The International Eucharistic Congress and the Pope’s visit to Budapest

The Promise of Spiritual Renewal in the ‘Heart of Europe’

Between 5 and 12 September 2021, Budapest hosted the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress of the Catholic Church, a religious event held in an atmosphere of surprising freedom and enthusiasm between successive waves of the coronavirus pandemic. The congress simultaneously highlighted Catholic traditions and sought answers to the new challenges posed by the pandemic. The significance of this religious meeting in Budapest, with a uniquely strong ecumenical dimension, was also demonstrated by the special attention of the Holy Father, who made the decision to attend in person. For Hungary and the Hungarian Catholic Church, the congress carried the promise of a renewal based on tradition, but also afforded an opportunity to present a more realistic picture of the country. Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the ‘heart of Europe’ in a spirit of ‘prayer’, confounding international observers who expected the Pope to deliver a strongly critical message against the Hungarian government. According to the unanimous testimony of the participants, a series of extremely affecting religious events took place in Budapest, which appear to have had a great impact on the Holy Father himself.

The importance of the International Eucharistic Congress

The International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) is a world gathering of Catholics convened every four years in a different city by the Roman Pontiff. It is not customary for the Pope to attend in person, and this has occurred just eight times in the 140-year history of the event. The Pope has usually been represented at these events by his legate (special envoy).

When Pope Francis announced in his message to the 51st International Eucharistic Congress at Cebu, in the Philippines, on 31 January 2016, that the venue for the next gathering would be Budapest, 1Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Conclusion of the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, Philippines, 31 January 2016, Video Message of the Holy Father for the conclusion of the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, Philippines (31 January 2016) | Francis (vatican.va) accessed 4 November 2021. many in Hungary immediately recalled that such a congress had been held there once before, and some were already hoping that Pope Francis would visit Hungary as well.

The Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, the Vatican office responsible for organizing the IEC, recommended Budapest because it fulfilled the conditions for hosting such a gathering, and because there had been a chance to host a congress there in 1997, but Pope John Paul II ultimately opted for Wrocław, Poland. 2The background to the decision can be found in the annual report of the Pontifical Commission. See Attività del Pontificio Comitato, 2015,Attività 2015 (congressieucaristici.va) accessed 4 November 2021. Pope Francis, on the other hand, chose Budapest, because it is one of the great cities in Europe, and also because it is a place where secularization and globalization ‘risk eliminating the unique features of a rich and varied history’, a process which the so-called ‘new evangelization’ is intended to counteract. 3Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, 10 November 2018, To Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses (10 November 2018) | Francis (vatican.va) accessed 4 November 2021. The objectives of the IEC included promoting the unity and reconciliation of different peoples and nationalities, with a particular focus on those in Central Europe.

As a large-scale international event, the IEC was, of course, also relevant to the Hungarian government. Not only because of the large number of foreign participants and substantial international attention expected at the event, but also because the organizers of the IEC themselves had asked for government cooperation and support, which is understandable in terms of providing the necessary infrastructure and organizational background for such events.

Preparations

There was a consensus among church organizers and state authorities that the IEC was to be primarily and specifically a religious event, though one which would seek to address society as a whole. To this end, Cardinal Péter Erdő, host of the Budapest IEC, established the so-called Honorary Committee on 15 June 2017, and asked the President of Hungary, János Áder, to chair it. The committee included senior state dignitaries, as well as prominent figures in economic, scientific, and cultural life, and several prominent media personalities. The government’s main representative was Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, assisted by government commissioner Zoltán Kovács.

A number of initiatives prepared the ground for the IEC, most notably the Mission Cross tour, a symbol of the IEC. The huge Mission Cross, covered with bronze ornaments, is a reliquary, containing small relics of about thirty saints and blesseds from Hungary and the surrounding countries, alluding to the need to establish a spiritual community in Central Europe. During the years of preparation, it was taken to many communities of believers in Hungary and the neighbouring countries.

The question of a papal visit

It was by no means certain that the Holy Father would accept an invitation to Budapest. As we have seen, the IEC itself, as a church event, does not generally involve the Pope’s direct participation, and Pope Francis’s travels in Europe have been characterized by fundamentally different criteria (visiting smaller countries and peripheral states, generally for no more than a day).

The visit by President János Áder to the Vatican on 14 February 2020, which confirmed the invitation to Budapest, proved crucial. Similarly important was that of Cardinal Péter Erdő, who, a few days later presented the preparations and the programme to the Pope, confirming the invitation to Budapest on behalf of the church. It is understood that the papal decision to participate in the IEC was made as a result of these two meetings, but then the pandemic intervened and, along with many other events, the congress was postponed for a year, to 5–12 September 2021. 4Dichiarazione del Direttore della Sala Stampa della Santa Sede, Matteo Bruni (vatican.va) At the same time, Archbishop Piero Marini, Chairman of the Pontifical Commission, made a very positive statement about the preparations so far in Budapest: ‘Never before have I seen so much interest in a Eucharistic Congress, and never before have I seen so many registrations.’ 5Archbishop Marini, ‘An Opportunity to Improve Preparations for International Eucharistic
Congress’, in Vatican News (23 April 2020), Archbishop Marini: An opportunity to improve preparations for International Eucharistic Congress – Vatican News

Surprisingly, the Holy Father himself indicated that he intended to travel to Budapest. On his way home from Iraq on 8 March 2021, during a usual on-board interview, he spoke of his upcoming travels: ‘Next [in September] I will go to Hungary for the final Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress. It is not a visit to the country, but for that Mass. But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava: why not pay a visit to the Slovaks? I don’t know … And so things begin …’ 6Apostolic Journey to the Republic of Iraq: Press Conference on the return flight to Rome (8 March 2021) | Francis (vatican.va)

There were immediately misunderstandings concerning the announcement, as if the Pope had distanced himself from Hungary. In fact, the confusion concerned the different forms of papal visit: there are occasions when the Pope visits a country, travelling to multiple locations, and there are times when he travels to a specific church event. His attendance at the IEC was of the latter sort: Pope Francis was invited to the IEC to celebrate its closing Mass, and he intended to accept this precise invitation.

Later, there was a minor media storm, due to rumours that the Pope would not want to meet with Hungarian state leaders on account of political differences, and there was speculation that the different lengths of the Pope’s visits to Budapest and Slovakia would reflect a value judgement. 7‘Pope Francis’ Plans for Trip to Hungary Spark Diplomatic Unease’, in National Catholic Register, 3 June 2021, Pope Francis’ Plans for Trip to Hungary Spark Diplomatic Unease| National Catholic Register (ncregister.com) The latter stemmed from the different nature of the two visits, and suggestions of a papal snub are groundless (also in consideration of normal protocol of papal visits), as the Secretariat of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference clarified in a statement issued on 9 June. 8Press release by the General Secretariat of the HCBC: ‘It is foreseen that the Holy Father will
be in Hungary this coming 12 September for the celebration of the closing Eucharist of the 52nd
International Eucharistic Congress. Before the Holy Mass, he is planned to meet in a reserved place
with the heads of the Hungarian Government, Áder János, President of the Republic, Victor Orbán,
Prime Minister, members of the Government, and others entrusted with high positions. We regret
that regarding the Holy Father’s program in Hungary—which is at the moment being organized—
there has been a spread of misinformation and false interpretation in local and international media.
There is no truth, for example, in the currently circulating information that the Holy Father would
like to avoid having contact with any person foreseen in his program.’ Hungarian Catholic Church | Press Release (katolikus.hu)
The proximity of the Holy Father’s planned trip to Slovakia and his visit to Budapest could seem to some rather disadvantageous for practical reasons, especially from a church point of view (it was feared that as a result, fewer participants would attend the IEC from Slovakia).

Pope Francis also chose to make the official announcement of his visit to Budapest and Slovakia at the end of the Angelus prayer on Sunday, 4 July 2021, which was unquestionably intended as a gesture. 9Pope Francis’ speech at the end of the Angelus prayer, 21 July 2021, Angelus, 4 July 2021 | Francis (vatican.va) The detailed programme published by the Holy See Press Office on 21 July 10Viaggio Apostolico di Sua Santità Francesco a Budapest, in occasione della Santa Messa conclusiva del 52.mo Congresso Eucaristico Internazionale, e in Slovacchia (12-15 Settembre 2021) – Programma (vatican.va) was not affected by the surgery which Pope Francis had to undergo on 4 July.

The Days of the International Eucharistic Congress

The congress, 11The Pontifical Committee published a comprehensive report on the IEC (in Italian) on its website.
See Il racconto della celebrazione del 52° Congresso (5–12 settembre 2021), IL 52° CONGRESSO (congressieucaristici.va)
which was held at the HUNGEXPO international trade fair venue in Budapest, was accompanied by a number of additional programmes and events (for instance an African evening, a youth evening, and a family day) in various locations in the capital. The speakers, testifiers, and main celebrants of the liturgical moments were carefully selected to reflect the Catholic Church as a whole, both geographically and in terms of content. At the request of Cardinal Péter Erdő, President János Áder also gave a personal testimony. The aim was to present the treasures of Hungarian and universal Catholic culture, with high-quality concerts and the cultural and artistic programmes of the Ars Sacra Festival. For the first time, a translation of the liturgy of the Mass into Lovari (a Roma language spoken largely in Hungary) was used. Alongside the congress, a meeting of European Greek Catholic (Byzantine rite) bishops took place, and a large number of church leaders from the Middle East were also in attendance. Exhibitions highlighted the plight of persecuted Christians around the world, and showed the rich artistic heritage of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, the work of Caritas Hungary, and the legacy of the 1938 International Eucharistic Congress, also held in Budapest. On 4 September, a special concert was held at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, in the spirit of Christian–Jewish dialogue. Furthermore, Catholic charities hosted approximately 5,000 needy people for a shared lunch in Budapest and several other Hungarian cities on 4 September, at noon.

The dialogue 12“Minden várakozásunkat felülmúlta” – Erdő Péter az eucharisztikus kongresszusról és a pápai
miséről’ (‘It Exceeded all our expectations’ – Cardinal Péter Erdő on the Eucharistic Congress and
the Papal Mass), Magyar Kurír (12 September 2021), „Minden várakozásunkat felülmúlta” – Erdő Péter az eucharisztikus kongresszusról és a pápai miséről | Magyar Kurír – katolikus hírportál (magyarkurir.hu)
between the East and the West was emphasized, as ‘Hungary, by virtue of its geographical location, and its historical and human relations, is an ideal meeting place for dialogue regarding both theology and ecclesiastical life’. Notable highlights included a speech given by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, and the speech and participation, at the closing Mass of the IEC, of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. 13I. Bartholomaiosz pátriárka a Kossuth téren: “Eucharisztikusan kell élnünk a világban”’ (Patriarch
Bartholomew I in Kossuth Square: ‘We Must Live in the World Eucharist-like), Magyar Kurír (11
September 2021), I. Bartholomaiosz pátriárka a Kossuth téren: Eucharisztikusan kell élnünk a világban | Magyar Kurír – katolikus hírportál (magyarkurir.hu)

On 11 September, László Kövér, the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, hosted the church dignitaries participating in the IEC. One of the core messages in his address was that ‘the Christian faith still unites the nations of our region today, and it is worthwhile—therefore necessary—to build on this common foundation’. Referring to the Holy Crown of Hungary, which is kept in the Parliament, the Speaker drew attention to two other factors important for understanding Hungarian identity. It is important to understand, he said, that the crown ‘expresses everything that is important for the Hungarian nation: the Christian faith and the self-determination of Christian Hungarian statehood’. 14László Kövér, ‘Toast in Honour of the Church Guests of the International Eucharistic Congress’, 11 September 2021, Kövér László – Hivatalos honlapja (orszaggyuleselnoke.hu)

Most participants considered the Eucharistic procession on 11 September to have been the highlight of the week. Cardinal Péter Erdő celebrated Mass in front of the Parliament, where, based on the historical experience of Hungarian Christianity, he explained that ‘for a thousand years now, the Hungarian and Christian identities have been moving through history together, through all temptations and difficulties, always renewed and reborn, even in times when all earthly hope seemed lost’. 15‘Erdő Péter bíboros a Kossuth téri szentmisén: “Elmondjuk a világnak Krisztus jelenlétének csodáját”’ (Cardinal Péter Erdő at the Kossuth Square Mass: ‘We Tell the World the Miracle of Christ’s Presence’), Magyar Kurír (12 Sept. 2021) Erdő Péter bíboros a Kossuth téri szentmisén: Elmondjuk a világnak Krisztus jelenlétének csodáját | Magyar Kurír – katolikus hírportál (magyarkurir.hu) After the Mass, approximately 300,000 people 16According to the statement of Gergely Gulyás, the minister leading the Prime Minister’s Office, ‘250,000 people attended the papal Mass on the spot on Sunday, and 300,000 people marched on the candlelight procession on Andrássy Boulevard on the evening of 11 September’. See: Government Info, 15 September 2021, Magyarország ma Európa egyik legbiztonságosabb és legszabadabb országa járványügyi szempontból (kormany.hu) moved in a procession from Kossuth Square to Heroes’ Square, making it the largest religious event in Hungary in recent decades. After the many months of pandemic restrictions, the entire week of the IEC radiated an unparalleled sense of freedom and liberation. 17Due to the low rates of coronavirus in the country at the time, the Hungarian government imposed no restrictions on those attending IEC events. 18 See the programme of the pope’s visit to Budapest and the official translations of his speeches on the website of the Holy See, Viaggio Apostolico di Sua Santità a Budapest, in occasione della Santa Messa conclusiva del 52.mo Congresso Eucaristico Internazionale, e in Slovacchia (12-15 settembre 2021) | Francesco (vatican.va)

Pope FRANCIS’S visit to Budapest: official meetings

The Holy Father arrived in Budapest on Sunday, 12 September 2021. 18See the programme of the pope’s visit to Budapest and the official translations of his speeches on the website of the Holy See, Viaggio Apostolico di Sua Santità a Budapest, in occasione della Santa Messa conclusiva del 52.mo Congresso Eucaristico Internazionale, e in Slovacchia (12-15 settembre 2021) | Francesco (vatican.va) At the airport he was received by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Cardinal Péter Erdő. For practical reasons, the three officially scheduled meetings—with Hungarian public dignitaries, members of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and the delegation of the Ecumenical Council of Hungarian Churches and the Hungarian Jewish denominations—all took place at the Museum of Fine Arts, near the venue for the Mass.

On behalf of the Hungarian state, President János Áder, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén took part in the meeting, while the Holy Father was accompanied by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States. 19See: Comunicato della Sala Stampa: Incontro con il Presidente della Repubblica di Ungheria, con il Primo Ministro e il Vice Primo Ministro, 12 September 2021, Comunicato della Sala Stampa: Incontro con il Presidente della Repubblica di Ungheria, con il Primo Ministro e il Vice Primo Ministro (vatican.va) The meeting focused on one of the key priorities of the Pope and the Hungarian head of state, the protection of the creation (environment), and the relevant Hungarian achievements in this regard. 20See the interview with János Áder, Kossuth Rádió, ‘Vasárnapi újság’, 19 September 2021. In addition, the Hungarian family support system was discussed, and the Holy Father was informed that these were under attack from Brussels on the basis of LGBTQ concerns. 21Zsolt Semjén spoke about the success of the Eucharistic Congress: Kossuth Rádió, ‘180 perc’, 14 September 2021, Az Eucharisztikus Kongresszus sikeréről beszélt Semjén Zsolt – Semjén Zsolt honlapja (semjenzsolt.hu) Then, according to Viktor Orbán’s statement, ‘the Holy Father made it clear that the battle we are fighting for the protection of families is the most important struggle with respect to the future of Europe. […] He said we cannot allow families to be relativized. The family consists of a father, a mother, and children. Full stop. […] In fact, he even said “go ahead”, meaning “just carry on, forward”.’ However, ‘neither he nor I mentioned the issue of migration. I’m not sure if we have different opinions, but we surely have a different approach to this problem, and so at times like this it’s best not to broach the subject.’ 22Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Kossuth Radio’s ‘Good Morning, Hungary!’, 17 September 2021, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Kossuth Radio’s programme “Good morning, Hungary” – miniszterelnok.hu

