null / Vatican Media
Rome Newsroom, Apr 27, 2023 / 10:00 am (CNA).
In a lengthy interview on the eve of Pope Francis’ trip to Hungary, Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, noted that the motto of Pope Francis’ trip to Hungary is “Christ is our future” and that the pontiff’s visit means the presence of Christ is the hope by which Christians live, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.
Pope Francis will be in Budapest this Friday through Sunday, April 28–30. His agenda for the trip includes meetings with authorities and bishops, an encounter with Hungarian culture, and meetings with refugees and members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Other Christian and religious representatives are also invited to the final Mass in Kossuth Square, the site of Francis’ 2021 Mass during the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest.
In the interview with the ACI Group (CNA’s international sister news organization), Erdő explained the meaning and themes of the pope’s visit. He underlined the importance of the experience of the Churches of Central-Eastern Europe for understanding the current situation of the Church and the marginalization of religion in the world. He also highlighted the new challenges that have arisen because of secularization.
The cardinal also described Hungary as a “bridge country” due to its historical position between East and West, thanks in large part to the bond that the country’s patron saint, the beloved King St. Stephen of Hungary forged with the Holy See.
The meaning of the pope’s visit
“In our opinion,” Erdő said in the interview, “the pope’s visit will strengthen our faith and give us much hope. When the pope appears in an apostolic visitation, the faithful feel Jesus Christ himself in his person. Because we indeed encounter Christ in the sacraments, in the poor, but in a special way in the Vicar of Christ, and the world needs hope, a future.”
The motto of the pope’s visit is “Christ is our future,” and it seems to be a revolutionary argument in a world that is increasingly secularized. Erdő, however, highlighted that this is the reality of Christians because “Christ has always been revolutionary even in his times. Faith is always a revolutionary attitude.”
The affirmation, the cardinal argued, is even more significant in the experience of Central-Eastern Christians who went through the communist era. They have always known, he said, that “of course, being a believer has always been a nonconformist decision. We are, by nature, nonconformists; we are children of nonconformists. We had lived the moment when all the mass media said that religion was obsolete and science said it was proven that religion could not be true.”
Legacy of the International Eucharistic Congress
Pope Francis was in Budapest in September 2021 to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress. That experience, which took a long time to prepare and was also hampered by the pandemic, left a very positive impact in Hungary, Erdő noted.
In particular, he said, “the programs that were most successful during the congress are continuing, such as the musical adorations with the youth, which gather thousands and thousands of young people every year.”
Furthermore, “Catholic counseling and Catholic help networks have been established for family situations, for couples, for the education of children, for the elderly, [and] for the sick but also for people who live in unemployment,” he added.
In short, the experience of the International Eucharistic Congress made it “evident that Catholics can meet and help each other. It is a step towards a Church which is not only a liturgical community but which extends to life.”
Hungary as a ‘bridge’ country
In presenting the trip, Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, pointed out how Hungary is a “bridge” country. Erdő noted that “being a bridge has always been our vocation. The Danube that runs through the city of Budapest was the border of the Roman Empire, the border of the Empire of Charlemagne; it was the northernmost province of the Ottoman Empire. Hungary has understood itself as part of the Western world for a thousand years and entered it through the Holy See with our king, St. Stephen. For this reason, our relations with the pontificate and the pope also have a symbolic value for the nation, not just for Catholics.”
Indeed, the religious composition in Hungary is varied, although, in the Catholic Church, the Latin rite makes up the majority. However, 5% of the country’s Catholics are of the Byzantine rite, 15% to 17% of Christians are Calvinists, 3% are Lutherans, and there is a large Jewish community. In Budapest, there are also several ancient Orthodox Churches and pre-Chalcedonian Churches. The city is the seat of a bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and there are also Armenian Apostolics. Budapest is also the territory of at least five Orthodox patriarchates: Constantinople, Moscow, Bucharest, Belgrade, and Sofia.
“Our task at the ecumenical level is not to haggle over dogmatic principles but rather the search for common positions and everyday actions at a social and moral level,” Erdő emphasized. “There are issues that meet with remarkable consensus. These themes are the dignity of human life, appreciation for the family, social justice, defense of the weakest, and I would also say the relationship between religion and public life, the autonomy or independence of the sovereignty of the Church: Here, too, there are points of compliance or consensus.”
The impact of Catholic culture
In this trip’s itinerary, Pope Francis included a meeting at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University on April 30. It will be the last meeting of the trip and is important because, according to Erdő, “one of the greatest challenges of the Catholic Church in Hungary is the youth. In recent decades we have seen the restitution of quite a few schools that were previously Catholic, and then we have been able to take over the management of other schools at the request of most parents. For this reason, between 15% and 17% of the country’s schools are under Catholic management.”
The cardinal added that “the Catholic university was born out of the need to break down the wall between faith and science. It is an artificial wall, but present. In science, religious people were not allowed to enter, which occurred throughout the communist period. Even in our constitution, it was written that the guiding force of society is the Marxist-Leninist Party of the working class. As a result, non-Marxist-Leninists had less access. It was, therefore, necessary to resume the dialogue between faith and culture and faith and science, and for this, it was necessary to create some institution. Just 30 years ago, we founded a Catholic university. It then received the deed of foundation also from the Holy See.”
The pope will also be a guest of the faculty of Information Technology of Bionics at the university. It is, Erdő argued, an important choice because “the Christian faith is a vision of the world, and the vision of the world presupposes an image of the world, of the universe, of the totality of reality in which we live, and the natural sciences can give great help so that Catholic culture is in a living relationship with the general knowledge of humanity. Therefore, the task is great.”
Rebirth of parish halls
With regard to the Catholic culture in Hungary, the cardinal explained that “in Hungary today, one can publicly profess one’s faith; this is clear. Another question is that perhaps there are environments rather characterized by other visions of the world. Still, there are also magazines, radio, and TV programs, and cultural centers that are Catholic or Christian.”
He noted: “In Hungary, we are experiencing the rebirth of parish halls. Under communism, everything except church buildings had been confiscated, and as a result, the faithful had no occasion to meet outside the liturgy. Now there are parish halls and halls of culture in the parishes. There are cultural programs and sometimes a very high attendance.”
Religion as part of national identity
Speaking of rebirth, about 3,000 churches, Catholic and non-Catholic, have been rebuilt or restored in the last few years.
Erdő explained that this reconstruction was necessary because “66% of the parishes were under patronage after the war. However, patronages were dropped since municipal administrations declared they did not recognize this duty. So neither the Church had the means for maintenance nor did others bear these costs. Maintenance was, therefore, necessary, and the help of the state was important.”
State aid in the reconstruction of churches also occurred in other countries from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Again, the cardinal gave the example of Romania, where “the state has financed many religious constructions.”
“The rebirth after communism,” he added, “also brought with it the commitment to revive the cultural and moral heritage of the various nations; after the collapse of the Marxist system, a moral, cultural vacuum remained, which was a danger to society.”
The impact of secularization
His words suggest the impact of secularization, even though its effects have not been felt as significantly in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as elsewhere. But according to Erdő, “two main processes go in the opposite direction.”
The first is “the general secularization, which is linked to consumerism. Consumerism did not enter society gradually as in the West, but there was a break at the beginning of the communist era. This kind of secularization today shows itself as disinterest, distraction, and agnosticism. Then there is another process, given by the rebirth of some structures, that also comes from this need to give the community meaning and morality. These are two processes that the ministry of the Churches must keep in mind.”
Finally, the cardinal also addressed the issue of Hungary’s misperception in the media: What exactly is Hungary?
“You have to come and see,” he replied. “We have been living here for almost 1,150 years now. We always have the impression that they don’t understand us. However, the Hungarians of 1,100 years ago already had a broad geographical vision. St. Stephen founded houses for pilgrims with churches and chapels in Rome, Ravenna, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.
“There are Hungarian chapels in various churches worldwide, starting [with] St. Peter’s Basilica but also in Krakow, in the National Shrine in Washington. This presence shows the desire to have these relationships of belonging and understanding, above all in faith. The Hungarian is a citizen of the world, but deeply rooted in his or her own history.”