When Pope Francis, at the end of the fifty-first Eucharistic Congress in Cebu (Philippines), announced in a video message that the next meeting would be in Budapest in 2020, he was probably far from imagining that he would have aroused an interest that is now unusual in the international media. However, that’s how it really happened: forcibly postponed for a year because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the event – which took place between September 5 and 12 – was widely reported in newspapers and on television from its very beginning.
TOPICALITY AND URGENCY OF THE INTERNATIONAL EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS
From a pastoral point of view, the Eucharistic Congress, placed under the motto “All my sources are in you” (Psalm 87) and with the title: “The Eucharist: source of Christian life and mission”, was urgently topical, linked to an urgency that can no longer be ignored. As we know, in a large part of the world (except Asia and Africa), the participation of the faithful in Holy Mass has been decreasing for decades.
On the one hand, secularization, which is the result of a global society and is characterized by the generalized diffusion of relativism, has led to a strong decrease in the average frequency of Eucharistic celebrations, especially in Europe. There are countries where less than 5% of Catholics observe the festive precept and where indifference has taken the place of fervor. On the other hand, the situation created by the worldwide spread of the Coronavirus has further reduced participation in the Mass. Objectively, in various countries the churches have been closed for a long time or open but not for Masses. And when the pandemic reopened, the state’s pandemic regulations, accepted by many churches as a matter of course, caused others to reduce attendance as a precaution. In addition, during periods of closure, there was sometimes too much emphasis in the Catholic hierarchy on the value of following the transmission of Mass individually from home, so much so that many inferred – acting accordingly – that physical participation in the festive Mass was basically optional. It is also difficult to run for cover when someone has become dissatisfied with an established life practice.
But there was at least one other reason that determined the media interest. The event took place in the Hungarian capital, that is, a country whose policy for a decade has been determined (supported by the consensus of most Hungarians) by Viktor Orban, a Christian politician (Calvinist, with a Catholic wife) who in many countries at the European level is admired. In others (and especially in the institutions of the European Union, on the left and among some secularists) so much hostility. The fact is that Orban and his government are effectively promoting (through the approval of constitutional norms and ad hoc implementing laws) the national identity that is inextricably linked to the values of Christianity, especially by promoting the right to life and family based on marriage between man and woman, aimed at the procreation of children. This is a real horror for the “progressive” continental elites, who are still exasperated by the recent approval by the Hungarian Parliament of a law that aims, among other things, to protect minors from LGBT propaganda. Let’s add Orban’s policy of blocking illegal immigration, considered detrimental to the balance of the country: the Hungarian government prefers to concretely help people in need (refugees) on the spot: as evidenced by the activity of the State Secretariat for Aid to Persecuted Christians (and not only), which – in collaboration with the Christian churches – with targeted actions in the fields of education, health, life, supports the stay in the Middle East and also in Africa (Nigeria) of those who have lost everything because of the war.
All this has the potential to arouse the interest of the international media, who are watching the Congress closely and especially the final day, with the presence of Pope Francis, that is, the one who is considered one of the greatest opponents of the declared Christian Viktor. Orban, mainly because of the very different visions on immigration (on life and family, on the other hand, the Pope seems to agree on the substance, even if in the form he proposes diverging, faithful to his strategy sometimes difficult to decipher).
After all, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has never hidden a certain intolerance towards the Hungarian Prime Minister: one only has to recall the smugness with which he treated him in the recent interview with the Spanish radio station Cope or during the press conference on the plane returning from Slovakia to Rome.
The announcement that the Pope would stay only seven hours in Budapest and then travel to Slovakia (where he would stay for three days) naturally raised many questions.
There are those who maintain that Jorge Mario Bergoglio refused not only a pastoral visit to Hungary, but – to avoid the impression of giving too much value to the Budapest stop – even an overnight stay on Saturday in the Hungarian capital (in which case he would certainly have guided the procession of the Blessed Sacrament – extraordinary in numbers, fervor, lights and sounds – that traveled 4.5 km from the Parliament to Heroes’ Square). And there are those who maintain that the entire pastoral visit to Slovakia was always intended to diminish the importance of the Magyar stop.
