BUDAPEST – The spiritual priorities of Pope Francis will be on display during a trip this week to Hungary, where the populist government will seek to downplay its diverging views on matters like immigration and minority rights while focusing instead on points where it aligns with the pontiff.
Francis will meet with children with disabilities, refugees and those living in poverty on the three-day trip that begins Friday. He will also have an audience with Hungary’s president and its nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
The visit will be a political boon for Orbán, whose contentious stances on migration, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and LGBTQ+ rights stand in stark contrast with Francis’ views of inclusion and acceptance for the marginalized and support for Kyiv during Moscow's war.
Yet the cardinal of Hungary’s Roman Catholic Church, Peter Erdo, as well as other members of the Catholic community, expect the pope’s visit to be a celebration of Christian unity, and that differences of opinion won't play a central role.
“When there is a papal Mass to which bishops and priests from different countries come in large numbers, there is a feeling that the whole church is present there,” Erdo said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He’s making a pastoral visit to us specifically out of love and attention to the Hungarian Catholic community and the Hungarian people ... and I think this is a great joy.”
Speaking after an Easter Mass celebrated by Erdo in Budapest, Erzsebet Markus, a believer from the capital, said Francis spending three full days in the country was “very significant” for Hungarian Christians and for Hungary at large.
“I think that he’s spending so much time here represents an appreciation for us and for the country,” she said.
Francis is also scheduled to visit with members of Hungary’s scientific and cultural sectors. On his final day, he plans to preside over a Sunday Mass on a square in central Budapest.
But the war in Ukraine will loom large as he meets with some of the 35,000 Ukrainian refugees who have remained in Hungary after 2.5 million fled across the country’s eastern borders early in the Russian invasion.
His trip is bringing Francis the closest he has traveled to the conflict in Ukraine. His itinerary includes a stop at a Greek Catholic church that has provided care for refugees. The Greek Catholic Church is one of the eastern rite Catholic churches that recognizes papal authority.
The stop is a nod to Kyiv, which has begged for a papal visit of solidarity ever since Russia invaded, and is watching from the side as Francis visits neighboring Hungary for the second time in as many years.
“We’ll be just a few hundred kilometers from the border with Ukraine,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters. “We can certainly expect words about his pain over this conflict and the search for peace.”
Francis has been supportive of Ukraine’s plight following Russia’s invasion — likening it to a 1930s genocide of Ukrainians blamed on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Orban, meanwhile, has been lukewarm in his support for Hungary’s eastern neighbor, refusing to supply Kyiv with weapons and threatening to veto European Union sanctions against Moscow.
Still, Orbán has cast his view of the war as being in line with the Vatican’s, saying during a speech in February that his government and the papacy were the only powers in Europe advocating for peace in Ukraine.
Andras Mate-Toth, a theologian and scholar of religions at the University of Szeged in Hungary, said that while the views of the pope and the Hungarian government on refugees had seemed to be “diametrically opposed” in the past, there was not so much space between them on the war.
“On the issue of Russia’s war of occupation in Ukraine, there seems to be no such diametric difference because the pope urges peace and the Hungarian government urges peace,” Mate-Toth said.
Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Habsburg, acknowledged that the country remained highly dependent on Russian energy 14 months into the war, but said he believes that Orbán and Francis are of like minds when it comes to the conflict.
“Orbán and the pope, both very clearly over the last month, several times, have asked for an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations,” Habsburg said.
Francis has already expressed his appreciation for the welcome Hungary has shown to Ukrainian refugees. During a 2022 meeting with Orbán at the Vatican, Francis gave the prime minister a medallion of St. Martin and said he chose it specifically to honor Hungary’s reception of people fleeing the war.
Such appreciation wasn't necessarily on display when Francis visited Budapest in 2021 for a seven-hour visit to close out a Eucharistic Congress. Francis didn’t stay on to actually visit Hungary, which some observers perceived as a snub meant to reflect his opposition to Orbán’s tough line on migration.
In remarks delivered at his Sunday noon blessing from his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Francis addressed his upcoming trip to Hungary, touching on both the war and migration as themes that would play an elevated role during his visit.
“It will be an opportunity to reembrace a church and a people so dear to me. It will also be a journey to the center of Europe, over which icy winds of war continue to blow, while the movements of so many people place urgent humanitarian issues on the agenda,” Francis said.
“Let us not forget our Ukrainian brothers and sisters still afflicted by this war,” the pontiff said.
Yet despite the fraught backdrop of political friction and armed conflict, Francis will use his trip to make the kinds of visits with the downtrodden for which he is well known.
On Saturday, he will meet with patients at the Blessed Laszlo Batthyany-Strattmann Home for the Blind, an education and comprehensive care facility for children with visual and motor disabilities.
The director of the institute, György Inotay, said the pope’s itinerary in Hungary is indicative of his commitment to the most vulnerable of society.
“He has obviously designated a program and path for himself that speaks to him feeling connected to the most desperate, the poorest and those struggling with some kind of illness and injury, and he has demonstrated this countless times over the last decade,” Inotay said.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.
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