Pope Francis returned to Hungary following his earlier trip for the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest on September 12, 2021. He is the second pontiff to visit the country after St. John Paul II, who visited in 1991 and 1996. The central image on the logo for this trip was the Szechenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary’s oldest bridge crossing the Danube. A symbol of the capital and the country, it was originally built to unite the cities of Buda and Pest. It clearly evokes the thought, repeatedly uttered by Pope Francis, of the importance of building bridges.
The pontiff left Fiumicino Airport at about 8:10 a.m., April 28, 2023, for Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport, where he landed at 10 a.m. He was greeted by the deputy prime minister at the foot of the plane’s front staircase, and two children in traditional dress offered him bread and salt. He then moved to the Sándor Palace in the Buda Castle district, which is the official residence of the president of the republic. Here the pope was ceremoniously welcomed by President Katalin Novák. Then the two leaders proceeded to the second floor for their private meeting, which was followed by one with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
It is essential to find the European soul
Later in the afternoon, the pope reached the hall of the former Carmelite monastery, the seat of the Hungarian head of government, where he met with political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, a number of businesspeople, and representatives of civil society and culture, about 200 people in all. The president gave a speech. This was followed by the pope’s own with a wide-ranging reflection addressed to the country, which recalled its history but also offered clear references for the future, including in light of its Christian tradition and European roots.
Francis spoke of Budapest – in the 150th year of its founding – as a “central place in history,” in “a country that acknowledges the value of freedom and, having paid so great a toll to the dictatorships, is conscious of its mission to preserve the treasure of democracy and the dream of peace.”
Francis directly connected the history of the state to that of the “unified path taken by Europe, in which Hungary finds its vital bedrock. In the postwar period, Europe represented, together with the United Nations, the great hope, in the common goal that a closer bond between nations would prevent further conflicts.” He then took the opportunity to reiterate the “passionate quest of a politics of community and the strengthening of multilateral relations,” at a time when we are witnessing the “sorry sunset of the choral dream of peace” as “the soloists of war now take over.” In general, Francis continued, “enthusiasm for building a peaceful and stable community of nations seems to be cooling, as zones of influence are marked out, differences accentuated, nationalism is on the rise and ever harsher judgments and language are used in confronting others. On the international level, it even seems that politics serves more to stir up emotions rather than to resolve problems, as the maturity attained after the horrors of war gives way to regression toward a kind of adolescent belligerence.”
This statement from the geographical heart of Europe roused strong emotions: “Peace will never come as the result of the pursuit of individual strategic interests, but only from policies capable of looking to the bigger picture, to the development of everyone, policies that are attentive to individuals, to the poor and to the future, and not merely to power, profit and present prospects.” He cited the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950: “At the present time, those dangers are many indeed; but I ask myself, thinking not least of war-torn Ukraine, where are creative efforts for peace?”
In Hungary Francis chose to firmly reiterate that “at this historical juncture, Europe is crucial, for thanks to its history, it represents the memory of humanity. In this sense, it is called to take up its proper role, which is to unite those far apart, to welcome other peoples and to refuse to consider anyone an eternal enemy. It is vital, then, to recover the European spirit.”
At the same time, Budapest is a city of bridges, which “link diverse realities,” and “also make us think of the importance of a unity that is not the same as uniformity.” Union for Francis means harmony of differences, capable of creating “a whole whose parts are not blandly homogenized,” which must feel “fully integrated with their proper identities preserved.” Significantly, the pontiff quoted the Hungarian constitution: “Individual freedom can only be complete in cooperation with others,” and again, “we believe that our national culture is a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity.” Therefore, he concluded, “I think of a Europe that is not hostage to its parts, neither falling prey to self-referential forms of populism nor resorting to a fluid, if not vapid, supranationalism that loses sight of the life of its peoples.”
Finally, he called Budapest a city of saints: Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, but also his family: his wife, Blessed Gisela, and son, Saint Emeric. He also mentioned St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who died at the age of 24 after renouncing all her possessions and distributing everything to the poor. These are saints who knew how to live charity effectively. St. Stephen bequeathed to his son “extraordinary words of fraternity, saying that those who come there with different languages and customs ‘adorn the country.’ Indeed, he wrote, ‘a country that has only one language and one custom is weak and fragile. For this reason I urge you to welcome strangers with benevolence and to hold them in esteem, so that they prefer to be with you rather than elsewhere’ (Admonitions, VI).”
