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Pope Francis to make Hungary visit April 28-30



Cyprien Viet - published on 03/01/23

In the context of the war in Ukraine and Hungary's dynamic Church, Pope Francis' trip has many important elements.

Pope Francis will visit Hungary from April 28 to 30, the director of the Vatican press office, Matteo Bruni, announced on February 27, 2023. This will be his first trip this year to a European country, after his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in early February.

The Argentine Pontiff went to Budapest on September 12, 2021, for the closing of the International Eucharistic Congress, but that short visit lasted only a few hours and was not considered an official visit to the central European country.

Pope Francis’ trip will be based in the capital city of Budapest. The other stops that had been considered were apparently not included due to the 86-year-old Pope’s mobility difficulties, as he moves mostly in a wheelchair. Contrary to rumors, the Bishop of Rome will not visit the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma nor the city of Esztergom, which is close to Budapest and the historic seat of the Archdiocese of the Hungarian capital. 

Rapprochement between Rome and Budapest in the context of the war in Ukraine

During his visit on September 12, 2021, presented as a visit ‘to Budapest’ and not ‘to Hungary,’ Pope Francis spent only seven hours on Hungarian soil, before flying to Slovakia, the second destination of his 34th apostolic journey. Pope Francis met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the then Hungarian President János Áder, before celebrating the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress. He also gave two speeches, one to the local bishops and the other to representatives of the World Council of Churches and Jewish communities in the country.

Media attention was largely focused on the distance Pope Francis had put between himself and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is reluctant on the issue of welcoming migrants. While welcoming the Hungarian government’s support for families, the Pope refused to give a political dimension to this trip linked to an ecclesial event. However, he did promise to return to Hungary for an official visit.

Since 2022, in the context of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, there has been a rapprochement between the Hungarian government and the Holy See, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s visit to the Vatican on April 21, 2022. Pope Francis also met with the new president Katalin Novák on August 25, 2022.

Hungary and the Holy See agree on the need to help Ukrainian refugees, but also on maintaining contact with Russia in order to promote peace in Europe.

A meeting with Patriarch Kirill?

As with John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1996, this new trip to Hungary is surrounded by rumors about a potential meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow. According to the official program, there is no indication at this time that such a meeting could take place during this trip. 

However, formal or informal contacts with Russian Orthodoxy remain plausible through the Metropolitan of Hungary Hilarion, who was the head of external relations of the Moscow Patriarchate until his transfer to Budapest just last year, in June 2022. 

Although Hilarion’s appointment was interpreted as a demotion at the time, due to a perception by certain circles close to the Kremlin that Hilarion was too close to Rome and the West, it may be an opportunity during this visit. Hilarion, who has made several trips to the Vatican and was close to Benedict XVI, could serve as a bridge between Russian Orthodoxy and the West, by preserving contacts with the Catholic world and ecumenical circles.

Both politically and religiously, Budapest appears to be a strategic place to maintain contacts with Moscow, as the Russian offensive in Ukraine has pushed formerly neutral countries, such as Finland, closer to NATO.

Encouraging a dynamic Church

Within the Catholic Church, the Pope’s visit is also an endorsement of Cardinal Peter Erdő, who will thus welcome Francis for the second time to his diocese.The Archbishop of the Hungarian capital, seen by many as an “enlightened conservative,” meaning loyal to Pope Francis but a firm defender of traditional Catholicism, is regularly presented as a potential papabile, that is, future pope.

Primate of Hungary since 2002 and created a cardinal by John Paul II in 2003, Cardinal Erdő also presided over the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) from 2006 to 2016. The 70-year-old polyglot archbishop is known as a canonist and a good administrator. He manages a vast diocese, which has, according to the 2022 Pontifical Yearbook, 158 parishes and 219 incardinated priests, for a total population of more than two million, or one in five Hungarians. 

Immediately after the announcement of the trip, Cardinal Erdő expressed in a short statement the “particular joy” of his diocese and invited all those involved in the Church in Hungary, in the country as well as abroad, to join in the visit. “May our meeting with the Successor of St. Peter be a decisive step on the path we travel together toward Christ. Sustain, O God, our Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ,” wrote the archbishop of the Hungarian capital.

Hungary is marked by a strong Catholic population, representing around 50% to 60% of the total. It remains relatively untouched by the vocational crisis and secularization that affects most other European countries.

The Pope has praised the popular piety of Catholics of Hungarian culture, specifically during a Mass on June 1, 2019, celebrated in Sumuleu-Ciuc, a pilgrimage site of the Hungarian minority community in Romania.

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