Europe’s right-wing populists could try to exploit Pope Francis’ trip to Romania at the end of May to embolden hostile attitudes toward migrants and refugees. But the pope can head them off by voicing a clear message of support for the tenet of welcoming the stranger.
When Pope St. John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, he stayed in the country’s capital of Bucharest and met with Romania’s Orthodox Christian leaders. But Pope Francis has said he will not stop there. He is expected to celebrate an outdoor Mass on June 1 at the shrine of Our Lady of Csíksomlyó (a pilgrimage site called Şumuleu Ciuc in Romanian) for a crowd that might be as big as 500,000. Although Francis will speak in Italian, his homily will be translated into Hungarian.
How is it that a pope is going to pray with Hungarians in the middle of Romania? Csíksomlyó is about 250 miles from the Hungarian border, but it is Hungarians’ holiest site. Our Lady of Csíksomlyó is in Transylvania, a region that was part of Hungary until 1918. Although the borders changed after World War I, they never did in the minds of the Hungarian minority who live around Csíksomlyó. From 2009 to 2013, I conducted research as an anthropologist and lived at the pilgrimage site, even joining the shrine’s official choir. So I know from experience that Catholics there still sing the Hungarian national anthem after most Masses. Each year on the Saturday before Pentecost, over 200,000 Hungarians from all over the world journey to the shrine. And millions more watch the open-air Mass on TV. When Pope Francis steps out onto Csíksomlyó’s outdoor altar and smiles, Hungarians all over the world will be smiling back.
Many Hungarians go to Csíksomlyó to pray and ask the Virgin Mary for help. But others have political motivations that flagrantly contradict Catholic social teaching.
Many Hungarians go to Csíksomlyó to pray and ask the Virgin Mary for help. But others have political motivations that flagrantly contradict Catholic social teaching. Csíksomlyó is a favorite for right-wing populists, who love the big crowds and intense religious feeling. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, has been there many times, most recently in 2013. Mr. Orbán’s second in command, Zsolt Semjén, always has a seat reserved right in front of the altar, practically rubbing knees with Transylvania’s Catholic archbishop.
Mr. Orbán’s government is the leading voice in Europe against immigration. Under a law passed last year, it is now illegal for groups or organizations to assist undocumented migrants in Hungary or to help them gain legal status. Steve Bannon, a former presidential advisor and the brains behind the Trump campaign’s America First nationalist populism, has set up shop in Hungary’s capital of Budapest, and President Trump’s wall is an echo of the border fences topped with propaganda-blaring megaphones that Mr. Orbán began building in 2015 to keep out refugees. Mr. Orbán stands against everything that Pope Francis was for when he famously invited a group of Syrian refugees onto his plane to Rome.
Not every Hungarian Catholic priest is as comfortable hobnobbing with right-wing populists. Just a few weeks ago, local websites reported that Csíksomlyó’s head priest got into an argument with local political activists. They wanted him to tell worshippers to attend a quasi-political ritual after Mass. He declined, and they refused to leave his office until he came out to explain why. But the row just goes to show that Catholic leaders don’t know what to do with right-wing Hungarian populists.
At Csíksomlyó, there will be thousands of anti-immigration activists and allies of Mr. Orbán who will want to claim support from the pope.
Is Pope Francis’ trip to Csíksomlyó a sign that he is rethinking his stance toward right-wing, anti-immigrant populism? The answer is, obviously, no. But others have tried to exploit situations in which the pope merely greets visitors with civility. Remember his meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? At Csíksomlyó, there will be thousands of anti-immigration activists and allies of Mr. Orbán who will want to claim support from the pope.
Pope Francis is a master of soft diplomacy. He has often used his personal example of humility to send subtle but potent political signals. This is one way he could approach his trip to Romania. In a sense, he already has. Romania has a European-leaning president, Klaus Iohannis, who was all over the news for extending the invitation to visit Romania personally to Pope Francis at the Vatican. Mr. Iohannis is a member of Romania’s small ethnic German minority, and a Lutheran to boot. At a time when Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has left many wondering what good the Union has done, by humbly accepting Mr. Iohannis’s gesture of hospitality, the pope has highlighted a minority empowerment success story within the E.U. He also advanced the cause of ecumenism. All this, and he hasn’t yet boarded his plane for Romania.
When he does get to Csíksomlyó, Pope Francis can—and should—send the clearest possible message that Hungary’s right-wing populists don’t have his support. The pope is likely to issue a statement against Mr. Orbán’s anti-immigration laws, and he could use his homily to speak directly to Hungary’s political leaders. But to make a bigger impact, he could also meet with members of the migrant assistance groups that Mr. Orbán has targeted or driven underground. These include the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Budapest branch of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and MigSzol, the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary, which has worked closely with Hungarian Catholic parishes. He could have a public meeting with migrants trying to make a home for themselves in Romania and Hungary. At Csíksomlyó, Pope Francis will have all the tools he needs to build on his track record of courage and compassion.
Whether we see Francis take a soft or hard line, I have no doubt he will show the world what it means to serve in divisive times with humility, charity and openness. The whole world will surely notice, Viktor Orbán included.