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ROME — Pope Francis travels today to Budapest, where he will spend seven hours and deliver four speeches – but none to the country’s civil authorities led by right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as the trip is being billed as exclusively spiritual to close an International Eucharistic Congress.
The pope will then go to Slovakia, where he’ll visit four cities in three days.
This will be Francis’ first trip after his colon operation last July, but the 34th of his pontificate. By the end of it, the list of stamps he’s collected in his passport will be up to 54.
The pope explained in a recent interview with the Spanish radio COPE that he had 13 inches of intestine removed and that he was still taking medication, but that he was feeling well. Referring to the trip, he joked saying that he would try not to make it too taxing, adding that it would probably end up being like every other trip.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters on Thursday that no extra health care measures were being taken for the trip, “just the usual caution,” which includes the papal doctor and nurses traveling with him, as is always the case.
Francis’ attempt at taking it easier, evidently, failed, as the first day of the trip will be grueling: he will depart Rome at 6:00AM local, arguably the earliest he’s left for a trip in the past eight years. He will have 13 intense hours.
Upon landing in Budapest, the capital of land-locked Hungary, he will have a 30-minute private meeting with President János Áder and Orbán. He will then meet with the local bishops, the ecumenical council of Churches and the Jewish Community, and celebrate Mass for some 80,000 people in the Heroes Square.
Afterwards, he’ll lead those present in the weekly Sunday Angelus prayer, which the pope delivers from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square when they are in Rome, and head to the airport to catch a 50-minute flight to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
The Argentine pontiff will become the first pope to close the International Eucharistic Congress since Pope John Paul II did so in 2000, when it was held in Rome.
The last time this event was held in Budapest was in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. At the time, Pius XI sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (who would become Pius XII) as his delegate. Francis will lead the closing Mass in the same square where the opening ceremony was held that first time, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to mention late Cardinal József Mindszenty, who spent hours hearing confessions at the time.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Mindszenty “personified uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary.” He was imprisoned during the war, and when it ended, he opposed communism and the communist persecution of Christianity in his country. He was tortured and given life sentence in a trial that generated worldwide uproar. After 8 years in jail, he was granted asylum in the United States embassy in Budapest. Fifteen years later, he was allowed to leave the country, and died in exile in Austria in 1975.
The persecution Christians suffered in Hungary inspired the organizers of the Congress to invite cardinals and archbishops from countries where they are actively being persecuted, such as Cardinals Raphael Sako from Iraq, Charles Bo from Myanmar and John Onaiyekan from Nigeria. The pontiff is expected to greet them all at the end of the Mass.
For the past 1,000 years Hungary has been a Christian country and the majority of the population -60 percent- have remained so despite the persecution they endured towards the end of World War II from the Nazis and later during the six decades of Communist occupation, between 1945 until 1989. The country became a republic and parliamentary democracy in 1990.
Though much is being said about Francis “shunning” Orban, organizers from both the Hungarian side and the Vatican insist this is a purely spiritual trip, and that the pope was invited specifically to celebrate the closing Mass of the Eucharistic Congress.
Speaking to journalists on the way back from his trip to Iraq last March, the pontiff had said that his visit to Budapest was “not a visit to a country but for a Mass.”
Bruni stressed that the main focus of the Hungary leg of the tour was spiritual and noted that Francis has made other quick trips for specific events without meeting with local authorities. Two examples of this are his one-day visit to Strasbourg, France, in 2014, where he delivered speeches at the European Parliament and Council of Europe, but didn’t meet with the French president nor the faithful, or his visit to Fatima, in Portugal, where he didn’t encounter local authorities either.
Despite the difference of opinion when it comes to migration or nationalism between the pope and the prime minister, Eduard Habsburg, Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See, believes Francis and Orban do have many issues they agree on and could talk about, making their meeting “cordial and friendly”.
At the top of the list of topics the ambassador brings up is “the defense of the family, religious freedom, and the protection of Christians in the Middle East”- Hungary has invested millions in rebuilding the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, which Francis visited last March, and went out of his way to thank the government for the money given.
In recent days there have been media reports arguing that the pontiff hadn’t wanted to meet with Orban, but according to the ambassador, “it was never really in question.”
“As a disclaimer, I was not involved in the preparation of the program, because since this is a religious visit and not a State one, it has been organized between the Vatican and the Hungarian Church, with the government collaborating and providing infrastructure,” Habsburg told Crux Sept. 9. “Therefore, I was not consulted as to who meets whom, where and when. My impression was that it was never a question of whether they would meet, but perhaps at what point of the program.”
At the core of the divergence between Francis and the government of Orbán are migration and nationalism, with the pontiff promoting the welcoming and integration of migrants and the unity of Europe, while the prime minister has defined migrants as a threat, linking them with terrorism, and is a big supporter of nationalism.
The Vatican and the Hungarian government drifted apart in the midst of the migration crisis of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the countries of the Visegrád group (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland) trying to reach the wealthiest nations of Europe.
Calvinist Orbán defines himself as a defender of “European and Christian values,” and back in 2015 launched a political campaign against refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa that continues to this day, linking them to terrorism and defining them as people alien to Western and Christian culture.
Although Orbán has not criticized the pope directly, the press and politicians close to him have. For instance, in 2017, journalist Zsolt Bayer, a friend of the prime minister, accused the pope of repeating the “cretinous message of politicians from Brussels,” and some pro-government media have argued against the visit, labeling the pontiff “anti-Christian.”
The pope, a son of immigrants himself, has long spoken about the need to welcome and integrate migrants, acknowledging that countries should open their doors to the extent of each nation’s possibility. He has also expressed concern about the pro-nationalist messages that are spouted by several European politicians, saying that they “resemble those of Hitler in 1934”.
“Sovereignism is an exaggeration that always ends badly: it leads to wars,” he noted in 2019.
Orbán visited Pope Benedict XVI but he’s never had a private meeting with Pope Francis, though the two have greeted each other at least twice.
From Budapest, Francis will head to Slovakia, where he will be officially welcomed on Monday, with a ceremony at the presidential palace. He will have a private conversation with President Zuzana Caputova, a 48-year-old environmental lawyer who is the first woman to become head of state in this country of 5.5 million inhabitants, and then address civil authorities.
He will have a packed schedule during this visit too, celebrating two Masses, encountering the Jewish community, the Roma (gyspsy) minority, the local youth and the Catholic hierarchy.