However, it should be noted that it is not customary for a Pope to attend the closing of an International Eucharistic Congress. The last time was in 2000, in Rome, with John Paul II closing the event. In 1964 and 1968, however, Paul VI made brief appearances (a greeting) in Bombay and Bogota. That Pope Francis at least gave in to Hungarian insistence that he be present at the Budapest Congress is already – on closer inspection – something that could not be taken for granted. This result is at least partly a reward for the great work done by Cardinal Erdo and the two diplomats involved.
OF THE INTERNATIONAL EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS IN BUDAPEST
Created in 1891 (it began in Lille, the eighth was in Jerusalem – the first with a Papal Legate sent by Leo XIII – the sixteenth in Rome with Pius X), the International Eucharistic Congresses aim to highlight the role of the Eucharist in everyday Christian life. In 1938, under historically difficult conditions (shortly after the Anschluss of Austria to the German Reich), the congress was organized in Budapest. The papal legate of the time, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII), wrote about it: “In the marvelous city on both banks of the Danube, an immeasurable crowd from all over the world, solemnly celebrated before the divine Savior hidden under the colors of the Sacrament through the light of the sacred rites, with its majestic gatherings, with its varied wealth of speeches, devotions and songs, with such a manifestation of faith and reverence for our Redeemer that we have never seen in any other part of the world. On this occasion, there was another exceptional participant: Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (future Pope Paul VI), to whom we owe another brush stroke of the environment: “Last night, a magnificent procession on the Danube that lasted until midnight, in the midst of fantastic myriads of lights and songs, and a calm and gathered crowd”.
Nous étions dans un autre contexte historique, objectivement dramatique en raison de la menace nazie imminente. Nous sommes aujourd’hui confrontés à une Europe sécularisée, conduite par une élite économico-financière idéologiquement indifférente et souvent même hostile au fait religieux : en tout cas elle vit comme si Dieu n’existait pas. La Hongrie souffre également des échecs du processus de sécularisation. Et pourtant, en vue du Congrès eucharistique et de son déroulement, le catholicisme magyar a donné une preuve, peut être inattendue dans ses dimensions, du témoignage fervent d’amour pour le Christ et pour l’Église.
We were in another historical context, objectively dramatic because of the imminent Nazi threat. Today we are confronted with a secularized Europe, led by an economic-financial elite ideologically indifferent and often even hostile to the religious fact: in any case it lives as if God did not exist. Hungary is also suffering from the failures of the secularization process. And yet, in view of the Eucharistic Congress and its unfolding, Magyar Catholicism gave proof, perhaps unexpected in its dimensions, of the fervent witness of love for Christ and for the Church.
After a three-day theological symposium in Esztergom, the Congress opened on Sunday, September 5, in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, preceded significantly by a luncheon with hundreds of poor people. 28,000 were present, including Hungarian President Janos Ader and the (Catholic) wife of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 1,200 children who had come for First Communion, 3,300 students from the Catholic schools of the archdiocese, and a choir of nearly 1,000 singers. During the celebration – after Cardinal Erdo’s greeting – the former CCEE president and highly respected Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said, “Our voice is weak, but it echoes the voice of the centuries and is marked by the blood of the martyrs. To you who are listening, we announce that our greatest joy is Jesus! (…) Dear brothers and sisters, the Church cannot remain silent, she cannot allow herself to be silenced: she must give to the face of every man the splendor of the risen Christ.
In the square on Sunday, September 5, along with various cardinals, patriarchs, bishops also from the Middle East or of the Greek-Catholic rite, as well as the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion. This last presence is very significant. She was joined by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew for the conclusion of the Congress. The two Orthodox souls of today (who have a very complicated relationship with each other) wanted to witness the value of the Eucharist in our time in Budapest. If Hilarion gave a report on September 6 (in which he emphasized how Orthodox and Catholics share the faith in the real presence of Christ in this sacrament), Bartholomew brought his greeting on September 11 in front of the Parliament, at the beginning of the mass presided over by Cardinal Erdo: on this occasion, he strongly pleaded for the reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches after almost a thousand years of separation. The double Orthodox presence confirmed that Hungary with its Catholic Church is considered a credible ecumenical bridge between East and West.