These words gave Francis the cue to talk about welcoming, which “is a heated issue in our time, and is surely complex.” For those who are Christians, the only basic attitude “cannot differ from what St. Stephen recommended.” Therefore, “it is urgent, as Europe, to work for secure and legal corridors and established processes for meeting an epochal challenge that is ineluctable and needs to be acknowledged, in order to prepare a future that, unless it is shared, will not exist.” These values of solidarity, Francis recalled, are imprinted in the country’s constitution, which asserts, “We have a general duty to protect the vulnerable and the poor.”
Afterwards Francis went to the nunciature, located in Hegyvidék, a very green and hilly area of Buda, on the western bank of the Danube. The building was designed in 1991. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Hungary, established in 1920, were interrupted after World War II, during the communist period, and resumed as of February 9, 1990.
A Church that knows how to welcome the challenges of the present with prophecy
In the afternoon, at 4:40 p.m., the pontiff went to St. Stephen’s Co-Cathedral. Named after the first king of Hungary, it is located in the center of the city of Budapest, in the Pest area, and boasts the title of co-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest, along with the Basilica of Esztergom. Its construction began in 1851. Work was completed in 1906. A chapel has held since 1945 the most beloved and revered relic of Hungarians, the mummified right hand of King St. Stephen, founder of the Hungarian nation and main architect of the spread of Christianity within the Magyar territory. Here the pope met with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, seminarians and pastoral workers. After some testimonies, he gave an address that offered a broad view of the Church and its way of facing the challenges of the present, an image that sees it not closing its ranks defensively, but open prophetically to discernment, seeking new ways, tools and languages.
Francis spoke of two temptations we must always guard against as a Church: catastrophic defeatism and worldly conformity. On the one hand, there “is a bleak reading of the present time, fueled by the defeatism of those who insist that all is lost, that we have lost the values of bygone days and have no idea where we are headed.” On the other hand, there is a risk “of a naive reading of our time, based on a comfortable conformism that would have us think that everything is basically fine, that the world has changed and we must simply adapt without thinking critically about it.”
Instead, the Gospel gives us “new eyes,” that is, “the grace of discernment, to enable us to approach our own time with openness, but also with a spirit of prophecy. In a word, a receptivity open to prophecy.” Thus we are called “to be open to the times in which we live, with their changes and challenges, and to see them as a fruitful plant pointing, as the Gospel says, to the time of the Lord’s future coming.” This prophetic aspect requires a spirit of discernment that helps “recognize the signs of God in the world around us, including places and situations that, while not explicitly Christian, challenge us and call for a response.”
In a country where the faith tradition is well-established but where secularism is spreading, the temptation may be “to respond with harshness, rejection and a combative attitude.” Instead, the new challenges can “represent opportunities for us as Christians, because they strengthen our faith and invite us to come to a deeper understanding of certain issues. They make us ask how these challenges can enter into dialogue with the Gospel, and to seek out new approaches, methods and means of communicating.” Thus, “the commitment to enter into dialogue with others in our current situation demands that the Christian community be present as a witness to the Gospel, capable of responding to questions and challenges without fear or rigidity.” At the end of the meeting, Francis retired to the nunciature.
A Church that speaks the language of sharing and inclusion
On Saturday, April 29, after celebrating Mass in private, the pope visited the Blessed László Batthyány-Strattmann Catholic Institute for the Blind and Special Home for Children. The facility is able to accommodate, in its kindergarten and elementary school for the blind, children who are visually impaired or have special educational needs, thanks to the presence of mental health professionals, the most modern educational and physiotherapeutic tools, as well as a swimming pool and a gymnasium. The Home for Blind Children was directed by Sister Anna Fehér – the “Mother Teresa of Hungary,” as she was called in the 1980s – until her death in 2021. The pope made a private visit, listening to the songs that the children performed for him.
From the Institute, he moved on to his next meeting at St. Elizabeth of Hungary church in the city’s historic Jewish quarter, where he arrived around 10:15 a.m. On the way he stopped to greet individually a group of about 100 children and young people from a nearby parish, dedicated to St. Ladislaus, who were waiting for him with prayers and songs. Along with them were some local residents.