Viktor Orbán’s personal gift to the Pope gave rise to speculation: a copy of the letter of King Béla IV of Hungary to Pope Innocent IV, of around 1250. The gesture was clearly related to the message the prime minister posted on Facebook after the meeting: ‘I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.’ 23Facebook and Ferenc pápa ne hagyja elveszni a keresztény Magyarországot – miniszterelnok.hu In line with the narrative of the international press, the gesture and request were taken to imply that Viktor Orbán hoped for cooperation from Pope Francis despite differences on migration. However, the content and context of the letter suggest otherwise. Béla IV’s letter was written in the aftermath of the catastrophic Mongol Invasion of Hungary in 1241–1242, and in it he complained that in his moment of crisis he had not received assistance from any of the other Christian rulers of Europe. Fearing another invasion, he wrote to the Pope to ask for support. In light of this, the request not to ‘let Christian Hungary perish’ which accompanied the gift seems to have referred rather to the threat to Hungary’s identity based on Christian civilization, especially given that migration was not discussed, while there was a discussion regarding Hungary’s family-protection initiatives, which are under attack due to their defence of a family model understood in Christian terms. All this was indirectly confirmed by Pope Francis, when he made the following reference in a subsequent in-flight interview, specifically in connection with the topics raised during his visit to Hungary: ‘Some interests, perhaps not European ones, try to use the EU for ideological colonization and this is not good.’ 24Pope Francis’ In-flight Press Conference from Slovakia’, Catholic News Agency, 15 September 2021, Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Slovakia | Catholic News Agency

At the beginning of the meeting with the members of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, its president, Bishop András Veres welcomed the Pope, assuring him that Hungary—due to its historical heritage—‘stands firmly with the Bishop of Rome’. 25A Szentatya találkozója a magyar püspökökkel’ (The Holy Father’s Meeting with the Hungarian Bishops), Magyar Kurír (13 September 2021), A Szentatya találkozója a magyar püspökökkel | Magyar Kurír – katolikus hírportál (magyarkurir.hu) In his speech, Pope Francis made several gestures towards the Hungarian Church. He commemorated Cardinal Mindszenty, and paid tribute to those who ‘sacrificed their lives for their homeland and faith’ during the communist dictatorship, as well as to those ‘who had to flee into exile’. He also shared an interesting personal connection, revealing that he had learned a lot about Hungary from the Hungarian nuns who had emigrated to Buenos Aires (Congregation of Jesus, Congregatio Jesu): ‘I learned a lot from their strength, courage, patience, and patriotism.’ 26Note: Pope Francis also learned some of the Hungarian terms from them, which he then used at the end of the Budapest Mass. Among other things, he encouraged the Hungarian bishops to preserve the past and its values in a balanced way, while also looking to the future. 27Apostolic Journey to Budapest: Meeting with the Bishops’, Apostolic Journey to Budapest: Meeting with the Bishops (Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, 12 September 2021) | Francis (vatican.va)

At a meeting with the representatives of the Ecumenical Council of the Churches of Hungary and the Jewish communities of Hungary, the Holy Father praised the strong interfaith cooperation in helping to overcome the divisions of the past. Employing the metaphor of the Chain Bridge, one of the symbols of Budapest, he highlighted the importance of linking different identities, though in such a way that they do not lose their individual character. As an example, he cited the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, who was killed during the Holocaust, and whose work ‘testifies to the power of his belief in the warmth of love amid the icy coldness of the camps, illuminating the darkness of hatred with the light of faith’. In this context, he called for joint action to combat anti-Semitism: We should ‘commit ourselves to fostering together an education in fraternity, so that the outbursts of hatred that would destroy that fraternity will never prevail. I think of the threat of anti-Semitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere.’ 28Meeting with the Representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and Some Jewish Communities in Hungary’, Apostolic Journey to Budapest: Meeting with the Representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and some Jewish Communities in Hungary – Activities of the Holy Father Pope Francis | Vatican.va Though the Pope’s words were clearly of a universal nature, many members of the foreign press corps—in accordance with the narrative they had already established beforehand—sought to portray the Pope’s remarks as a specific warning with regard to anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Statio Orbis: the papal Mass

The so-called Statio Orbis Mass, at which the principal state dignitaries of Hungary participated, showed both the universality of the Catholic Church and the unique peculiarities of the Hungarian Catholic Church. In his closing remarks, Pope Francis reflected primarily on the IEC itself, and on Hungary, with several references that could be interpreted as being primarily directed to Hungarian ears, including, as an unexpected, encouraging gesture, three expressions in Hungarian.

He thanked the organizers in Hungarian: ‘In renewing my gratitude to the civil and religious authorities who welcomed me, I want to say köszönöm [thank you]: thank you to you, the people of Hungary.’ He praised the Hungarians’ adherence to their religious and national traditions: ‘religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots’. Referring to Hungarians’ traditional devotion to Mary, he quoted the words of an old Hungarian song, once considered as a hymn, to the Blessed Virgin Mother: ‘May “the Blessed Queen, your ancient patron” accompany you and bless you!’ The central message of his speech was introduced by the Holy Father with a quote from the last verse of the IEC hymn: 29Sing of Christ, All You, Who Love Him’ was originally the anthem of the 1938 Budapest IEC, which was considered appropriate to use again due to its popularity. ‘the official song of the congress has reminded you: “For a thousand years the cross was the column of your salvation. Now may the sign of Christ be for you also the promise of a better future.” This is what I wish for you: that the cross be your bridge between the past and the future. […] The cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness; to draw from the wellsprings, opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time.’ The words ‘the sign of Christ may be the key to a better future’ in the hymn written in 1938 were at that time interpreted as taking a stand against the looming threat of Nazism (the sign of the swastika) and communism (the sign of the red star). Pope Francis interpreted it as a symbol of an identity rooted in the past yet open to the future: ‘The cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone […]. My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted and considerate.’ By way of encouragement, he added the finest of Hungarian blessings, flawlessly pronounced: ‘Isten éltessen!’ (God bless you!) 30Angelus, Heroes’ Square in Budapest, Sunday, 12 Sept. 2021, Apostolic Journey to Budapest: Angelus, 12 September 2021 | Francis (vatican.va)

The international press did not understand much of these allusions and gestures. According to the prepared narrative, the Pope must have been calling on Hungarians to accept migrants, as a kind of political warning. But the context of the text puts the message in a more universal light: it is Christ to be offered to the people of our days who are thirsting for spiritual content, for as the IEC motto puts it, ‘All my springs are in You’.

Pope Francis crowned his closing speech in Budapest by quoting the opening verse of the Hungarian National Anthem in the original language, and giving his blessing to the Hungarians: ‘With you and for you I say: Isten, áldd meg a magyart! [May God bless the Hungarian people!]’

Evaluation of the IEC and the Pope’s visit

On the afternoon of 12 September, the Pope travelled on from Budapest to Bratislava for a three-day apostolic journey. That afternoon, Cardinal Péter Erdő summed up the event as ‘beyond all our expectations’, and revealed that the Holy Father too had greatly enjoyed it. 31See the press conference of 20 September 2021 evaluating the IEC. A világban működő szelíd erő (Gentle Power Working in the World), A világban működő szelíd erő | Eucharisztikus Kongresszus – IEC2020 According to Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, ‘by quoting the words of the national anthem, the fact of his visit, and his gestures towards the Hungarian people, Pope Francis has stolen all Hungarian hearts, regardless of their religious affiliation’. 32Zsolt Semjén spoke about the success of the Eucharistic Congress, Kossuth Rádió, ‘180 perc’, 14 September 2021, Az Eucharisztikus Kongresszus sikeréről beszélt Semjén Zsolt – Semjén Zsolt honlapja (semjenzsolt.hu) Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave his personal assessment: ‘The Eucharistic Congress was a fantastic event […] which was elevated by the visit of the Holy Father. It’s wrong to dwell on how many hours he spent here and so on, not only because it testifies to bad taste, but also because those who view the papal visit from this point of view misunderstand the situation. […] He came to Hungary because he wanted to. […] This meeting that I held as a member of the delegation led by the President of the Republic with the Holy Father reaffirmed me personally.’ 33Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Kossuth Radio’s ‘Good morning, Hungary!’, 17 September 2021, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Kossuth Radio’s programme “Good morning, Hungary” – miniszterelnok.hu

According to the official summary assessment of the Pontifical Committee, ‘further factors played a role in the success of this “difficult” congress: the mass participation of Hungarians, the unity of the Episcopal Conference, and the short visit of Pope Francis to Hungary for the Statio Orbis Mass. […] After the difficult months of the pandemic, the experience of communion with the poor, the power of art, science, music, testimony, the example and enthusiasm of different ethnicities and believers from all continents, all brought a message of resumption, hope, and rebirth.’ 34Pontifical Committee: Il racconto della celebrazione del 52° Congresso (5–12 settembre 2021) (The Celebrations of the 52nd Congress (5–12 September 2021)), IL 52° CONGRESSO (congressieucaristici.va)

As usual, Pope Francis answered questions from international journalists while travelling back, and gave a very positive assessment not only of the IEC but also of the Hungarians. First of all, wanting to clarify the background of his much-criticized and hard-to-accept decision to spend only a few hours in Budapest, the Holy Father revealed: ‘I promised to your president, with whom I met, to come [the] next year, because Hungarians have so many values.’ He then highlighted two aspects: ‘I was struck by the sense of ecumenism with a very great depth that you have’ and ‘Hats off to you Hungarians! The ecological consciousness you have is impressive.’ From a Hungarian point of view, it seemed even more significant—and could even be called extraordinary—that Pope Francis recollected the Mass he held during his visit to Transylvania (Romania) in 2019, at the Csíksomlyó shrine, one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hungarian Catholics: ‘Last year [in 2019 ] I was with you, Hungarians in Transylvania. That Hungarian Mass was really beautiful.’ 35‘Pope Francis’ In-flight Press Conference from Slovakia’, Catholic News Agency (15 Sept. 2021), Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Slovakia | Catholic News Agency

At a general audience in the Vatican on 22 September, the Holy Father summed up the essence of his visit as follows: ‘It was a pilgrimage of prayer, a pilgrimage to the roots, a pilgrimage of hope.’ Referring to the places he visited as the ‘heart of Europe’, he highlighted, as a common message to these different places, the importance of memory, roots, and the example of witnesses of the faith, and added that ‘the roots are a guarantee of the future’. At the same time, he reiterated his assessment of the European Union: ‘During this journey to the heart of Europe I often thought of the fathers of the European Union, of how they dreamed of it not as an agency to spread fashionable forms of ideological colonization, no, as they dreamed it to be.’ 36Pope Francis, General Audience, 22 September 2021, General Audience of 22 September 2021 – Catechesis: The Apostolic Journey in Budapest and in Slovakia | Francis (vatican.va)

Even given the fact that the Pope’s visit was overwhelmingly regarded as a great success, it surprised everyone when, in an interview given in the air after leaving the country, Pope Francis indicated that he would be pleased to return to Hungary again in the future. Later, in an interview with the Argentine news agency Telam, he confirmed that Hungary is among his planned travel destinations. 37Francisco: “Voy a ir a Grecia y a Chipre en diciembre y a Oceanía en 2022”’ (Francis: ‘I will go to Greece and Cyprus in December and to Oceania in 2022’), in Telam (22 October 2021), Francisco: ‘Voy a ir a Grecia y a Chipre en diciembre y a Oceanía en 2022’ (telam.com.ar) Perhaps, as Bishop András Veres suggested, this is ‘because he understood something of the inner life of the Hungarian Church, or in general of the life of Hungarian society, which he may not have known or experienced before’. 38A Szentatya szívesen visszajönne Magyarországra – Interjú Veres András püspökkel’, (The Holy Father Would Like to Return to Hungary – Interview with Bishop András Veres), Magyar Kurír (2 October 2021), A Szentatya szívesen visszajönne Magyarországra – Interjú Veres András püspökkel | Magyar Kurír – katolikus hírportál (magyarkurir.hu)

Translated by Thomas Sneddon

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