The week of the congress was characterized by daily Masses (the first presided over by Archbishop Piero Marini, almost eighty years old, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, who after Budapest passed the baton to Father Corrado Maggioni), common prayers, accompanied by exhibitions, concerts, many opportunities for charity. Among the speakers and witnesses, besides the Hungarian president Janos Ader (who spoke on Friday, September 10, about three of his personal experiences of faith), also cardinals such as the Brazilian Joăo Tempesta (in video conference), the Canadian from Quebec Gerald Lacroix (the aspiration to peace is not a utopia), the Iraqi Chaldean patriarch Louis Raphael Sako (the drama of Christians in the Middle East has lasted for years and the West in general is not aware of it. However, he thanked Hungary for the concrete help), the Burmese Charles Maung Bo (in Myanmar in February there was a military coup with great suffering of Catholics: Only patience can lead to a world of peace), the Nigerian John Onaiyekan (one cannot receive the Eucharist indignantly), the Korean Andrea Yeom Soo-jung (we are living an anti-Christian anthropological revolution), the Czech Dominik Duka (the fundamental principles of the Judeo-Christian civilization are now replaced by others, which hide Marxism, Maoism and anarchism) Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (Italian, former CCEE President) and Jean-Claude Höllerich (Luxembourg, President of the EU Bishops/COMECE) spoke about evangelization and social commitment in Europe. Bagnasco urged Europe to reconcile itself with its history and defended “the right of every believer to participate in the public debate”; Höllerich rejected the claim to exclude from the European Union those who do not accept the anthropological revolution (derived from 1968) with the gender ideology and at the same time criticized a “closed, fearful, selfish” Europe with regard to migration. Cardinal Robert Sarah (as well as Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald on September 8, the day of the Nativity of Mary) celebrated a holy mass (in his homily he stressed the need to return to the Eucharist against the materialistic idolatry of our days). Other participating cardinals? Josip Bozanic (Croatian) and Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo (Venezuelan). Also present was the Lebanese Maronite Cardinal Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï, who, in an interview with the Catholic media Magyar Kurír, stressed the importance of the presence at the Congress of the Eastern Churches (about 40 bishops celebrated a Byzantine liturgy in the cathedral of Santo Stefano re). And he was very positively impressed by the fervor of faith of the Hungarian people. The Syrian Melkite Patriarch Youssef Absi presided over the divine liturgy of September 9, which was the result of the meeting of the fifty Greek-Catholic bishops of Europe.
A key moment of the week was the Eucharistic procession with the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday evening, September 5, with more than 200,000 participants. Cardinal Erdo said again in an interview with the aforementioned Magyar Kurír media: “It was a fantastic experience, with a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. People were praying, singing, meditating. It was not a march, a demonstration, but a truly spiritual event.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 12: THE POPE ARRIVES SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 12: THE POPE ARRIVES…
Pope Francis left Rome at 6 a.m. – followed by the heads of the Secretariat of State and Cardinals Leonardo Sandri (Eastern Churches) and Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot (interreligious dialogue) – and arrived in Budapest before 8 p.m. accompanied by Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Richard Gallagher – to meet for the first time with President Janos Ader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Deputy Prime Minister Szolt Semjen. At the expected summit – which lasted forty minutes, ten more than usual – there was no question of immigration policy (diplomacy worked well), but of the role of the Church in the country (9.7 million inhabitants, 61% Catholics), of commitment to the environment, the defense and promotion of the family. It was especially President Ader who illustrated the issues before the Pope. In particular, with regard to the family, the incisive results already obtained thanks to government policies were presented: in a decade, marriages have increased by 30%, divorces have decreased by 25% and abortions by 30%, and the birth rate is constantly increasing. After the continuous and fierce attacks from Brussels against Hungary on family issues were brought to the attention of the guest (also because of the recent law for the protection of minors against LGBT propaganda), the Pope reacted by saying: “The family is father, mother, children, period! Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also asked the Pope “not to let Christianity perish in Hungary”.
