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ROME – At the crack of dawn on Sunday, Pope Francis will leave for Slovakia – after first making a seven-hour stop in Budapest, Hungary – for a Sept. 12-15 visit. This will be his first trip since his July colon surgery, and the question in the mind of many is: “Why?”
The reasons are plenty: The central one, at least in Pope Francis’s mind, is the Eucharist. But there’s also the fact that though both countries are on the peripheries of the European Union, having suffered decades behind the Iron Curtain. Now, they are facing questions posed by a rising nationalist population.
Pope Francis has made the “question of Europe” one of the leitmotivs of his pontificate.
Hungary, “the door to Slovakia”
Francis will be in Budapest to close the 52st International Eucharistic Congress, which began on Sept. 5.
According to the director of the Vatican’s press office Matteo Bruni the trip “comes from Pope Francis’ desire to attend the Eucharistic Congress,” with “Budapest opening the door to Slovakia,” because “the Eucharist is at the center of Christian life.”
“It’s a spiritual journey, one of Eucharistic adoration and a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Sorrows who has cared for these people,” he told reporters on Sept. 9.
In the words of the pope, it will be a moment of prayer “in the heart of Europe” to pay tribute to “so many heroic” faithful, who persevered despite “hostilities and persecutions.”
Though much of the attention has been on the fact that Francis will only be in Budapest for seven hours, and he’s made it clear that the visit is for the congress and not a state visit, the fact that he to become the first pontiff to attend the Eucharistic Congress since St. John Paul II in Rome in 2000, deserves to be highlighted.
When, at the end of a Sunday Angelus in July, the pontiff confirmed that he’d be going to Budapest and Slovakia, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See Eduard Habsburg tackled “the controversy” over the shortness of the visit heads on:
Hungary 🇭🇺, a few hours, Slovakia 🇸🇰, a few days.
Why? @Pontifex is doing exactly what he has been invited for – in Budapest, the final mass of the @iec2021Budapest , in Slovakia, an extended visit to the country.
It's that easy.
— Eduard Habsburg (@EduardHabsburg) July 5, 2021
Hungarian Father Kornél Fábry, secretary-general of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, also downplayed the speculation over the shortness of the visit, reportedly related to the fact that Pope Francis doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is opposed to immigration.
“There were many who asked, ‘Why is the pope coming for a few hours and not longer?’ We had to explain to them that if, for example, I’m invited to dinner, I cannot sleep there, I’m only invited for dinner,” Fábry told reporters during an online media meeting earlier this month.
“The pope was invited to the eucharistic congress and he accepted this invitation. I am sure that if we had invited him to stay longer, he would have stayed,” he added.
The pope and the prime minister will meet briefly, but there will be no speech from the pope to civil authorities. However, in addition to celebrating Mass, Francis will address the local bishops and the Ecumenical Council of Churches and several Jewish communities.
As a footnote, the Hungarian Jewish community, estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000, is the largest in East Central Europe, and Bruni noted the trip is taking place soon after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and will close on Yom Kippur.
Despite the difference of opinion when it comes to migration or nationalism, Habsburg said the two leaders do have many issues they agree on, and their meeting should be “cordial and friendly.”.
The ambassador brought up “the defense of the family, the protection of Christians in the Middle East [Hungary has invested millions in rebuilding the Nineveh Plains in Iraq], and religious freedom.”
“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.”
A proud Hungarian and Catholic, the ambassador said his country sees the Eucharistic Congress as a sign of hope.
“It’s a sign, as Cardinal Peter Erdő said, that brings new life and a renewed faith. And I think Hungarians are very happy,” Habsburg said.
During the past week, the presence of the Congress in Budapest was ubiquitous, with ads in bus stops inviting people to attend the final Mass, eucharist adoration held in virtually every parish, and stalls with vendors selling local products and monastic handy crafts.
State visit to Slovakia
The visit to Slovakia will be three-day State visit, not just a pastoral one.
Slovkia is one of Europe’s youngest countries, having between 1918 and 1992 constituted Czechoslovakia with its western neighbor.
According to the bishops’ conference, Francis “comes to Slovakia to strengthen the faith weakened by consumerism and individualism.”
This will the fourth visit by a pope to Slovak soil, after John Paul II visited Bratislava in 1990 and then the independent Slovak Republic in 1995 and 2003.
Father Martin Kramara, spokesman for the Slovak Bishops’ Conference, said that the country was preparing for the visit “with great happiness,” and that this is an “extraordinary moment for the Church.”
“We are a small country,” he said, referring to the nation of a little over five million people, 60 percent of whom are Catholic. “We did not expect this great opportunity. We really need encouragement for our faith. We must not forget those who were left behind. We are in a situation of development. But we must try to look at the brother and sister who are struggling.”
Slovak Cardinal Joseph Tomko, who at 97 is the oldest member of the college of cardinals, was recently asked about why the pontiff was visiting his country, and he recognized he wasn’t sure: “This still remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps we will know the real reason when he arrives among us.”
“I have a premonition that he will reveal it a bit himself. He has always shown great affection for our country,” the prelate also said.
Francis will devote his first 36 hours in Slovakia to an ecumenical event with Christian leaders, and encounters with political authorities, the local Jewish community, and Catholic bishops and clergy.
President Zuzana Caputová, a 48-year-old former environmental lawyer, represents a new generation of European leaders, and a sharp contrast to former politicians in Slovakia, where several presidents have been ousted following corruption charges.
On Tuesday, the pontiff will fly to the eastern part of Slovakia, always using Bratislava as the home-base. In Prešov, he will celebrate a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, and in Košice he will meet with the local Roma, or gypsy, community. The day will finish with an encounter with young people in the Košice stadium.
The final day of Francis visit will include a prayer service with bishops at the national shrine of the Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Šaštín, followed by the celebration of Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, patroness of the country.
After mounting controversy, last week Slovakia decided to reverse its decision to allow only people vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend public events during the papal visit. This requirement would have had a negative impact in the amount of people taking part, since less than 50 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. It has one of the lowest rates of the European Union, where the average is 70 percent.
“A negative test or proof of recovery from COVID-19 in the last 180 days will be sufficient to obtain a ticket,” said the bishops conference in a statement announcing the change of position.
Slovakia was particularly hard hit by the pandemic earlier this year, recording some of the highest per capita infection and mortality rates in Europe.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma