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Fervent Catholic and defender of the family, the President of Hungary Katalin Novák was received by Pope Francis on August 25, 2022, at the Vatican.
The war in Ukraine and the promotion of life and family were discussed in her exchanges with the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher.
The Secretariat of State issued a brief statement, as is protocol during visits by heads of state, referring to the “good bilateral relations” between Hungary and the Holy See. Several “topics of common interest” were discussed between the president and the papal diplomatic officials, including “the family, the promotion of the culture of life, youth and the situation of Christians in the Middle East,” as well as “the war in Ukraine and commitment to peace.”
The text also mentions the pope’s apostolic journey to Budapest in September 2021 on the occasion of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress. Notably, the communiqué does not mention the question of welcoming migrants, as the Hungarian authorities do not share Pope Francis’ orientations on this issue. However, thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed in Hungary since the beginning of the Russian offensive on February 24, 2022.
As is customary, at the end of their 45-minute meeting, the pope offered the president the main documents of his pontificate, as well as a bronze work representing a child helping another to get up, with the inscription “Amare Aiutare” (“Love to help”).
Novák presented him with a handmade stole, two CDs of Franz Liszt’s music, and a book about a collection of contemporary art inspired by biblical themes.
First woman to be Hungary’s president
Katalin Novák was elected president of the Central European country last March, and on May 10, 2022, she became the first woman to hold the Hungarian presidency. A member of the same right-wing party as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the Fidesz, she had previously been minister for family issues in his government.
A devout Catholic, this 44-year-old woman, who studied in France, regularly mentions her faith as a source of motivation for her political commitment. She testified to this in early August during a visit to the shrine of Fatima, Portugal. In preparation for her meeting with the pope, she met on August 17, 2022, with Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest. Her commitment to the defense of the traditional family is a subject of convergence with the Catholic Church and the Holy See.
As in Italy, Hungary’s presidential office is essentially one of institutional and diplomatic representation. Internationally, the Hungarian president has openly condemned the Russian offensive in Ukraine and has reestablished ties with neighboring Poland by making her first trip there, after Hungary’s relatively conciliatory stance towards Russia had caused a diplomatic crisis between Budapest and Warsaw. However, the main prerogatives of the executive branch are in the hands of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was received by Pope Francis on April 21, 2022.
Hungary, a possible future destination for the pope
If his health and schedule allow it, the pope could visit Hungary in the coming months. His short stop in Budapest in 2021 was not considered an official visit to Hungary, but Pope Francis promised to return to the Central European country of nearly 10 million people for a longer period.
Interviewed by Hungarian public television after her visit, the president said she had given the pope an official invitation and that Hungary was ready to begin preparations for an apostolic visit, with a possible schedule for the spring of 2023. She also emphasized the convergences between Hungary and the Holy See in the search for peace in Ukraine. It should be noted that the pope and the president spoke in Spanish, without an interpreter.
Hungary remains marked by a robust Catholicism, which involves between 50% and 60% of the population, and remains relatively unaffected by the crisis of vocations and secularization that mark most other European countries.
In addition to his September 2021 stop in Budapest, the pope also praised the popular piety of Catholics of Hungarian culture during a June 1, 2019, Mass celebrated in Sumuleu-Ciuc, a pilgrimage site of the Hungarian minority in Romania.
The hypothesis of a stop in Hungary on the way to Ukraine, where the pope wants to go to show his closeness to the suffering population in the face of war, could also be a geographically logical plan for the pope, in a trip that would then be turned to the theme of welcoming Ukrainian refugees.