The construction of St. Elizabeth’s Church dates back to 1895. The building, with three naves and a transept, has two 76-meter-high spires and a facade decorated with a Gothic-style rose window. Here Francis met with the poor and refugees. After listening to some testimonies, he gave a speech. He recalled that “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” This was the testimony of St. Elizabeth, daughter of kings, who grew up in an affluent court ambience, a luxurious and privileged environment. Touched and transformed by her encounter with Christ, she “soon felt a need to reject the riches and vanities of the world, sensing a desire to divest herself of them and to care for those in need.” Today as then, the pope said, “We need a Church that is fluent in the language of charity, that universal language which everyone can hear and understand, even those farthest from us, even those who are not believers.” “Charity,” he affirmed, “is much more than material and social assistance. It has to do with the whole person; it strives to put people back on their feet with the love of Jesus, a love that helps them to recover their beauty and their dignity.” At the end, a Roma group sang a song.
Then, around 11:30 a.m., the pope moved to the Budapest “Protection of the Mother of God” church. Built in 1881 to a design by Győző Czigler in the neo-Romanesque style, with one nave, it was originally the Roman Catholic parish church in the neighborhood. In 1904 the building was given to the Greek Catholic parish. The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church was reorganized by Pope Francis on March 20, 2015, and elevated to the status of Metropolitan Church sui iuris. The pope elevated the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog for Catholics of the Byzantine Rite to that of a Metropolitan Church, with its headquarters in Debrecen, and appointed Fülöp Kocsis, until then the eparchal bishop of Hajdúdorog, as its first Metropolitan. Francis paid a visit to the Greek Catholic community, stopping for prayer with the community. In greeting him, Msgr. Kocsis said, “For us Greek Catholics, belonging to the Catholic Church is particularly important. Since our birth, since our first unions, we have had to suffer a lot because of this dual membership.” Recalling the martyrs of the recent past, he said, “No one can doubt that, while trying to remain faithful to our Eastern roots, we do not wish to separate, but intend to become a bridge between the two sister Churches, since, in a certain sense, we belong to both.” Francis received a simple and symbolic gift: the Eastern Church rosary, the chotki or komboskini, handmade for this occasion by Greek Catholic youth and presented by some children. Finally, he went on to the nunciature.
In the afternoon at 3:50 p.m. he moved to the sports hall, the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna, for the meeting with the youth. After a traditional dance and testimonies, the pope gave a speech in which he said that “youth is a time of important questions and great answers.” It is important that there is someone to prompt and listen to their questions, and not to give easy, pre-packaged answers, but helping them to “fearlessly face the adventure of life as you search for the right answers.” The speech was very pointed and proactive: “Jesus wants us to accomplish great things. He doesn’t want us to be lazy ‘couch potatoes’; he doesn’t want us to be quiet and timid. Instead, he wants us to be alive, active, ready to take charge and make history. He never disparages our expectations but, on the contrary, raises the bar of our desires. Jesus would agree with a proverb of yours, which I hope I pronounce well: Aki mer az nyer. Those who dare, win the prize.”
But there is nothing competitive or sensationalist about this guidance. One must be deeply honest and true to oneself: “On every page, the Gospel tells us that the Lord does not do great things with exceptional people, but with ordinary and weak people like ourselves. […] Jesus, by his questions and by his love, together with his Spirit, acts deep within us to make us real, authentic people!”
This truth is tested by the spirit of sharing. Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes “started with a young person who shared with him, for the sake of others. In Jesus’ hands, the little he possessed became much. Faith is like that: it starts with giving freely, with enthusiasm and generosity, overcoming our fears and stepping forward!”
Eventually, around 5:30 p.m., Francis returned to the nunciature, where he had a private meeting with members of the Society of Jesus present in the country.
‘Let’s open the doors!’
On Sunday, April 30, at 8:40 a.m., Francis moved to the square dedicated to Lajos Kossuth (Kossuth Lajos tér), national hero and inspirational leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The square, located in the center of Budapest, is home to the neo-Gothic building of the Hungarian Parliament, the symbol of the capital. In the nation’s main square stands, among other things, the monument to Attila József, a famous Hungarian poet, and an underground memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Here the pope made a tour among the faithful in a popemobile. It was a bright day and Mass began at 9:30 a.m., celebrated in Latin and Hungarian in the presence of about 60,000 people. The prayer of the faithful was recited in German, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, Croatian, Slovak and Slovenian. In his homily Francis invited people to contemplate the image of the Good Shepherd, dwelling on two actions that, according to the Gospel, he performs for his sheep: “First he calls them, then he leads them out.” It begins with the call of God, with his desire to come to us, with his concern for each one of us, with the abundance of his mercy. The call to his fold is “inclusive and never excluding.” But after calling the sheep, the Shepherd “leads them out.” We can grasp this movement of entrance and exit from another image that Jesus uses, that of the door. “Jesus is the wide open door that enables us to enter into the Father’s fellowship and experience his mercy. Yet, as we all know, open doors are not only for entering, but also for leaving. After bringing us back into God’s embrace and into the fold of the Church, Jesus is the door that leads us out into the world. He urges us to go forth and encounter our brothers and sisters.”
