Vatican Media via AP
BUDAPEST, Hungary – Pope Francis on Sunday urged Hungary to “reach out to everyone,” in a veiled criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-migrant policies as the pontiff opens a four-day visit to Europe Central, his first major international outing since undergoing bowel surgery in July.
Francis, 84, appeared in good shape during his short visit to Budapest, presiding over a long mass for a crowd that organizers say has reached 100,000. The Pope stood and waved to the crowd on a jaunt in his open-sided popemobile and used a golf cart to avoid traveling long distances indoors, confessing at one point that he had to sit down because “I’m not 15 anymore”. But otherwise, he maintained the grueling pace typical of a papal journey despite his continued recovery.
Francis only spent seven hours in Budapest before leaving on Sunday afternoon for a four-day tour of neighboring Slovakia. The unbalanced itinerary suggested that Francis wanted to avoid giving Orban – the type of populist nationalist Francis frequently criticizes – the political impetus that accompanies welcoming a pope for a proper state visit ahead of the elections to the next spring.
Francis met Orban on his arrival, whose refugee policies collide with the Pope’s call to welcome and integrate those seeking a better life in Europe. While migration was not on the agenda, Orban wrote on Facebook: âI asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.
Orban has often portrayed his government as a defender of Christian civilization in Europe and a bulwark against migration from predominantly Muslim countries. Francois expressed his solidarity with migrants and refugees and criticized what he called “national populism” put forward by governments like Hungary’s. He urged governments to welcome and integrate as many migrants as possible.
The Vatican said the meeting was held in a “cordial atmosphere” and lasted longer than expected – 40 minutes.
“Among the various topics discussed were the role of the church in the country, the commitment to the protection of the environment, the protection and promotion of the family,” said a statement from the Vatican.
Vatican and Hungarian officials insisted that Francis was not snubbing Hungary by staying so short, noting that the Hungarian Church and State had only invited him to close an international conference on the Eucharist that Sunday.
Laszlo Balogh / AP
It was at the end of this Mass that Francis urged Hungarians to stay true to their religious roots, but not in a defensive way that isolates them from the rest of the world and the needs of others.
âReligious sentiment has been the cornerstone of this nation, so attached to its roots,â he said. “Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be firmly rooted, but it lifts and extends its arms to each one.”
He said Hungarians should stand firm in their roots while “opening up to the thirst of the men and women of our time”.
âMy wish is that you would be like this: round and open, rooted and considerate,â he said.
Orban had a front row seat during mass. During their private meeting, he handed Francis a copy of a letter from King Bela IV of Hungary to Pope Innocent IV, according to the Prime Minister’s press chief. The letter, addressed in 1243, informed Innocent IV that Bela would reinforce the fortifications along the Danube in Hungary in preparation for a Mongol invasion.
The congress, which ended with a mass in Heroes’ Square, continued with few restrictions on coronaviruses even as Hungary, like the rest of Europe, battles infections fueled by the variant highly contagious delta.
Few in the crowd were wearing masks and no vaccination test or certificate was required to enter. Some 65.4% of Hungarians over 18 are vaccinated.
Matyas Mezosi, a Hungarian Catholic who arrived early at the mass site, was jubilant that the Pope had come so soon after his operation; The 84-year-old pope underwent a 33-centimeter (13-inch) colon removal in early July.
“It’s great to see him recovering from this surgery,” Mezosi said. “The fact that he is here in Hungary today means that he is sacrificing himself to be with us and that he feels good now.”
During the flight from Rome, FranÃ§ois indeed seemed in good shape: he stayed so long greeting the journalists in the back of the plane that an assistant had to tell him to return to his seat because it was time to land. .
Francis said he was happy to resume his overseas trips after the coronavirus lull and then his own postoperative recovery. “If I’m alive it’s because weeds never die,” he joked about his health, citing an Argentinian saying.
But later that morning, he apologized to a gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders for having to give his seated speech.
In his remarks, Francois warned of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, saying it is a “fuse that must not be allowed to burn”.
The Argentine Pope called on Christians, Jews and people of other faiths to commit to promoting greater brotherhood “so that the outbursts of hatred that would destroy this brotherhood never prevail.”
Hungary’s large Jewish population was devastated in the closing months of World War II, with more than 550,000 Jewish deaths. The vast majority were deported within two months in 1944 with the help of the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and most were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland.
More Hungarians died at Auschwitz than of any other nationality, and more Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust than of any country other than Poland and the Soviet Union.
Orban’s government in Hungary has been accused of trafficking in veiled anti-Semitic stereotypes, largely targeting Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros, whom the government frequently accuses of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
About 39% of Hungarians declared themselves Catholic in a 2011 census, while 13% declared themselves Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist, a Protestant branch with which Orban is affiliated. A tiny fraction of the population is Jewish.
Registered churches have been the main recipients of state support under Orban since his return to power in 2010. In addition, around 3,000 places of worship have been built or restored with public funds since 2010, in the part of an effort by the Orban government to advance what he calls “Christian democracy,” an alternative to liberal governance of which he is a frequent critic.