saying that the way a charity should be funded is through the voluntary gifts of donors who believe in that charity, rather than through taxpayer money (which is far from voluntary).  Voluntarily giving is better for charities in the long run, because it forces charities to prove themselves, to really hustle, and to build relationships with donors who really believe in their cause (unlike most Slovak congregations).

I fear the U.S. is headed more in the direction of the state being expected to increasingly fund charities, when private funding of charities seems to create stronger charitable institutions.  The U.S. can learn something from Slovakia on this one – once a dependency on state coffers is established, its hard for a charitable organization to return to a state of independence.

But by no means do I intend to say that Slovak churches are run in a bad way and American churches do everything right.  The two countries have very different histories of religious freedom and oppression.  Both ways seem to currently be working for churches in both places, or at least working well enough to not require that it be urgently changed.  But to an American the idea that a pastor’s salary and the salaries of teachers at church schools be paid by the state is surely surprising.  One should not throw stones from a glass house, however.  There’s is a little something about American church-state relations that can make almost any Slovak uncomfortable.

It’s the fact that churches tend to be non-profit organizations and that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service – the government institution charged with implementing tax law in the U.S.) reserves the right to withdraw a church’s non-profit status depending on what is said in the pulpit.  It hearkens back, for a Slovak, to a less comfortable era for believers.  It was an era that George Orwell presciently wrote about in his book Animal Farm(click the title or the photo to find Animal Farm on Amazon).

Orwell based the character Moses the tame Raven on the seemingly contradictory relationships between atheist communist governments and Christian churches.  Moses the Raven preached about the afterlife and morality, but fed from the hands of the dictator – calling into question where the raven’s true allegiance was.  Moses the Raven represents churches like those in former Czechoslovakia that were funded by the atheist communist government.  Today a system of funding church activity, similar to the communist system, is still in place in Slovakia.

During communism, pastors were paid by the government, churches financed by the government.  This, you must remember, was an openly atheist government that made church going very difficult. It made baptisms hard, punished people and their children for church participation – even denying education to the children and relatives of ministers – and made the process of educating clergy difficult.  The communist government was an openly atheist and virulently anti-religious government that actually funded the activities of the church.  That seems so contradictory as to be ridiculous.  However, as Orwell implies in the case of Moses the Tame – when the church feeds from the hands of the government, the government is able to exert great influence over the church.

As Warren Buffet’s buddy Charlie Munger says “Whose bread I eat, whose song I sing” (A translation of the Slavic saying “Čí chlieb ješ, toho pieseň spievaj”).  By funding churches, the government was able to influence those churches.  Churches are still funded by the Slovak government, but in all honesty, this doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people since Slovaks believe that their government is not capable enough to abuse that power the way communist governments were.  At the same time, when something oppressive is done by the government, the idea “only in Slovakia” or “of course this can happen in Slovakia” is recited by many.  It doesn’t seem all thatbothersome to people when its government reserves potentially oppressive powers for itself.  Furthermore, one must remember – the idea that government “support” of churches is harmful to churches takes a little bit of digging around to finally understand.  It seems obvious to many that government should be expected to fund churches because that is the only system that many in Slovakia remember.  After so many years of government oppression of Christians, it seems fair to many that the government be asked to help in supporting Christian churches.

The American government (a seemingly more capable and possibly more decent government from the view of some Slovaks in sort of a “the grass is always greener” way) even claiming a power like that for itself (the power to censure the pulpit), however, can be bothersome to Slovaks. America’s the distant, unfamiliar beacon of freedom that they’ve long heard of.  Many are surprised when they hear little tidbits of life in the United States that are less than ideal – often brought home by a travelling relative or neighbor – and are surprised to find out that the freest country on the planet has a few flaws of its own.

I’m ready for it.  I’d love to hear an answer from you on the following:  what are things that Slovaks get right (or any other country you’ve been to), but that you disagree with in your own country?  What is something that Slovaks get wrong (or any other country you’ve been to) that you love about your own country?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • William C. Wormuth

    Sep 12th, 2011

    We do have Catholic and other Religious Schools. They are not publicly funded and must be paid for by parents. The schools are funded by the diocese:
    My Home Town Public School District:

    Z Bohom,


  • Vilo,
    I think I miscommunicated somewhere. I know that the U.S. has religious schools. What is interesting to me is that Slovak public school kids go together to the local Roman Catholic church, which I think might not be allowed in the same way in the U.S. as it is in Slovakia. My apologies if I stated otherwise. Thank you.

  • Allan,
    Our genealogy group would so like to have that list of religion denominations in Slovak. Can I have your permission to use it there?
    Michael Mojher

  • Michael,
    Please feel free to put these to use. Off the top of my head, I know that there’s also a Jewish community (with a prominent history in Bratislava – the renown Chatam Sofer was a rabbi in Bratislava), a Muslim community (that from time to time seeks to reopen the debate on opening a cultural center), a Mormon community (complete with young Mormons from the US on a mission) , a Baha’i community (that has a school near Bratislava that seems to be affiliated – Forel School), and a Hare Krishna community (with at least one restaurant that I know of – Govinda) in Slovakia.

  • It seems to me that what I have experienced from Slovakians in my family and in Slovakia, is that they do the best job they can, whatever it may be. Even many Americans have this trait….but it may have been inherited from our European ancestors.

  • Cynthia,
    Thank you. I agree that this seems to be common for Slovak and for many people I’ve encountered – they try to do the best job they can.

  • Kent Spring

    Sep 13th, 2011

    Hi Allan –

    A good article, although I think that mostly schools in the US are pretty clear on the idea of prayer. Students can voluntarily pray in the school, with only a restriction on appropriate assembly (NOT during a class time, or outside a big test room). On the other hand, if a prayer is brought into a required assembly the school leadership in open to a court challenge. The idea that a child (minority religion?) would be forced to be absent for an otherwise required assembly in order to stay “pure’ would not fly in the US.

    Once again, thanks for the article!

  • Kent,
    Thank you for the expert opinion. I have never taught in a public school in the U.S. and appreciate having the feedback on this.

  • Reflecting on the topic of religions; it’s clear that in Slovakia it is a homogenous (similar) mix of related religions so having a national day of prayer in school is easy to do. Whereas in the U.S. we have a heterogenous (dissimilar) group of religions some of which have viewpoints in direct conflict of Christian teachings or of the American Constitution. So no wonder prayer in the U.S. public school system is so controversial. But it can be doable too. The best method might be silent prayer without extreme physical expressions (kneeling, etc.) of faith ???

  • Cynthia,
    Good point. I had a teacher in high school who started every class with a moment of silence. I think perhaps he called it a moment of meditation in which you may pray if you wish” or something along those lines. Probably believers and non-believers had no trouble with this. You make a good point about the physical expressions being the difference between a moment of silence and a style of prayer among religious groups. Thank you for pointing this out, Cynthia.

  • Hi Allan, good article. I’m sure you’re also aware that between the wars (during “The First Republic”) church was self-supported and state only supported pastors in poor regions or paid pastors who also worked as public employees in municipalities. I think, it’d be good for church to ‘go back’ to that idea. I also think, church should initiate this process and not to be pushed to it.

  • Dano,
    I actually did not know that. Thank you for the insight. I like your suggestion that the church open up discussion on that topic, rather than waiting to be pushed.

  • Julia Matchett

    Sep 17th, 2011

    When I went to public school in the ’50s, on LI, NY, we did not have school prayer. You don’t miss what you didn’t have. When I was in high school, we were allowed to leave an hour early on Fridays and taken by school bus to the Catholic School for religious instructions.
    We sang religious songs in public school at Christmas and Easter. I’m sorry that this has been taken away from children here in Florida.

  • Julia,
    Thank you for the insight on this one and thank you for setting the time and the place – public school, Long Island, 1950s – It’s fascinating to me how city to city traditions and local policies can be different in the U.S. It’s something I really appreciate. You also raise a good point in your last sentence – maybe we Americans have grown hypersensitive about religion.
    Thank you.

  • You’ve probably learned from your time in Slovakia that it is a much, much more collective society than the U.S. Americans value individualism and standing up to the majority — in fact, our founders often spoke about how protecting the minority from the “tyranny of the majority.” This is not a value in Slovakia. People do not wish to stand out. So, it would be impossible for a schoolchild who did not identify as Catholic to oppose prayer in school, or for their parents to speak out against it. That is true even though most Slovaks are only nominally Catholic. Talk about tyranny of the majority, so I thank my lucky stars that the American system by and large still considers religion a private matter, which is what it is.

  • Stefan,
    I agree with what you have written. I also am happy that religion remains largely private, both in my own life and in America in general. I do think that political rights develop when a group of people force those rights to develop. For example, America’s version of religious freedom (and Slovakia’s as well for that matter) came only after many people insisted on having those freedoms. I don’t think it would be impossible for a schoolchild in Slovakia to speak out, but I think it would be very unlikely. I feel in your comment that you feel for such a child being exposed to the tyranny of the majority. I think without that child speaking up, the tyranny of the majority won’t ever end. In general, do you think that Slovaks are more comfortable leaving things as they are, and Americans are more comfortable than Slovaks in making a big public stink? I see value in both methods and sometimes get tired of the issues that make headlines in the U.S., because I sometimes feel like we can be a country of cry babies, but when it comes down to it, the people who are willing to stand up for something they believe in are oftentimes doing me a favor, because when they stand up for their own rights, they stand up for my rights as well. Thank you for your insightful comments on this Stefan.

  • Allan,

    interesting article. I agree with your views on Slovak government subsidy and preference for Catholic church. No good – not for the state, not for the church.

    Under communism in former Czechoslovakia, all religious personnel that was not jailed or banned from public speaking had to apply for a state permit to function in his church capacity. If given the permit, they were put on government payroll (the salary btw was a poverty-level).
    The priests and pastors were therefore very careful not to “make trouble” and did not confront the communist terror, propaganda and injustice in any meaningful way prior to 1989.

    The churches in Czech Rep and Slovakia claim that they will trade their government salaries for the return of church property that the state confiscated after turning Communist in 1948 – state says it’s been all spent and ruined, no money etc. Sad state of affairs.

    There is no ‘separation of state and religion” in the USA. The coins have “In God We Trust” motto, there are crosses and Stars of David in Arlington National Cemetery and American military cemeteries in Europe, the Congress starts its session with a prayer, the Declaration says that we have certain rights given to us by a Creator.
    What we have is no preference or subsidy for a specific church, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers wanted. Our basic civil rights are not debatable – they were not granted to us by a simple majority of some assembly or by a government declaration – that’s the key difference I see between U.S. citizenship and citizenship in Europe.

    1st Amendment says “Congress shall make no laws establishing religion – or prohibiting its free exercise” – so say if a school board in some town decides there should be a prayer, it’s OK by me and I see it as a great example of democracy in action. The same school board can just as quickly forbid it, if the voters want them.
    The whole thing about “wall of separation” is mostly non-sense, IMHO. Good luck to Slovaks – this is just one of those things they still have to figure out – like every post-communist nation…

  • Martin,
    Thank you for your fascinating insight on this. It sounds like a lot of pastors and priests were kept on a tight leash. Very interesting.

  • Allan, unfortunately, communist dictatorships are durable. It lasted 80 years in Russia, or look at Cuba and North Korea. American understanding of liberty is the only road to human dignity I know…
    Keep on writing!

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