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ROME – When Pope Francis last weekend asked Catholics to pray for his upcoming visit to Hungary, he notably pointed out that he was traveling to central Europe, an area of the world marked by “the winds of war” and the humanitarian crisis being left in its wake.
Speaking to faithful during his April 23 Regina Coeli address, the pope said his visit would be an occasion “to re-embrace a church and a people so dear,” but added that “it will also be a journey to the center of Europe, on which the icy winds of war continue to blow, while the movements of many people place urgent humanitarian issues on the agenda.”
He greeted Hungarians and asked for prayers for his visit, urging faithful not to forget “our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, still afflicted by this war.”
The comment implied that Ukraine is forefront on the pope’s mind and that for him, this trip is not simply a visit to one country and its people, but to an entire region suffering the ravages of war and in desperate need of peace.
Despite a brief hospital stay last month for bronchitis, Pope Francis will travel to Hungary April 28-30, visiting only the city of Budapest. Organizers of the visit have said they were asked to keep all events in one city, given the limitations in mobility for the pontiff, who routinely uses a wheelchair and a cane.
His visit this weekend, holding the theme, “Christ is our future,” follows a brief stop in Hungary in September 2021 for the conclusion of the country’s International Eucharistic Congress before making a three-day visit to Slovakia. At the time, Francis pledged to return to Hungary, and his visit this week is making good on that promise.
His packed itinerary includes meetings with national authorities, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with whom the pope has often butted heads over the migration issue. However, there has recently been a thaw between the two over Hungary’s willingness to welcome Ukrainian refugees.
During the visit, Pope Francis will also meet with disadvantaged and disabled children and on his second day in Budapest he will meet with poor people and refugees.
The refugees come from Ukraine and various countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, and South Sudan. Among them will also be some with disabilities, and members of Hungary’s Rom population.
Francis will also meet with young people and priests and religious in the country, and he will celebrate a public Mass on his final day.
Notably, the pope added to his schedule a meeting with Hungary’s Greek Catholic community, which numbers around 300,000 and is served by three bishops.
Given regional geopolitics and the pope’s own advocacy for a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, the conflict is expected to be a primary talking point of the visit, along with other hot-button issues such as migration.
Catholics themselves have said they want the pope to send a strong and clear message on the war, but they have also voiced hope that his visit, just two years after closing the country’s Eucharistic Congress, will lead to a renewal of Catholic life in a country whose population is increasingly religiously unaffiliated.
Russia, Ukraine, and an appeal for peace
When Pope Francis sets foot in Hungary Friday, it is expected that from the outset, one of the biggest themes of his visit will be the war happening next door, sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Hungary and Ukraine share 85 miles of border, and to this day roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in western Ukraine, meaning the two countries have always shared close regional ties which have been further cemented since the eruption of the Ukraine war last year.
Since the war’s onset, over 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Hungary to escape the violence, and while most have moved on to other areas of Europe, several thousand have stayed, seeking temporary protection status or other types of residence.
Speaking of the significance of Pope Francis’s visit, Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See Eduard Habsburg told Crux that “it is a pastoral visit” and as such, is not being done “for any political aims.”
“There are also a certain number of topics that the Holy See and Hungary have similar ideas (on), and I expect these topics to be talked about,” he said, but said he did not expect the pope to make “any statements or declarations about any political topics, like for instance, the war in Ukraine.”
When it comes to the Ukraine war, Habsburg said he believes the pope will engage the issue as a pastor, invoking peace in prayer and stressing “the necessity of peace,” specifically in his meeting with members of the Greek Catholic community.
“But I don’t think there are going to be any political statements,” he said.
Yet despite Habsburg’s insistence that the pope will avoid politics, Father Csaba Török, parochial administrator of the cathedral in Esztergom, told journalists during a recent media roundtable that Catholics themselves are hoping for something punchy from the pontiff when it comes to Ukraine.
