BUDAPEST – Pope Francis closed his first day in Hungary telling the country’s bishops and clergy to resist discouragement and ideological division in the face of challenges such as growing secularism, declining vocations, and the drift away from traditional Christian values.

Speaking from St. Stephen’s Co-Cathedral in Budapest, in a country known for a more conservative brand of Catholicism sometimes at odds with his own progressive agenda, the pope told bishops, clergy, religious and seminarians that “if we grow distant from one another, or divided, if we become hardened in our ways of thinking and our different groups, then we will not bear fruit.”

“It is sad when we become divided, because, instead of playing as a team, we start playing the game of the enemy: bishops not communicating with each other, the old versus the young, diocesan priests versus religious, priests versus laity, Latins versus Greeks,” he said.

When this happens, he said, issues involving church life, as well as political and social problems, “polarize us and we become entrenched along ideological lines. No!”

“Always remember that our first pastoral priority is to bear witness to communion, for God is communion and he is present wherever there is fraternal charity,” he said, voicing hope that as a church, “may we overcome our human divisions and work together in the vineyard of the Lord!”

Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, seminarians, and pastoral workers in Hungary on his first day in the country. He will be in the capital city of Budapest until Sunday.

A small dispute flared up Friday over the fact that participants were divided between men and women, with the bishops, priests, and consecrated men seated in the center aisles of the cathedral with a clear view of the altar where the pope was seated, whereas the consecrated women were seated off to the side and had no view of the altar, but watched the event on a screen.

A Vatican spokesman said the seating arrangements were determined by the Hungarian church.

Out of Hungary’s population of just under 10 million, the Vatican estimates that roughly 5.6 million are Catholic, though the number is decreasing as more and more people are religiously unaffiliated.

After hearing various testimonies, Francis in his speech told the church’s pastors and religious that one of their biggest tasks is to “interpret the changes and transformations of our time, seeking to meet pastoral challenges as best we can.”

Among these challenges are the advance of rapid social changes and a growing crisis of faith in western culture, he said, urging them to face these difficulties “without yielding to resignation.”

Doing this, he said, opens the door for pastors to become defensive against the world, “either withdrawing into our comfortable and tranquil religious oases, or else running after the shifting winds of worldliness.”

To this end, he proposed what he said was an attitude “open to prophecy” as a remedy to the “bleak defeatism” and “worldly conformism” that those nostalgic for past eras might feel when presented with the changes and challenges of modern times.

He urged Hungary’s pastors not to be fearful or resentful of modern society, but to welcome them as an opportunity, saying, “we are called to cultivate this present season: to interpret it, to sow the seeds of the Gospel, to prune the dead branches of evil and to allow it to bear fruit.”

Propehcy “is about learning how to 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. At the same time, it is about seeing all things in the light of the Gospel without yielding to worldliness, as heralds and witnesses of the Christian faith,” he said.

Even in a country like Hungary, where traditional values surrounding the family and moral life are still prominent compared to much of the rest of Europe, secularism is spreading, and young people are increasingly drawn into lifestyles “marked by materialism and hedonism, and lead to polarization regarding new issues and challenges.”

“We may be tempted to respond with harshness, rejection and a combative attitude. Yet these 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,” and more innovative ways of spreading the Gospel, he said.

Francis said the current state of society requires Christians to respond to challenges “without fear or rigidity,” but with openness and creativity.

He lamented the growing shortage of vocations and the increased burden this places on priests, many of whom are aging and fatigued. He encouraged Catholics to pray for solutions, saying they come from God “not from the computer,” and urged pastors to develop new ways to “excite and attract” youth.

Speaking directly to priests, the pope urged them to “avoid rigidity” and to always treat faithful with mercy and compassion.

To this end, he pointed to the example of Blessed János Brenner, a Hungarian priest killed during communism at the age of 26 for resisting the communist regime, and whose brother spoke at Friday’s event.

“How many witnesses and confessors of the faith did your people have during the totalitarian regimes of the last century!” Francis said, saying it would have been easy for Brenner to be resentful of the suffering he endured, but instead, he was a good pastor and shepherd to his people.

“That is what is required of us all, but especially of priests: a merciful gaze and a compassionate heart that forgives always, that helps others to begin again, that accepts and does not judge, encourages and does not criticize, serves and does not gossip,” he said.

Pope Francis pointed to other modern challenges such as poverty, anti-Christian persecution, and migration, saying Hungary’s lengthy list of saints can serve as an example in how to respond with compassion and charity.

“This is the Church to which we must aspire. A Church capable of mutual listening, dialogue and care for the most vulnerable,” he said.

Among Hungary’s most famous Catholics on the path to sainthood is Cardinal József Mindszenty, whose “heroic virtue” was approved by the pope in 2019.

Mindszenty, who died in exile in 1975, led the Hungarian Church from 1945 to 1973, during the country’s Soviet occupation. He was convicted of treason by the country’s Communist authorities in a 1949 show trial and spent eight years in prison before an uprising in 1956 allowed him to seek refuge in the American embassy in Budapest, where he lived for 15 years.

Over the years, Mindszenty became a global symbol of resistance to Communism and was eventually permitted to leave Hungary in 1971. He died in Vienna, Austria, in 1975, where he had been welcomed by the late Cardinal Franz König, who had opened negotiations with the Hungarian Communists to secure his release at the personal request of St. Pope John XXIII.

He gave a shout-out to a community of Hungarian sisters of the Society of Jesus who he met in Argentina, and who had fled religious persecution during Hungary’s Soviet era, saying, “they were very good to me.”

“My prayer for you is that, following the example of your great witnesses of faith, your spirits will never falter, but always press on with great joy,” he said, and asked for prayer.

On Saturday, Francis is scheduled to meet with disadvantaged and disabled children before meeting with poor people and refugees, including many who fled the war in Ukraine, and members of Hungary’s Greek Catholic Church, as well as Hungarian youth.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen