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Gerard O’ConnellApril 27, 2023
Pope Francis greets Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest, Hungary, in this file photo from Sept. 12, 2021. Pope Francis will return to Hungary April 28-30. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis returns to Budapest, the capital of Hungary on Friday, April 28, for a three-day visit to this landlocked state in central Europe that has been a Christian country for over 1,000 years. He is going in order to confirm and encourage believers in their faith and is likely to speak about the need to build bridges and greater unity among the peoples of Europe. He is also expected to encourage solidarity in the face of the ever greater humanitarian crisis arising from the war in Ukraine and to appeal for an end to the war.

On the eve of his visit, April 27, Pope Francis received Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, in a half-hour private audience in the apostolic palace.

It will be Francis’ 41st trip outside Italy since his election as pope on March 13, 2013, and Hungary will be the 60th country he has visited. He briefly visited Budapest on Sept. 12, 2021, to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, an event attended by 100,000 Hungarians and pilgrims from 70 countries. Some in Hungary were upset that he stayed only seven hours on that visit. He promised the country’s president that he would return, and he keeps that promise with this April 28-30 visit, even though the promise was made before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

On the eve of his visit, April 27, Pope Francis received Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, in a half-hour private audience in the apostolic palace.

Greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square last Sunday, the pope said he was going to Hungary “to complete the trip I made in 2021 for the International Eucharistic Congress.”

“It will be an opportunity to embrace once again a church and a people so dear to me. It will also be a journey to the center of Europe, over which the icy winds of war continue to blow, while the displacement of so many people puts urgent humanitarian questions on the agenda,” Francis said.

His 2021 trip to Hungary came a mere two months after his colon operation on July 4, and he makes this second visit, at the age of 86, less than one month after his three-day stay in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital for bronchitis.

Christianity has flourished in this land for over a thousand years, and in centuries past, Hungary produced many saints, including Stephen, its first king, Elizabeth, a princess and St. Martin. In the 20th century it produced martyrs, too, when believers suffered persecution from the Nazis at the end of World War II and then under the Communists, who came to power in 1945 and ruled the country until 1989.

Cardinal József Mindszenty, who led the Hungarian Catholic Church between 1945 and 1973, personified the country’s heroic faithfulness to Christ. 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 recall the cardinal’s heroism as St. John Paul II did when he visited Hungary in 1991 and 1996.

Greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square last Sunday, the pope said he was going to Hungary “to complete the trip I made in 2021 for the International Eucharistic Congress.”

Hungary became a republic and parliamentary democracy in 1990. Today, just over 39 percent of Hungary’s 10 million people (mostly ethnic Hungarians), identify as Catholic, according to the country’s 2011 census. Another 12 percent are Calvinist, 2 percent are Lutheran, and many do not profess a religion.

While Catholic Church leaders in Hungary, led by Cardinal Péter Erdö, would have liked the pope to visit various parts of the country, because of his mobility problems, Francis’ visit will be confined to Budapest, the capital city with a population of some 1.8 million people, including the largest Jewish population (80,000) of any city in central Europe. He will reside at the nunciature (the Vatican embassy), located on the west bank of the Danube.

Following an official welcome ceremony at Budapest’s international airport on the morning of April 28, Pope Francis will be driven to the neoclassical Sándor Palace for a courtesy meeting with the country’s first female president, Katalin Novák.

At the palace, he will also have what could be an important meeting with Viktor Orbán, the country’s nationalist, populist leader, who has been prime minister since 2010. Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz party has won elections—including the last one in 2022 with 53 percent of the vote—on a platform of “faith, family and nation.” He has pushed a populist anti-migrant policy and presented Hungary as “the defender of Christian Europe.” The country has provided humanitarian assistance to persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa under Mr. Orbán’s leadership. It has also opened its doors to the Ukrainians fleeing the war, and Francis is expected to thank the government and the Hungarian people for this.

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

Mr. Orbán is the closest ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the European Union, and he continues to create problems for the European Union in its efforts to impose sanctions against Russia and provide arms to Ukraine. He has clashed publicly with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and refuses to allow arms to pass through the Hungarian border to Ukraine. He publicly asserts that only he and Pope Francis are “on the side of peace” in Europe, according to Alexander Faludy, an Anglo Hungarian journalist, who wrote an article on the eve of the visit in which he expresses concern that the pope’s words on peace risk being manipulated by the Hungarian leader.

After his private meeting with Mr. Orbán, Francis will give a keynote address at a former Carmelite monastery, which today is the seat of Hungary’s prime minister. There, in the first of his six talks during the visit, the Argentine pope will address an audience of some 200 persons from the country’s political authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps. In it, he is likely to focus on the urgent need today to build bridges in Europe among its peoples. The central feature of the pope’s official logo for his visit depicts Budapest’s Chain Bridge, the oldest Hungarian bridge over the Danube, which was originally built to connect the cities of Buda and Pest. He is also expected to recall the country’s Christian history and remind the nation that “Christ is our future,” which is the motto for the visit.

On the afternoon of his first day here, Francis will meet the country’s 37 bishops, along with priests, deacons, consecrated women and men, senior seminarians, catechists and pastoral workers, at the cathedral of St. Stephen. There he will be welcomed by the president of the episcopal conference, Bishop András Veres.

As he has done on other foreign visits, so too here in Budapest, the first Jesuit pope will greet the Hungarian Jesuit community and engage in a Q. & A. session.

On Saturday morning, April 29, Francis will visit a Catholic institute for children who are blind or have special needs. Afterward, he will go to the church of St. Elizabeth, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, who was married at 14, lost her husband at the age of 20 and became famous for her care of the poor and needy until her death at the age of 24. There Pope Francis will greet poor people, refugees and migrants from many countries who have found refuge in this land, including many from neighboring Ukraine, with which Hungary shares an 85-mile-long border. Surprisingly, however, he is not scheduled to have any separate meeting with Ukrainian refugees, of whom there are many in Budapest, which is about 576 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Later that morning, Francis will meet with members of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, giving a brief talk and praying with them.

That Saturday afternoon, he will travel to the Papp Lásszlo Budapest sports arena for a meeting with some 12,000 young people, and after watching a performance of traditional dances and listening to their testimonies, he will speak to them.

As he has done on other foreign visits, so too here in Budapest, the first Jesuit pope will greet the Hungarian Jesuit community and engage in a Q. & A. session.

On Sunday, April 30, Pope Francis will preside at Mass, celebrated in Latin and Hungarian, at the Lajos Kossuth Square, named after the leader of the 1848 Hungarian revolution, and located in the city center. It is expected to draw a very large crowd.

That afternoon, before boarding the plane to return to Rome, the first Latin American pope will address academics and the world of culture at the faculty of informatics and bionics at the Catholic University.

Pope Francis is expected to hold a press conference on the two-hour flight back to Rome.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated 60 percent of Hungarians identify as Catholic, according to the Vatican. The country’s census puts that percentage at just over 39 percent.

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