The head of media relations for the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference, Török said he personally expects “that if the pope comes to a country so close to the war, then he’ll say something strong and symbolic.”
“We Hungarians also need it, because in the population, also the priests are a bit confused, because Orbán’s policy is very favorable to the Church, but at the same time some of his traits are not so loved,” he said.
Though Török did not go into specifics, Orbán is a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and, while still voting for them, has criticized EU sanctions against Moscow. Differently than most of its western allies, Hungary has refused to provide military aid to Ukraine or allow its transfer across borders.
In the past Pope Francis himself, who has repeatedly criticized the global arms trade, has appeared unsure of sending weapons, raising questions about its effectiveness in ending the conflict, but telling journalists on his return flight from Kazakhstan last September that it can be morally legitimate under certain conditions.
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“The clergy and the people of Hungary expect something from the pope,” Török said.
“Naturally, the government and state media are trying to give an explanation, an interpretation for visit according to their own internal and external narrative, but we simple Catholics want something strong from the pope,” he said.
Asked whether the pope is expected to meet with Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion, the current Metropolitan of Budapest and Hungary, during his visit, Török said he thinks “it’s possible,” as there was a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church at the International Eucharistic Congress in Hungary in 2021.
Cardinal Peter Erdő, the archbishop of Budapest and Esztergom, also “has great relations with the Russian hierarchy,” he said, but cautioned that “Officially we don’t know anything.”
Regardless of what happens, “I don’t think that this visit to Budapest will be the decisive point in the rapprochement between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow,” he said.
A Church on the frontlines
Another major issue likely to emerge during the pope’s visit is that of migration, and the growing humanitarian crisis caused by the Ukraine war and the mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees.
On the migration issue, Habsburg told Crux that he would be “surprised if it didn’t come up,” as the latest figures put the number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Hungary at 1,100,000.
“While a smaller number of them have remained in Hungary, we would have taken anyone who wanted to remain, and Pope Francis is aware of that,” he said, noting that Francis in the past has thanked Orbán and Hungarian President Katalin Novák for the assistance given to Ukrainian refugees.
“Hungary has always been open for refugees and people in need of asylum, we just have a problem with illegal migrants,” Habsburg said, but insisted that the Ukraine issue is “something very, very different. Here we have a very clear situation of people fleeing a warzone, and that’s when everyone has to help, and Hungary will continue to do so.”
Ukrainians who have opted to stay in Hungary have been given housing and employers and schools have been encouraged “to take them in,” he said, saying that given the number of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, “we are attached in an emotional way to the conflict happening right now.”
While the government has offered its own assistance to Ukrainian refugees, many have been helped by charity organizations and various NGOs active in the area, many of which are run by the Catholic Church.
In comments to Crux, Mónica Varga, press officer for Caritas Hungary, said they were shocked by the outbreak of the war, and have been working tirelessly “to provide support for vulnerable people and communities whose lives have been ruined by the war in Ukraine.”
Varga said that from day one, Caritas Hungary has provided families fleeing with immediate and long-term assistance through emergency care for refugees, short-term accommodations for refugees in transit, long-term housing for those seeking to stay, financial allowances, social work, and psychological support.
Caritas Hungary currently operates two Help Points to assist Ukrainian refugees in transit seeking to rest, one in the border village of Barabás and the other in Budapest. Together these Help Points have served 21,000 people.
More than 1,000 people have been set up with short-term accommodation with the help of Caritas Hungary since the start of the war. Many short-term accommodations are also being provided by local dioceses and religious orders.
In terms of the general impact of the crisis on Hungarian society, Varga said that when the war first broke out and refugee numbers were at their highest, “the whole country was on the move,” and citizens welcomed refugees into their homes and provided help.
Though the number of refugees has decreased, the overall degree of solidarity “remains high, and all actors are trying to give the best support to the families,” Varga said.
