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BUDAPEST – Though he has not engaged the Ukraine war directly while he’s in neighboring Hungary, making only passing references in his formal speeches, the pope has still managed to send messages to both sides during his first two days in Budapest.
He has done so through brief remarks on the Ukraine war and the inclusion of Ukrainians in most of his organized events, including a meeting with refugees Saturday morning and an event with young people Saturday afternoon, as well as an unannounced meeting with a once top-ranking Russian Orthodox prelate.
In his opening speech to Hungarian authorities Friday, the pope advocated for a unified Europe capable of responding to current threats, including the war in Ukraine, which shares some 85 miles of border with Hungary, though is traditionally seen as an ally of Russia at the political and economic level.
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Prior to his meeting with Hungarian youth, Pope Francis visited an institute assisting disabled children and immediately after met with poor people and refugees, including several Ukrainian refugees who had fled the ongoing war with Russia.
During that meeting, he heard the testimony of a family who fled when their city was bombed, leaving most of their possessions behind, and who were assisted by a stipend from Caritas Hungary that allowed them to get back on their feet and settle into life in Budapest.
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Francis also made a brief visit to the Greek Catholic community in Hungary, many of whom belong to eparchies in Ukraine as well as that of Hungary, before returning to the apostolic nunciature where he is staying.
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Once he returned to the nunciature, Francis held an unannounced private meeting with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Budapest and Hungary. Hilarion previously served as the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign minister, and his ouster from the position last year was interpreted by many as a sign of diverging opinions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speculation was high in the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visit to Hungary as to whether a meeting with Hilarion might take place, with Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni saying it was possible during a briefing on the trip just days before the pope’s departure.
Described by the Vatican as “cordial,” the 20-minute conversation was also attended by the Vatican’s envoy to Hungary, American Archbishop Michael Banach.
Vatican News, the Vatican’s official state-run information platform, Francis greeted Hilarion with a hug and kissed his pectoral cross.
According to a statement released by Hilarion’s office, he told the pope about the life and social and educational activities of the Russian Orthodox diocese of Budapest, as well as its interaction with the Catholic Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest and other Christian denominations.
Hilarion also gave Pope Francis four Italian-language volumes of his six-volume set, Jesus Christ: Life and Teaching, in memory of the encounter.
They first met in March 2013, shortly after Pope Francis’s election to the papacy, and have met several times in the 10 years that have elapsed. Their most recent meeting prior to Saturday was at the Vatican in December 2021, shortly before the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war in February 2022, while Hilarion was still Russian Orthodoxy’s second highest-ranking official.
During the pope’s meeting with young people Saturday evening, he heard the testimonies of several youths, including a 17-year-old Greek Catholic student named Tódor Levcsenkó who is studying at a Jesuit-run high school in Hungary, but whose family belongs to the Eparchy of Munkachevo in Ukraine.
In his testimony, Levcsenkó said he is the son of a Greek Catholic priest and that he grew up in western Ukraine’s ethnically Hungarian region of Transcarpathia, home to some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians.
Though he lives in peace, Levcsenkó said “I see and experience what is happening in my country, and I feel more and more the need to bear witness to my faith in my environment. Because here, too, I have something to fight for,” he said, noting that many people are abandoning the faith and losing touch with their cultural heritage.
“Our sense of mission is often dulled by the fact that we can live in security and peace, but we have to see that just a few miles away, war and suffering are the order of the day,” he said, insisting that disagreements can be overcome with faith and in a spirit of peace.
“May we have the courage to defend our faith and to heed our call to build peace! We need not be ashamed, we proudly bear our name in Christ!” he said.
In his speech, Pope Francis said Levcsenkó’s testimony was a reminder that as Christians, “our zeal for the mission can be blunted by living in security and comfort, while not far from here war and suffering are daily realities.”
“This is the real challenge: to take control of our lives in order to help our world to live in peace,” he said, and urged the youths to ask themselves what they do to help others, and whether think of others without counting the cost, or only of themselves.
“Let us reflect on our ability to be generous, our ability to love as Jesus taught us, which is by serving others,” he said.
Pope Francis also told the youths to be open to Jesus, and to trust and make time for him, saying he is not “a storybook character or the superhero of a comic book,” but is “God in the flesh” and a friend they can count on.
Jesus, he said, does not want young people who are “couch potatoes,” but those who dream big and are active in serving others.
He invited all Hungarian youth to attend his upcoming International World Youth Day event, set to take place in Lisbon at the beginning of August, and which he is also scheduled to attend.
As he has in the past, Francis told youth to stay away from technology and to get involved in real life, saying, “Nowadays there is a great temptation to be satisfied with a cell phone and a few friends. Even if many people are willing to settle for that, or even if you are too, it is not good or healthy.”
Stressing the need to slow down amid the rapid pace of daily life, he told them to make time for silent prayer and reflection, but cautioned that “Silence is not for sitting glued to your cell phone, or on social media. No, please!”
“Life is real, not virtual. It does not take place on a screen, but in the world!” he said.
Pope Francis closed his speech telling the youths that “each of you is precious to Jesus, and also to me,” and that “no one can take your place in the history of the Church and the world: no one can do what only you can do.”
“Let us help each other, then, to believe that we are loved and precious, that we are made for great things. Let us pray for this and encourage one another in this,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen