Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 10, 2021
Pope Francis arrives at Baghdad International Airport to begin a three-day visit to Iraq March 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis will set out on his 34th foreign trip early Sunday morning, Sept. 12, and travel to the center of Europe. He will make a seven-hour stopover in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, to celebrate the closing Mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, before flying to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, for a four-day visit to that country, Sept. 12-15.

It will be a demanding trip health-wise for the 84-year-old pontiff coming just two months after his colon operation on July 4. Everyone will be watching to see how well he copes. Last week, in an interview with Spain’s COPE radio, he admitted, “Maybe in this first trip I should be more careful because one has to recover completely.” But he has not altered his program and expressed confidence that he can do it when he remarked, with a laugh, “In the end, it will be the same as the others, you will see!”

It will be a demanding trip health-wise for the 84-year-old pontiff coming just two months after his colon operation on July 4.

Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See press office confirmed that, as is normal practice, a doctor and a nurse will accompany the pope on his four-day journey, during which he will visit four cities and deliver 10 talks, including homilies.

The visit can be seen as a pilgrimage with four dimensions, as Mr. Bruni suggested. First is a spiritual dimension centered on the Eucharist. Next, there is an ecumenical dimension when he meets leaders of the other Christian churches and recalls the shared Christian heritage in Hungary and Slovakia that is linked to the Greek brother-saints, Cyril and Methodius, who evangelized these peoples. The third dimension is interreligious: Francis will meet representatives of the Jewish community in both capital cities.

The fourth dimension could be described as missionary: The pope will evoke the heroic witness of faith and martyrdom given by Hungarian and Slovak Catholics who suffered persecution under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and he will encourage believers today to be inspired by that in giving witness to Christ in this troubled moment in history. He is likely to emphasize the central theme of his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which has important political implications for our day.

Francis spoke about his forthcoming visit when he greeted pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Sept. 5. He said, “These will be days marked by adoration and prayer in the heart of Europe.” He asked everyone “to accompany me in prayer” and said he entrusted his visit “to the intercession of so many heroic confessors of the faith, who in those places bore witness to the Gospel amid hostility and persecution.”

He prayed that they “may help Europe to bear witness today also, not so much in words but above all in deeds, with works of mercy and hospitality, to the good news of the Lord who loves us and saves us.”

Pope Francis in Hungary

Pope Francis will first stop in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, a landlocked state in central Europe that has been a Christian country for over 1,000 years. Believers suffered persecution at the end of World War II from the Nazis and especially when the Communists came to power in 1945 and ruled until 1989. The country became a republic and parliamentary democracy in 1990. Today, just over 60 percent of Hungary’s 10 million people (mostly ethnic Hungarians), identify as Catholic. Another 12 percent are Calvinist, 2 percent are Lutheran, and many do not profess a religion, according to the country’s 2011 census.

The last I.E.C. to be held in Budapest was in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War when Pius XI sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (soon to be Pius XII) as his delegate.

“Many Hungarians” were at first “angry” that Pope Francis will only stay some hours in their country while he plans to spend almost four days in neighboring Slovakia, the Rev. Kornél Fábry, the Hungarian secretary general of the I.E.C. organizing committee, admitted in a virtual conference with journalists. He explained that the country’s president, János Áder, and the Catholic bishops’ conference, led by Cardinal Peter Erdó, had invited him to celebrate the closing Mass of I.E.C. He said people became more reconciled to the pope’s short stay when he compared the closing Mass to a meal.

“Francis was invited to a meal, and so it is not normal to stay overnight,” Father Fábry said.

“Many Hungarians” were at first “angry” that Pope Francis will only stay some hours in their country while he plans to spend almost four days in neighboring Slovakia.

The main reason for Francis’ visit was his decision to attend the I.E.C., but there are at least two other reasons that may throw light on why he chose not to stay long.

First, as he told the Spanish radio network recently, he has decided to visit “the smaller” countries of Europe first, signaling his desire to go to “the peripheries” that are often overlooked. He considers Slovakia among the “smaller” countries; it is half the size of Hungary.

Second, it is no secret that, like the European Union of which Hungary is a member state, Francis is unhappy with the populist anti-migrant policy and other aspects of the political agenda of the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and observers in Hungary and Rome have suggested he does not wish to be seen as supporting that program. Mr. Orbán has been in office since 2010 and is seeking a fourth term. As the leader of Fidesz, the national conservative political party, that is today in alliance with the Christian-Democratic party, he is trying hard to woo church support for its agenda.

Alexander Faludy, an Anglo-Hungarian freelance journalist living in Budapest, described this in a recent article in The Tablet. He explained that to remain in power, Orbán’s Fidesz, in alliance with the Christian Democratic People’s Party, is using the religious ticket of “faith, family and nation” and is seeking to present Hungary as “the defender of Christian Europe.” To gain Catholic backing it has funded the building or restoring of some 3,000 churches, supported church schools and married couples willing to have children, as well as ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries.

Listen to Gerard O'Connell's analysis of Pope Francis' upcoming trip:

Above and beyond all this, it should be noted that it is rare for a pope to preside at the closing of a Eucharistic congress held outside Rome. Francis opted to come to Budapest because he wishes to pay tribute to the heroic faith of Catholics and other Christians in this land during the harsh Communist persecution of the 20th century. Cardinal Jósef Mindszenty personified that faithfulness to Christ; he participated in the I.E.C. of 1938 in Budapest and led the Hungarian Catholic church between 1945 and 1973. He suffered imprisonment under the pro-Nazi party during World War II and then torture and imprisonment under the Communists until 1956 when, after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, he was given asylum in the U.S. embassy in Budapest. Francis will likely speak about the cardinal’s heroism as St. John Paul II did when he visited Hungary in 1991 and 1996.

It is significant that in this context of heroic witness the Hungarian church has invited leaders from other churches that are suffering for the faith to participate in the I.E.C.’s theological symposium on the Eucharist held during the week before Francis’ arrival. Among those invited to give testimony are Cardinals Charles Bo from Myanmar, Raphael Sako from Iraq, Oswald Gracias from India, John Onaiyekan from Nigeria—all countries where Christians are enduring suffering for the faith. Francis will greet them all at the end of Mass.

Rev. Kornél Fábry said I.E.C. organizers expect a crowd of around 100,000 faithful—the vast majority Hungarian but also pilgrims from 70 other countries—at the Mass that the pope will celebrate in Heroes Square in Budapest, a city of almost 1.8 million people. The Hungarian government has not imposed Covid restrictions at the Mass; 60 percent of the population has received a Covid-19 vaccine.

On his arrival in Budapest, before presiding at the Mass, Francis will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts on the side of Heroes’ Square for brief meetings with Hungary’s president, János Áder, and prime minister, Viktor Orbán. He will also greet the Hungarian bishops and an ecumenical gathering of Christians and Jews. He will then visit the crowds in his popemobile before concelebrating Mass with cardinals and bishops from Hungary and 70 other countries.

After Mass, he will drive to the airport to take a plane for the 50 minute-flight to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

Pope Francis in Slovakia

Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary for a thousand years, but after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, it became part of the state of Czechoslovakia. It fell under the control of Nazi Germany in World War II but, at the war’s end, reverted to being part of Czechoslovakia. That state came under harsh Communist rule from 1948 until 1989’s “Velvet Revolution.” In 1993, Slovakia, a country with 13 ethnic groups and a great sense of hospitality, separated peacefully from the Czech Republic and became a sovereign state. It joined the European Union in 2004.

As of 2019, the Slovak Republic has a population of over 5.5 million, of whom 73 percent are Catholic. The Catholic community is divided into two rites: the majority Roman Catholic and a small minority Greek Catholic.

Like John Paul II who visited this country three times (1990, 1995 and 2003), Francis will stay at the nunciature in Bratislava, the capital city that has a population of some 650,000 people and is the political, cultural and economic center of the country. On his first evening, he will greet an ecumenical gathering at the nunciature. Later he will spend time with the Slovak Jesuit community where he is likely to speak about the heroic Jesuit priest, Ján Chryzostom Korec, who, under Communist rule, was secretly ordained a bishop at the age of 27 and carried out his underground pastoral ministry while doing manual work, both before and after spending eight years in prison. Korec, whom John Paul II made a cardinal, recounted his experiences in the book The Night of the Barbarians.

There is much interest in what Pope Francis' spiritual-political message may be to Slovakia and other countries of central Europe.

The next day, Sept. 13, Francis will be busy in Bratislava. He will be given an official state welcome at the presidential palace by President Zuzana Čaputová, 48, the country’s first woman president who is a lawyer and an environmental and anti-corruption activist. She is also expected to welcome him at the airport upon his arrival. The pope will address the nation’s civil authorities and diplomatic corps in the palace gardens, and there is much interest in what his spiritual-political message may be to this and other countries of central Europe.

From the palace, he will travel to St. Martin’s Cathedral to address the bishops, clergy, religious and seminarians of the country, where secularism is taking its toll on church practice and vocations are in decline. He is expected to encourage them by recalling the heroic witness to the faith given by Slovak Catholics under Communist persecution when some 250 priests and several bishops were imprisoned.

Francis asked specifically to visit situations of poverty and discarded people in Bratislava, and so that afternoon he will go to the Bethlehem Center for homeless persons run by the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Later, he will meet representatives of the Slovak Jewish community that suffered greatly under the Nazis and Communists: 105,000 Slovak Jews died in the Shoah.

On his third day, Sept.14, he will travel 150 miles east by plane to Košice and Prešov, the country’s second and third largest cities. In Prešov, he will preside at the Byzantine liturgy of the Greek Catholic Church, and that afternoon at Košice, he will meet members of the Roma community, which has over 400,000 members in Slovakia and has faced much persecution over the years. He will end the day by meeting thousands of young people in the city’s stadium.

Pope Francis will conclude his visit to Slovakia by celebrating Mass at the famous Marian shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows, the patron saint of Slovakia, at Šaštin, 25 miles outside Bratislava. Slovakians have come here in times of national sorrow and persecution and to pray for miracles. When John Paul II visited the shrine in 1995, some 400,000 people attended his Mass, but the crowd is expected to be smaller this time due to the pandemic.

After Mass, the pope will drive from the shrine to Bratislava airport to take the plane back to Rome. En route, he is expected to give a press conference.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that just over 60 percent of the Hungarian population identify as “Christian” rather than “Catholic.”

[Read next: American conservatives have fallen in love with Hungary. Pope Francis is less impressed.]

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