She voiced hope that the pope’s visit would “strengthen the hope for peace in the refugee families living here. And it will further strengthen solidarity among the Hungarian people to be good hosts to Ukrainian families.”
Török said the church is often one of the first actors to intervene when a need arises, and it often does so through charitable organizations and NGOs.
He said the Hungarian Church “does not have any independence in its financing,” and is largely dependent on the state to finance its schools, hospitals, social institutions, and even dioceses, making it difficult at times for the church to speak out.
“If the Church becomes the enemy of the government, then in some months, it could lead the Church to bankruptcy, and schools and institutions can no longer function,” he said, saying that because of this, many bishops and priests choose to hold their tongues when political tensions arise.
We do what the government wants, we do it how the government wants, and we try to adapt ourselves to the situation, but if we speak of the Church as a community of faithful, then there are many initiatives,” he said.
On the migration issue, Török said the borders have been closed and “officially, migration no longer exists,” which has led to an increase in trafficking. He accused the government of turning a blind eye to the problem, and said many Catholics have sought to intervene “outside of the visible limits of the institutional church.”
A Catholic revival
Though Hungary is an increasingly secular society, most of those who do declare a religious affiliation are Catholic.
Hungary has an overall population of just under 10 million, of which nearly 5.6 million are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics dating to December 2021.
Török placed the percentage a tad lower, saying just 39 percent of the population identifies as Catholic versus almost double that 60 years ago. Now, he said around 40 percent of Hungarians are religiously unaffiliated or do not consider themselves religious, signaling a cultural shift away from organized religions.
Hungary also has a significant Protestant population, most of whom are Reformed Calvinists, who Török said number around 25 percent of the population, while Lutherans account for around two percent and other religions, such as Judaism and Buddhism, also account for around two percent.
In terms of what impact he expects Pope Francis’s visit to have, Török pointed to the trip’s motto, “Christ is our future.”
“If we look at the motto, it seems like it’s a return to hope and to the future,” he said, saying the International Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest in 2021 and the pope’s brief visit to close the event had a significant impact on the Hungarian Church, and on Hungarian society.
Many Catholics “had a strong sense of nostalgia, that perhaps Catholicism in Hungary would return,” he said, adding he believes this trip will also contribute to that sentiment.
When it comes to the increased disinterest in religion, Török said the question that arises for him is, “how can we start again, how can we prove the future, how can we show that Christ is the future for the people and the country?”
“We’re not so good at giving an answer, but as I said, the central word for this visit will be the future, and our future is Christ,” he said, voicing hope that Pope Francis’s message would resonate with the people.
Similarly, Habsburg, who is Catholic, said he expects the pope’s visit this weekend to give “our Catholic faith another jump-start, as he did last time when he came. We can really tell that the Eucharistic Congress and the visit of the pope left a strong impression among Catholics, and we see signs of renewal because of this visit.”
In terms of how Pope Francis is perceived among Hungarian Catholics, Habsburg said he believes there is a strong sense of simpatico with the Argentine pontiff.
When the pope stopped in Hungary for just seven hours in 2021, there was “an incredible enthusiasm,” Habsburg said, voicing his belief that “Hungarian people love this pope very much,” and that the feeling is mutual.
“I think Pope Francis knows that the Hungarian people love him, look forward to him, and see him most of all as a pastor coming to visit his flock. I think these are going to be three absolutely wonderful days in Hungary,” he said.
Varga likewise said there is great exciement for the pope’s visit, and that his presence is greatly needed, as the country “is deeply affected by the consequences of the war in Ukraine” due to the influx of refugees and the ethnic Hungarian minority living in western Ukraine.
“For these reasons it is significant that the Holy Father is visiting our country,” she said, saying his words “can give us calming trust and hope for peace as soon as possible.”
“This situation is a great emotional burden for everyone who is directly or indirectly affected and sees the news and images. Everyone is in huge need of reassurance,” she said, adding, “The presence of the Holy Father will be a spiritual resource for all of us.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen