A message to Pope Francis: Be wary of right-wing populists when you visit Romania

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a frequent visitor to the Csíksomlyó shrine in Romania, where Pope Francis is expected to celebrate Mass this spring. (Associated Press)Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a frequent visitor to the Csíksomlyó shrine in Romania, where Pope Francis is expected to celebrate Mass this spring. (Associated Press)

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.

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Sharpe
1 month ago

What the Pope needs to do is encourage education and economic growth in the undeveloped countries and condemn the globalist policies that destabilize those countries, and stop pretending to be a compassionate sentient being while being clueless to the concerns and burdens of the western working class being placed on them by those globalist elites who Pope Francis has decided to shill for.

Reyanna Rice
1 month ago

Where have you been or what have you been reading in the last six years? Pope Francis is the world’s strongest advocates for education and economic development for underdeveloped countries but not by globalists! He is the first to condemn global elites! And he has spent his life as a priest among the working poor and understands their concerns and burdens quite well. In Buenos Aires, even after he became archbishop and cardinal, he continued his longstanding practice of visiting by public transport as far as it would go, and then on foot, the poor working class neighborhoods. In some of them, those writing about this pope who have bothered to talk with people in those neighborhoods found that every house they went into had a picture of the cardinal taken in the family home. And the pope “shill”ing for global elites? You could not be further from the truth with that comment.

Andrew Strada
1 month ago

Is Mr. Loustau similarly offended when he hears people in the United States speaking Spanish? He seems almost disappointed that ethnic cleansing has not worked and that one hundred years after the transfer of Transylvania mandated by Woodrow Wilson and his friends, there are still people committed to their Hungarian identity. I suppose in Mr. Loustau's world view there is good diversity and bad diversity and several hundred thousand Catholics making a pilgrimage to Csiksomlyo is an example of bad diversity.

Reyanna Rice
1 month ago

Huh??? That was one helluva stretch on your part to come up with what you wrote in this comment based on this article!

Andrew Strada
3 weeks 2 days ago

There are social justice warriors like Mr. Loustau for whom everything is political - always and everywhere. They will never pass up an opportunity to bash President Trump or Prime Minister Orban, even at a Mass or a funeral. That this ostensibly Catholic magazine questions the sincerity of several hundred thousand Catholics who make a pilgrimage to this remote site that has virtually no supporting infrastructure is very sad indeed.

Ken Osis
4 weeks 1 day ago

As are so many secular journalists, the writer of this article reveals he is up to his neck in "Catholic" Socialism/Marxism/Communism.

I direct him to Saint John-Paul the great who taught that ministers of the Gospel were not to use connection with the Church to push any sort of political agenda. Call to mind how 4 priests in Nicaragua who were in the Sandinista Government were publicly rebuked by him. Call to mind how passionately Polish JP2 was and remained until his death.

Call to mind that the history of the Hungarian people extends to pre-Internet days; their forefathers were invaded centuries ago by followers of a fanatical religion who made slaves of so many of their women that our English word slave derives from Slavs, the white captive sex slaves so favoured by their caliph.

Most Hungarian Catholics devoted to Our Blessed Mother are perfectly capable of distinguishing between genuine refugees fleeing from real and present danger and the invasion of Northern Europe by people doing jihad of migration.

Anita Ilott
3 weeks 6 days ago

This article bleeds from many points and the attention from Romanian politics to Hungarian has been shifted cunningly. Before I start I would like to express that I do not agree with Orban and his regime (well, the majority of his politics). He is as right winged popularist as the Romanian government but slightly less, however this fact is not very well known. One of the typical popularist features is undermining minorities’ rights which the Romanian government practise it greatly. Even the journalist has mentioned in the article that ‘Hungarians forget that the border has changed’ and they dare speak in Hungarian ?! I don’t want to go into the long history why Hungary lost 2/3 of their 1000 years old territory in 1920 to a nation who cannot even show evidence of the continuation of their Dracon relationship, let alone they never had a country until the 19th century. Let’s focus here on popularism and Hungarian-Romanian relationship. In democratic EU countries the minorities have their right to use their mother tongue, study in that language and can celebrate their identity freely. I’m afraid it does not happen in Romania where Hungarian villages in Transylvania (villages where 80% of the population is Hungarian) cannot even put their national flag up on their town hall or on their homes for display and the Romanian government do everything to keep Hungarians at bay by threatening them and giving hefty fine to the mayor if they brandish the Hungarian or the Hungarian Transylvanian flag. Therefore the only place and way they can show their identity is in the church and at great religious festivals. There may be some political heat going on during these times but who could blame a suppressed minority for it? Why do EU parliament not do anything about it? Even in Hungary under right winged Orban’s regime the minorities have freedom to learn and speak their language, and they can celebrate without any fear, they can use their national flag. I know it as I was born in Hungary and Slovakian and German blood as well as Hungarian flow in my veins, in the villages of my grandparents there are schools teaching in their language and nobody discriminate them for it. I believe it is the Romanian government who the pope should keep away from rather.

Anita Ilott
3 weeks 6 days ago

This article bleeds from many points and the attention from Romanian politics to Hungarian has been shifted cunningly. Before I start I would like to express that I do not agree with Orban and his regime (well, the majority of his politics). He is as right winged popularist as the Romanian government but slightly less, however this fact is not very well known. One of the typical popularist features is undermining minorities’ rights which the Romanian government practise it greatly. Even the journalist has mentioned in the article that ‘Hungarians forget that the border has changed’ and they dare speak in Hungarian ?! I don’t want to go into the long history why Hungary lost 2/3 of their 1000 years old territory in 1920 to a nation who cannot even show evidence of the continuation of their Dracon relationship, let alone they never had a country until the 19th century. Let’s focus here on popularism and Hungarian-Romanian relationship. In democratic EU countries the minorities have their right to use their mother tongue, study in that language and can celebrate their identity freely. I’m afraid it does not happen in Romania where Hungarian villages in Transylvania (villages where 80% of the population is Hungarian) cannot even put their national flag up on their town hall or on their homes for display and the Romanian government do everything to keep Hungarians at bay by threatening them and giving hefty fine to the mayor if they brandish the Hungarian or the Hungarian Transylvanian flag. Therefore the only place and way they can show their identity is in the church and at great religious festivals. There may be some political heat going on during these times but who could blame a suppressed minority for it? Why do EU parliament not do anything about it? Even in Hungary under right winged Orban’s regime the minorities have freedom to learn and speak their language, and they can celebrate without any fear, they can use their national flag. I know it as I was born in Hungary and Slovakian and German blood as well as Hungarian flow in my veins, in the villages of my grandparents there are schools teaching in their language and nobody discriminate them for it. I believe it is the Romanian government who the pope should keep away from rather.

Anita Ilott
3 weeks 6 days ago

This article bleeds from many points and the attention from Romanian politics to Hungarian has been shifted cunningly. Before I start I would like to express that I do not agree with Orban and his regime (well, the majority of his politics). He is as right winged popularist as the Romanian government but slightly less, however this fact is not very well known. One of the typical popularist features is undermining minorities’ rights which the Romanian government practise it greatly. Even the journalist has mentioned in the article that ‘Hungarians forget that the border has changed’ and they dare speak in Hungarian ?! I don’t want to go into the long history why Hungary lost 2/3 of their 1000 years old territory in 1920 to a nation who cannot even show evidence of the continuation of their Dracon relationship, let alone they never had a country until the 19th century. Let’s focus here on popularism and Hungarian-Romanian relationship. In democratic EU countries the minorities have their right to use their mother tongue, study in that language and can celebrate their identity freely. I’m afraid it does not happen in Romania where Hungarian villages in Transylvania (villages where 80% of the population is Hungarian) cannot even put their national flag up on their town hall or on their homes for display and the Romanian government do everything to keep Hungarians at bay by threatening them and giving hefty fine to the mayor if they brandish the Hungarian or the Hungarian Transylvanian flag. Therefore the only place and way they can show their identity is in the church and at great religious festivals. There may be some political heat going on during these times but who could blame a suppressed minority for it? Why do EU parliament not do anything about it? Even in Hungary under right winged Orban’s regime the minorities have freedom to learn and speak their language, and they can celebrate without any fear, they can use their national flag. I know it as I was born in Hungary and Slovakian and German blood as well as Hungarian flow in my veins, in the villages of my grandparents there are schools teaching in their language and nobody discriminate them for it. I believe it is the Romanian government who the pope should keep away from rather.

Babos Attila
3 weeks 5 days ago

Marc, shame on you!
If you learn somebodie's language, it's not enough to understand his feelings. Why do you think, that you learned hungarian and levead in Szeklerland for a period, and now you are the big guru?

Horvath Arpad
3 weeks 5 days ago

The statement of the Hungarian Province of the Society of Jesus regarding the America Magazine article about pope Francis' visit to the shrine of the Blessed Virginie of Csiksomlyo:

The Hungarian Jesuits highly respect the freedom of expression and opinion. However, it is painful to see that it is the guest author of America, the flagship magazine of our Society of Jesus who tries to make a sheer political profit from the visit of Pope Francis to Csíksomlyó. We are taken aback to read that he wishes to set an agenda to the leader of the Catholic church, of whom to meet with, what to say and how he should comment the Hungarian political life in his homily.

While this effort is unworthy as it is, we regretfully notice that the author commits the very same mistake which intention he attributes to others: to try to send political messages over the pastoral visit of Pope Francis.

There is due time and space for express political opinion. Think whatever you may on current political issues; let Csíksomlyó remain what it indeed is: a unique place for pilgrimage of Transylvanian and other Hungarians living within or outside the borders of our country. Thus the Hungarian Jesuits exhort the editors of America magazine and the author of the article to exercise greater prudence and wariness, and requesting their prayers so that the visit of Pope Francis may be a vitalizing source of peace, reconciliation and the encounter with God.

Mark M
3 weeks 3 days ago

God bless the people of Hungary and their leader, Mr Orban, for refusing to bow to the EU and its globalist partners. God bless Hungary for being proud of its great Christian heritage.

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