Afterwards, Francis met with the Hungarian bishops and then with representatives of the World Council of Churches and some Jewish communities. With the bishops, he insisted on the need to preserve one’s religious roots and at the same time to “look to the future and find new ways of announcing the Gospel. The new multicultural realities can be “frightening,” but they are, according to him, “a great opportunity to open our hearts to the Gospel message. He addressed the ecumenical representatives and Judaism in particular, referring to the threat of anti-Semitism “which still exists in Europe and elsewhere. It is a fuse that must be blown.
In Heroes’ Square, in front of approximately 250,000 people (many of whom were not pre-registered), the Pope then presided over Holy Mass and the recitation of the Angelus. From the latter, the reference to the Cross, “a bridge between the past and the future”, should be remembered first: “Religious sentiment is the living force of this nation, so attached to its roots. But the cross, planted in the earth (…) lifts and extends its arms to all the world,” he added. For the first time, Pope Francis quoted three expressions in Hungarian: “köszönöm” (thank you), “Isten éltessen” (wishes, in the sense of God bless you), Isten, áldd meg a magyart! (God bless the Hungarians!). The welcome of the Pope was festive and reached its peak when Francis used the Hungarian language.
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THE POPE IN SLOVAKIA CYRILL AND THE ROMAN METHOD AND THE MEANING OF THE CROSS
Why did the Pope want to visit Slovakia and instead stop in Budapest for only a few hours in Hungary (as he wanted to emphasize several times)? It is difficult to answer. There are those who, as already mentioned, thought of a kind of malice towards Orban’s Hungary. There are those who speculated that “Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava” (see press conference on the plane back from Iraq) suggested by a “collaborator” found the Pope spontaneously consenting. Slovakia was evangelized by Saints Cyril and Methodius, when Christianity was still undivided: an excellent opportunity to advocate ecumenism. There are those who assume a strong political sympathy for the new and young president of Slovakia, the left-wing environmentalist Zuzana Caputová. There are those who point out that the pope, in Slovakia, could have addressed his favorite topics without creating diplomatic embarrassments. There are those who maintain that the Pope, sensitive as he is to the great popular manifestations of religious piety (of which he has been deprived for the last two years because of the Coronavirus), wanted to extend the visit until September 15, the day of the national pilgrimage to Saštín, to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, patron saint of Slovakia.
It should be noted that the Slovak attendance was lower than expected the day before (for example at the shrine in Saštín). This may have been due to the initial request for a double vaccination certificate in order to attend Masses and papal meetings. With the relaxation of the expected certifications, the numbers increased, but not massively.
The meetings in Slovakia (5.4 million inhabitants, 73% Catholics) began in the afternoon of September 12 with the ecumenical meeting in Bratislava, at the Apostolic Nunciature. In the Pope’s speech, a strong reference to the “holy evangelizing brothers of Thessalonica”, Cyril and Methodius, “witnesses of a Christianity still united and inflamed by the ardor of the proclamation” could not be missed: “It is difficult to demand a more fruitful Europe through the Gospel without being concerned about the fact that we are not yet fully united among ourselves on the continent and without caring for each other”. A private conversation with the Slovak Jesuits followed.
On Monday, September 13, the first meeting – also in Bratislava – with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps. Here too there was a reference to Cyril and Methodius who “recognized themselves as everyone and sought communion with everyone: Slavs, Greeks and Latins”. Then the meeting with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians, catechists in the cathedral of San Martino: “Do not be afraid to form people in a mature and free relationship with God. This relationship is important. This may give us the impression that we do not control everything, that we lose strength and authority; but the Church of Christ does not want to dominate consciences and occupy spaces. In the afternoon, a private visit to the Bethlehem Center of the Missionaries of Charity, following the meeting with the Jewish community: “The name of God was dishonored: in the madness of hatred, during the Second World War, more than one hundred thousand Slovak Jews were killed. (…) How many oppressors declared: ‘God is with us’, but it was they who were not with God (…) Even today, there is no lack of vain and false idols that dishonor the name of the Most High.
Mass (the Byzantine “divine liturgy”) in Prešov on Tuesday, September 14. In the homily some very strong (and also controversial) passages on the meaning of the Cross: “How can we learn to see the glory in the Cross? (…) There are countless crucifixes: around the neck, at home, in the car, in your pocket. But it is useless if we do not stop and look at the Crucifix and open our hearts (…) We do not reduce the Cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social importance.” After lunch in Košice, at the major seminary of San Carlo Borromeo, the meeting in the district of the city of Lunik IX with the Roma (more than four thousand live in this outlying area). “Brothers and sisters, you have too often been the object of prejudice and ruthless judgments, of discriminatory stereotypes, of defamatory words and gestures. (…) But where there is personal attention, where there is pastoral care, where there is patience and concreteness, the fruits come. (…) Ghettoizing people solves nothing. When closure is fed, sooner or later anger erupts. At the end of the afternoon, they moved to the Lokomotiva stadium in Košice for the meeting with the youth. To the 30,000 or so people present, Francis reminded them that “the real originality today, the real revolution, is to rebel against the culture of the temporary (…) We are not here to get by, but to make a business out of life”. At the end, before returning to Bratislava, the Pope’s greeting to Cardinal Jozef Tomko (the only Slovak cardinal), aged ninety-seven, the oldest member of the College of Cardinals.
Wednesday, September 15, private prayer with the bishops and the closing Mass at the National Shrine of Saštín: “Before Jesus, one cannot remain lukewarm, with ‘one foot in two shoes’ (…) It is not a matter of being hostile to the world, but of being ‘signs of contradiction’ in the world. Christians who know how to show, by their life, the beauty of the Gospel. Who are weavers of dialogue where positions become rigid”.
THE AIRPLANE PRESS CONFERENCE
Then the return to Rome, with the usual press conference on the plane. Speaking about the stop in Budapest, Pope Francis foreshadowed the possibility at some point of a possible pastoral visit at some point (“next year or another”) to Hungary. In the same response, he also noted that “some interests, perhaps not European, are trying to use the European Union for ideological colonization and this is not right. In another answer – about the meeting with Ader, Orban and Semjen – he went into details that have already been mentioned.
To those who then asked him what he thought of the resolution passed in recent days by a clear majority of the European Parliament calling for so-called “same-sex marriage” to be recognized throughout the EU, Jorge Mario Bergoglio responded, stressing that marriage is a sacrament and the Church has no power to change it. The State, he continued, has the power – rightly, he seems to understand – to “civilly support” homosexual unions: the example given is the French Pacs. It should be noted that Francis with this externalization (which follows a certain fluctuation of evaluations especially with regard to “homosexual unions”) differs considerably from what has been said and repeated many times on the themes addressed by Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger (already prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith), also denying the great Spanish, French and Italian popular demonstrations of recent years. Joseph Ratzinger illustrates the profound opposition to so-called “same-sex marriage” in his very recent book “The Real Europe” (ed. Cantagalli) by declaring: “The concept of ‘same-sex marriage’ is in contradiction with all the cultures of humanity that have occurred up to now (…). (…) The basic community has never been questioned, the fact that man’s existence – in the manner of male and female – is ordered to procreation, as well as the fact that the community of man and woman and the openness to the transmission of life determine the essence of what is called marriage. (…) Man also has a “nature” that has been given to him, and the violation or denial of this leads to self-destruction. This is precisely what we are dealing with in the case of the creation of man as male and female, which is ignored in the postulate of “same-sex marriage”. Clear words, important arguments that are shared even beyond the Catholic world, among those who do not accept that human nature can be violated. Thus ended a long-awaited trip of Pope Francis, full of moments of interest not only pastoral in any case. The Pope appeared in good physical shape, despite the major surgery he underwent on July 4.