Cardinal Péter Erdő in Interview with Zoltán Pásztor
Pope Francis has referred quite warmly to his encounter with hundreds of thousands of Hungarian pilgrims in Csíksomlyó (Șumuleu, Romania) in June 2019, and he was deeply touched by the love emanating from the faithful in Budapest in September 2021. We asked Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom–Budapest, to sum up the takeaway from the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress.
ZP: On 12 September 2021, at the Holy Mass celebrated by the Pope in Budapest, hundreds of thousands of believers in Heroes’ Square and millions before their television sets saw a cardinal smiling in the Popemobile. What were you thinking about there and then?
PE: I was thanking God for this encounter, and I was immersed in the beautiful atmosphere. I had visited Saint Peter’s Square on numerous occasions, and saw different popes proceeding among the believers there on foot or in their popemobiles. We had been looking forward to this event with some anxiety, as a number of similar gatherings have had to be cancelled over the last two years. Due to the pandemic, such large-scale celebrations could not be held in Rome, and I saw that the Pope was very happy in Budapest. He was delighted to meet so many people who came to see him. The love emanating from the believers was palpable.
ZP: The congress was held at the beginning of September. When did you begin to feel confident it would happen?
PE: During the week before the congress began. It was already possible to see how the COVID situation was evolving, and that no restrictions were to be introduced that would prevent people from attending the event. We were aware of the number of would-be participants who had registered, showing how great the level of interest was. It was a relief, it truly was. My colleagues had been working so hard, but we could not exclude the possibility of a setback. The conclusion of the congress, the Holy Mass celebrated by the Holy Father, and the farewell at the airport, all took place in a very warm atmosphere. It was elevating to see that the believers expressed their joy with applause. Birds congregate in the air by perceiving the direction of the North Pole, and something analogous happens with people. Not only physically, but in a spiritual sense, too. One could feel trust, hope, rebirth—and faith.
ZP: Before the congress, there was a great deal of discourse about the one held in 1938.
Is it possible to compare the two events?
PE: In terms of its scale, this congress was similar to that of 1938, but it had a less ‘soldierly’ character. Our event required an immense organizational effort, registration, and lots of security precautions, which may have appeared rather bureaucratic, but the event itself had a much more relaxed, cheerful atmosphere. There were not any groups in uniform marching in formation, for instance. When looking at this immense crowd engaged in prayer, it was clear that no one had been ordered to attend the event.
ZP: It is great that you mentioned cheerfulness. I heard many stories. Please allow me to mention just a few. For example, on a bus in Budapest, the inspector told a boy wearing the volunteers’ shirt that he did not need to validate tickets during the time of the congress. I also saw volunteers on the subway who did not know one another, but still exchanged knowing smiles. Do you think those stories should be collected?
PE: Yes, I do, by all means. It was indeed a spiritual experience which must not be forgotten. We also collect foreign publications that appeared in anticipation of or after the event. All have been quite positive. Many, many friends and acquaintances of mine, including non-Catholics, published articles of praise. This is also a novelty. And the strong ecumenical dimension of this congress was likewise unprecedented.
ZP: The Pope also stressed this aspect, saying he was delighted to see that Hungary was such an ecumenical country.
PE: Yes, and he was also pleased to see Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople at the congress. I am convinced that due to the geographical and cultural situation of Hungary, our country is the right place to promote the meeting of Christians of different denominations. Or even the meeting of Christianity and other religions. Nor is it merely coincidental that the Pope spoke about Miklós Radnóti and the Hungarian Jewish–Christian cultural tradition. In the Dohány Street Synagogue there was an interreligious dialogue concert where Jewish and Catholic artists performed psalms in various arrangements, which was magnificent. Foreign visitors were absolutely enthralled.
ZP: The Eucharistic Congress and the Synagogue?
PE: Of course, this is what springs from the roots. It was also very important that the music and the language of national minorities were present at the event of the congress every day. The Gypsy Mass in Lovari [a dialect of Romani] was created for this specific occasion. There was also a Holy Mass on the Hungexpo site where the main celebrant was accompanied by two bishops acting as his lead assistants: the Romanian archbishop of Bucharest and the Hungarian bishop of Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare, Romania). These sensitive choices may not have been fully understood by visitors from faraway countries, but those who came from places less further afield did appreciate them.
An interesting exhibition was opened in the National Museum, regarding the situation of persecuted Churches, and one afternoon we held an Africa Day in Saint Stephen’s Basilica. The event had a very strong message, as we had quite a number of visitors from Africa, including priests, bishops, and secular guests. Many people came from Latin America as well, despite the fact that the pandemic led to quite a few stringent restrictive measures there. Visitors arrived from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, as well as Ecuador, where the next international Eucharistic Congress will take place. We also had quite a number of guests from Venezuela.
I had an interesting experience with the Hungarian Catholic community of Buenos Aires. They came to greet the Pope only at the closing event. They sent their names to me in email in advance, and asked me to tell the Pope in the Popemobile, when we see them waving Argentinian flags, that they are a community of Hungarian Catholics from Buenos Aires. And when we saw the flags, I did as requested. The Holy Father then started to read out the names in the email, and with a good Hungarian pronunciation. This is how deep and strong his relationship is with this community.
ZP: Now that you mentioned the Holy Mass celebrated by the Pope, I found some of his words very obliging. He talked about Saint Elizabeth as well as Saint Stephen, and at the very end he said ‘God bless Hungarians!’ Do you think it was merely out of politeness, or that he really wants to understand us Hungarians, more deeply? The rumour that he intends to come to Hungary again began to circulate a few weeks ago.
PE: It was not out of politeness. A proof of this is that he mentioned Csíksomlyó two or three times. It was an important personal experience for him that he was greeted by such a massive crowd at the most frequented Hungarian Marian shrine in Romania. He was also prepared to bear with the extreme weather conditions there: it was not easy to access the site in pouring rain. He himself had to change his itinerary. And then he saw what a huge crowd had been waiting for him. Besides, the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference was there, together with the Romanian Bishops’ Conference. I was also invited to Bucharest the previous evening, and I wanted to go, but the Holy Father travelled by helicopter, and I was not sure I would be able to get there on time. So I decided to travel together with the Hungarian pilgrims. When the Pope spotted me, he was pleased to see me there—not me, personally, of course. He was pleased to see that the Hungarian bishops and faithful were ready to travel such a long way to greet him. And he treasures this memory. He senses the love for him that emanates from the community of Hungarian Catholics. He also knows that although everyday politics is important, there is a much deeper religious and human reality. He truly loves the Hungarian people and the Hungarian Catholic community.
The original version of this interview was published in Hungarian in Országút, 2/25–26 (17 December 2021), 8–9.
Translated by Balázs Sümegi