In Orban’s Hungary, Pope Urges Bishops to Embrace Diversity

In Orban’s Hungary, Pope Urges Bishops to Embrace Diversity

BUDAPEST, Hungary — On Sunday, Pope Francis used his brief visit to Budapest to urge his bishops to embrace diversity and to send a message to Hungary’s hard-right, anti-migrant leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, that God is not a strongman who silences enemies and that religious roots, while important for a country, also allow it to open up and extend “its arms toward everyone.”

The seven-hour visit, ostensibly a spiritual layover to celebrate the final Mass of a weeklong international Eucharistic conference, was Francis’ first international trip since undergoing major surgery this summer. It began a four-day visit to neighboring Slovakia, and the disparity in time spent in the two countries has prompted Hungarian prelates to lobby for a longer stay and Mr. Orban allies to excoriate the pope for the perceived snub.

Mr. Orban has portrayed himself as a defender of Christian Europe, and he has strengthened ties with church traditionalists, many of whom are critical of Francis, in the run-up to the April elections. Some in the Hungarian church were concerned that Mr. Orban would use the pope’s visit to gain political advantage. His government, they argue, has already effectively bought the church’s independence and silence by lavishing it with millions of dollars in subsidies.

On Sunday, Francis met with Mr. Orban and other civil authorities in a vast hall at the Museum of Fine Arts for about 40 minutes. The pope and his top foreign policy officials sat across from Mr. Orban and Hungary’s president, Janos Ader, without masks.

Mr. Orban, on the other hand, quickly posted photos of himself greeting Francis on his Facebook page, writing that he had asked the pope to “not allow Christian Hungary to perish.” Hungarian media, where Mr. Orban’s government wields considerable power, splashed the image of the handshake on their front pages and reported that Mr. Orban, who has referred to the influx of migrants to Europe in 2015 as a “invasion,” gave Francis a copy of a letter sent to the pope at the time by a 13th-century Hungarian king. The king complained in the letter that his pleas to the church for assistance against an invasion by Mongol armies had resulted in only empty words.

According to the Vatican, the issue of migration did not come up in the meeting, but, as some of his confidants predicted, the pope addressed the issue head-on in his subsequent meeting with a group of Hungarian bishops in the museum.

“Your country is a place where people from different populations have long coexisted,” he said. “Various ethnicities, minorities, religions, and migrants have also helped to transform this country into a multicultural one.”

“Diversity always causes some fear because it puts at risk the acquired security and upsets the achieved stability,” Francis said, but he added that it was a great opportunity to reach out in brotherhood. “In the face of cultural, ethnic, political, and religious diversity,” the pope said, “we have two reactions: we can close ourselves in a rigid defense of our so-called identity, or we can open ourselves to meet the other and cultivate together the dream of a fraternal society.”

He stated that he wished for the Hungarian church to build new dialogue bridges, to show its “true face,” and to become a “bright symbol for Hungary.”

In his public remarks, Francis seemed to address those issues, albeit in biblical and religious terms, in the Heroes’ Square adjacent to the museum, which was packed with tens of thousands of people, including Mr. Orban in a front-row seat.

Francis, 84, spoke about how religious sentiment, which Mr. Orban imbues much of his political talk with, “not only invites us to be well rooted, but it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone” after having about 13 inches of his colon removed in early July. He stated that while it is critical to keep the “roots firm,” it is also critical to do so “without defensiveness.”

Francis also appeared to warn against mixing religion and politics.

“There is a God side and a world side,” he explained. “The distinction is not between those who are religious or those who are not, but, ultimately, between the true God and the god of ‘self.’ How different is the God who reigns quietly on the cross from the false god we want to reign with power in order to silence our enemies.”

On the early flight from Rome to Budapest, Francis told reporters that he was relieved to be traveling again after the coronavirus pandemic and his own health issues had kept him in the Vatican. “I’m still alive because bad weeds never die,” he joked. In Budapest, he rode in the so-called popemobile down avenues lined with flag-waving faithful. Masks were worn by almost everyone on the streets, in the square, and in the city’s bars and restaurants, and they were all crammed close together.

Francis, on the other hand, took breaks when he could. When he met with Christian and Jewish leaders after his meeting with Mr. Orban, he explained that he had to deliver his speech while sitting because “I’m not 15 anymore.”

In that speech, he expressed concern about the “threat of anti-Semitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere,” and he frequently used his familiar imagery of building bridges and demolishing walls.

During the pope’s morning meetings, prelates and faithful gathered in the square under hats and white umbrellas to avoid the sun, and five members of the defunct Hapsburg empire, which ruled over Hungary and much of Europe for centuries, stood in a line on the side of a stage that had been set up for Francis. Mr. Orban has named two of them as ambassadors in the hopes of improving access in Western Europe.

Mr. Orban’s ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Hapsburg, said he met Francis at the airport after working with the Vatican to extend the pope’s stay. He claimed that the pope told him that Hungarian was the language of heaven because it takes an eternity to learn. Mr. Hapsburg claimed that he had laughed while pretending not to understand the joke.

“I didn’t get the sense of a gloomy atmosphere,” he said. “It was very cheerful, and we were having a great time, and yes, it was incredible for us.”

His father, Archduke Michael Hapsburg-Lothringen, agreed with the rest of his family that Hungary was unfairly treated as a pariah state by the rest of the world. He expressed his deep satisfaction with Mr. Orban’s government, its handling of the migrant crisis, and its promotion of Hungary as a Christian nation. “I believe we live in paradise,” he declared. “Even in comparison to neighboring countries. I mean, there’s so much ambiguity.”

But, under Mr. Orban’s leadership, Hungary is becoming increasingly isolated in Europe. As Francis and Mr. Orban met, some of those gathered in Heroes’ Square sensed the tension and felt torn between the two.

“Catholicism is one thing for me, and politics is another,” said Eva Tamar, 34, from the Hungarian town of God. “I know what is right in religion, but I don’t know who to follow in real life or in politics. It’s difficult.”

Others were clearly aware of which side they were on.

Balazs Nacy, a 23-year-old ethnic Hungarian born and raised in neighboring Slovakia, believes the brief visit to Hungary was a “political message.”

“He doesn’t really agree with what’s going on here in Hungary and what Orban is doing here,” Mr. Nacy explained. “They say it’s Christian politics, but I don’t think what they do here is Christian. The pope is conveying a message.”

Reporting was contributed by Benjamin Novak.

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In Orban’s Hungary, Pope Urges Bishops to Embrace Diversity