Hence Francis’ appeal, “Please: let us open the doors!” It is sad and hurts to see “the closed doors of our indifference toward the underprivileged and those who suffer; the doors we close toward those who are foreign or unlike us, toward migrants or the poor.” There are even, the pope pointed out, “closed doors within our ecclesial communities: doors closed to other people, closed to the world, closed to those who are ‘irregular,’ closed to those who long for God’s forgiveness.” He therefore asked us to be “like Jesus: an open door, a door that is never shut in anyone’s face, a door that enables everyone to enter and experience the beauty of the Lord’s love and forgiveness.”
At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Péter Erdő, Metropolitan Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, delivered an address of greeting to the pontiff, who recited the Regina Caeli. In his words preceding the prayer, the pontiff said, “It is a beautiful thing when borders do not represent boundaries that separate, but points of contact, and when believers in Christ emphasize first the charity that unites us, rather than the historical, cultural and religious differences that divide us.” This was a clear message, already repeated several times in the previous two days, addressed to a country that has borders in its DNA, as Cardinal Erdö had said in his greeting, singling out Hungary as a country that first was on the borders of the Roman Empire and then of the Frankish Empire, and in the Ottoman Empire was the northernmost region, in the heart of Europe.
Then Francis addressed Mary, recalling the war on Hungary’s eastern borders, saying, “In a special way, watch over the neighboring, beleaguered Ukrainian people and the Russian people, both consecrated to you. You, who are the Queen of Peace, instill in the hearts of peoples and their leaders the desire to build peace and to give the younger generations a future of hope, not war, a future full of cradles, not tombs, a world of brothers and sisters, not walls and barricades.” At the end of the celebration Francis went to the nunciature.
‘Can life remain alive?’
After he departed from the nunciature, Francis went to the Faculty of Computer Science and Bionic Sciences at Péter Pázmány Catholic University at 3:15 p.m. It has its uniqueness in combining the study of electrical engineering and computer science with molecular and neural biology and medicine. Here he met with the world of academia and culture. The chancellor addressed a greeting to the pontiff, extolling the relationship between science and faith, and stating, “with the help of science we seek not only to understand, but also to do what is right, that is, to build a humane and solidarity-based civilization, a sustainable culture and environment.” After the testimony of a professor and a student, Francis gave a speech. “Culture,” he said, “ is in some sense like a great river. It runs through and connects various areas of life and history, enabling us to navigate in this world and to embrace distant countries and lands. It nurtures the mind, satisfies the soul, and fosters the growth of society. The very word ‘culture’ comes from the verb ‘to cultivate’: knowledge involves a constant planting of seeds that take root in the soil of reality and bear rich fruit.”
He then delved into the relationship between knowledge and technology in the light of the thought of Romano Guardini, who, without demonizing technology, “warned of the risk that it might end up controlling, if not dominating, our lives,” leaving posterity with a disturbing question, “What will become of life if it is delivered up to the power of this dominion?”
“Can life remain alive?” continued Francis in his questioning. It is a question that “is proper to ask, particularly in this place, which is a center of research into information technology and the bionic sciences.” The challenges are strong; that of the ecological crisis suggests that “nature is merely reacting to its exploitation at our hands.” We also think about “the lack of [ethical] boundaries, the mentality that ‘if it is doable, then it is permissible’.” We think of the “erosion of communal bonds, with the result that alienation and anxiety are no longer merely existential crises, but societal problems.”
Francis does not intend to engender pessimism, which would be contrary to faith, but he does want to reflect on that “hubris of pride and power denounced at the dawn of European culture by the poet Homer, which the technocratic paradigm exacerbates, and threatens, through a certain use of algorithms, to further destabilize our human ecology.”
He cited a novel very dear to him, Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson. This book describes a future dominated by technology and in which everything, in the name of progress, is being standardized. There is an “increasingly listless and passive populace; it appears obvious that the sick should be ignored, euthanasia practiced and languages and cultures abolished, in order to achieve a universal peace that is nothing else than an oppression based on the imposition of a consensus. As one of his characters describes it: ‘the world seems very oddly alive… it is as if the whole thing was flushed and nervous’.”
So the university context becomes the ideal place to avoid these risks. Here “thought emerges and develops in a way both open and symphonic,” and “where knowledge is set free from the constraints of ‘accumulating and possessing’ and can thus become culture, that is, the ‘cultivation’ of our humanity and its foundational relationships with the transcendent, with society, with history and with creation.” The cultivated person always “carries within a healthy restlessness.” The mystery of life “reveals itself to the restless, not the complacent.” The educated person, therefore, is “open to other cultures and calls for the sharing of knowledge,” and never falls under the yoke of opposing ideologies, which Hungary has seen follow one another, from communism to consumerism.
At 5 p.m. the Holy Father left the university grounds to head for Budapest International Airport, from where his flight took off at 6 p.m. After nearly two hours of flight time, he landed at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome Fiumicino.
Francis’ trip to Hungary finds its summary in the message he signed in the Book of Honor during his visit to Madam President. He wrote: from Hungary – “a country rich in history and culture” – and from Budapest – “a city of bridges and saints” – “I think of the whole of Europe and pray that, united and in solidarity, it may also in our days be a house of peace and a prophecy of welcome.”
Indeed, the pontiff’s message placed Hungary within the European context, from which it is inseparable, valuing its specific distinctiveness. From Budapest he called for a rediscovery of the European soul, uniting different realities in a unity that does not mean uniformity, avoiding the risks of self-referential populism and supranationalism.
To all Hungarians he made a strong appeal for solidarity and care for those in need, to which the great Hungarian saints have testified, and as is provided for in the constitution itself. He asked the Church not to stiffen in defense before the challenges of the present, but to live with them in a spirit of welcome with prophecy, speaking the language of sharing and inclusion. He recommended momentum to young people, urging them to fearlessly challenge the adventure of life in search of great answers. To intellectuals he recommended the positive restlessness that opens up to other cultures and feels the need to share knowledge, without ever falling under the yoke of ideologies. Ultimately, from Budapest Francis wanted to send a message of openness and hope at a difficult time in Europe’s history, a moment that is full of challenges for the faith.
. Cf. A. Spadaro, “The Center of the Church? It’s not the Church! Pope Francis in Budapest and Slovakia”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed., September 2021, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-center-of-the-church-its-not-the-church-pope-francis-in-budapest-and-slovakia/
. During the 2021 visit, the pope dwelt at length on the image of the Chain Bridge that joins the two parts of the city: “The bridge does not fuse those two parts together, but rather holds them together. That is how it should be with us too. Whenever we were tempted to absorb the other, or when we tried to place others in a ghetto instead of including them, we were tearing down instead of building up,” he had told representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and some Jewish communities in Hungary.
. The Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (Magyar Katolikus Püspöki Konferencia – MKPK) brings together the prelates of the 16 ecclesiastical provinces (four metropolitan archdioceses with eight Latin suffragan dioceses, and one archeparchy with two suffragan eparchies for the faithful of the Byzantine rite, and the Military Ordinariate), to which must be added the territorial Abbey of Pannonhalma. It is currently presided over by Monsignor Dr. András Veres, Bishop of Győr, while the vice-president is Monsignor György Udvardy, Archbishop of Veszprém.
. Recall that during the 2021 stay in Budapest Francis met with the local bishops, giving a robust, insightful speech on how the Church should be present within Hungarian society and what message it should bear witness to within the sociopolitical fabric of the nation. First of all, the pontiff had asked the prelates to “preserve the past,” but at the same time to “look to the future.” The Church’s perspective should not be to guard ashes, but to open itself to the challenges of the future in an evangelical way. After all, “behind a garment of religious traditions many dark sides can be hidden,” he had said. Francis had then offered some pointers for carrying out this special mission. The first is to be heralds of the Gospel without giving in to the temptation “to close ourselves off in the defense of institutions and structures.” The second pointer is “to be witnesses of fraternity” in a country in which “people from other peoples have long coexisted.” Francis also referred to “a context in which democracy still needs to consolidate.”
. Sister Anna, a teacher, was also visually impaired. The Szent Anna Otthona for visually impaired children, in Batthyány Square, was in an apartment of just 100 square meters. Not being large enough to accommodate the many needy children, it was moved in 1989 to its present larger location, now visited by the pope. It admits visually impaired children with motor disabilities.
. The Greek Catholic bishops in Hungary are members of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference with deliberative voting rights. The status of Metropolia sui iuris makes the Greek Catholic Church completely independent of the local Latin Church from a legal point of view, obviously without questioning their full ecclesiastical communion with each other. In the liturgy, the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church uses the national language.