Sunday, Sept. 12, was a day to remember in Budapest, not only because more than 100,000 people turned out in Heroes Square and on its nearby streets to offer a rapturous welcome to Pope Francis, but also because of the powerful Gospel-inspired message he gave to this nation of 10 million people, about 60 percent of whom are Catholic.
Pope Francis was in Budapest to celebrate the closing Mass of the 2021 International Eucharistic Congress. He delivered a message at Mass, and in his earlier talk to the country’s bishops, that may be considered a roadmap for the Catholic Church, its leadership and the people of Hungary for the coming years.
He called on this majority Christian nation to stop closing in on itself and to open its arms and hearts to peoples of other ethnic backgrounds, religions and cultures. He called on Hungary’s bishops and priests “to be builders of bridges and promoters of dialogue” to create a more fraternal society, marked by a spirit of solidarity.
He delivered part of this message during a profoundly moving sung Latin Mass, enriched by the powerful singing of magnificent choirs and music of an orchestra. Pope Francis concelebrated the Mass with Cardinal Peter Erdó and bishops of Hungary as well as cardinals and bishops from 70 other countries and hundreds of Hungarian priests, all wearing white hats to protect them from the blazing sun.
Pope Francis called on this majority Christian nation to stop closing in on itself and to open its arms and hearts to peoples of other ethnic backgrounds, religions and cultures.
The pope gave his homily sitting down, in an unusual break with past practice, because, as he quipped at an earlier meeting, “I am no longer a 15-year-old!”
He certainly needed to rest as he had stood in the popemobile as he drove among the crowd for almost half-an-hour before the celebration. Notwithstanding this, Francis seemed in surprisingly good physical condition, two months after his operation, and full of joy.
At Mass, he focused his homily on Jesus’ question to Peter in Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say I am,” which was read in today’s Gospel. He said each person who professes to follow Christ should ask themselves this same question.
The pope reminded believers in Hungary that “there is always the risk” of proclaiming “a false messianism, one of human origins, not from God.” But, he said, Jesus reveals his “real identity” in the Eucharist; it is “the paschal identity” that involves the cross and the Resurrection. He said, the Eucharist “is here to remind us of who God is” and it shows us “God as broken bread, as love crucified and bestowed.”
He told his audience—it included both those following on maxi-screens in the square and those following on television across the country—“Today, as ever in the past, the cross is not fashionable or attractive.” But he assured them that “it heals us from within” because “standing before the crucified Lord, we experience a fruitful interior struggle, a bitter conflict, between ‘thinking as God does’ and ‘thinking as humans do.’”
Pope Francis, contrasted the two ways of thinking, and said God’s way “is that of humble love,” while our human way is “attached to honor and privileges and grasping for prestige and success.”
He reinforced that message at the end of Mass, at the Angelus, by recalling that the words of the official hymn of the congress say: “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.”
Pope Francis: “The cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone.”
He told them, “That is what I wish for you: that the cross be your bridge between the past and the future.”
Then, in significant words to a church and a nation that has tended, under the natioinalist-populist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to close itself of from migrants, and especially Muslims, claiming it is defending Hungary’s “Christian identity,” Francis said, “Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots.”
At the same time, he reminded them, and also Mr. Orban, a member of the Calvinist Hungarian Reform Church, who was in the front row at the Mass with his Catholic wife, “the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone.”
Francis added, “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.” He told them, “My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted and considerate.”
Francis arrived in Budapest at 7.45 a.m. on a fresh, clear Sunday morning after a short flight from Rome during which he had exuded joy and happiness as he greeted individually each of the 78 journalists accompanying him on his 34th foreign trip.
After a brief welcome at the airport from Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Cardinal Peter Erdó, Pope Francis drove directly to Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts where he met with the country’s president, János Áder, and Mr. Orban. The Vatican said “various topics,” including “the role of the church in the country, the commitment to the protection of the environment, the protection and promotion of the family” were discussed at that meeting, which included the pope’s senior advisors.
Immediately afterwards, Francis addressed the country’s bishops in another hall at the museum and greeted them individually. Up to now the church in Hungary has to a large extent accepted Mr. Orban’s populist political agenda. Francis called them to move in a direction more consonant with the Gospel of Christ.
Pope Francis: “That is what I wish for you: that the cross be your bridge between the past and the future.”
He began by recalling that in the Eucharist, “in the bread and wine we see Christ that offers his body and his blood for us” and remarked, “the church in Hungary with its long history, marked by an unshakable faith, by persecutions and the blood of martyrs, is associated in a special way with the sacrifice of Christ.”
Indeed, he said, “many brothers and sisters, many bishops and priests have lived what they celebrated on the altar: They were crushed like grains of wheat so that all might be able to be fed on the love of God; they were squashed like the grape, so that the blood of Christ might become the lymph of a new life; they were broken, but their offering of love was an evangelical seed of rebirth planted in the history of this people.”
He told them that “looking at this past history made of martyrdom and blood, we can walk towards the future with the same desire of the martyrs: to live charity and to witness to the Gospel.” At the same time, he reminded them that “it is necessary to always keep together in the life of the church these two realities: to safeguard the past and to look to the future.”
He said it is necessary “to keep our religious roots and the history from which we have come, without stopping with our gaze looking to the past: to love forward and to find new ways to announce the Gospel.”
Pope Francis told them, “As pastors you are called to recall this to your people: the Christian tradition, which as Benedict XVI said, ‘is not a collection of things, of words, like a box of dead things’; the Tradition is a river of new life that comes from the origins, from Christ down to us, and it involves us in the history of God with humanity.’”
“The church comes from the source that is Christ and is sent so that the Gospel, like a river of living water, infinitely wider and more welcoming than your great Danube, may reach the aridity of the world and of the heart of man, purifying it and soothing its thirst,” he said.
“If we want the river of the Gospel to reach the lives of people, making a more fraternal and solidarity society in Hungary,” Pope Francis said, “we need the church to build new bridges of dialogue.”
Francis told them, “The episcopal ministry, therefore, does not serve to repeat the news of the past, but is the prophetic voice of the perpetual actuality of the Gospel, in the life of the people of God and in the history of today.”
He told the Hungarian bishops that they must be “proclaimers of the Gospel” and “never forget that at the center of the life of the church there is the encounter with Christ.” He said, “Sometimes, especially when the society around us does not seem enthusiastic for our Christian proposal, there is the temptation to close ourselves in, in defense of institutions and structures.” He advised against that.
He urged the bishops “to be witnesses of fraternity.” He noted that “people from other lands have for some time now lived in their country, various ethnic minorities, religious confessions and migrants have also transformed this country into a multicultural ambient.”
He acknowledged that “this reality is new and, at least in the first moment, is frightening…. the diversity always causes some fear because it puts at risk the acquired securities and provokes the stability that has been achieved.” Nevertheless, he said, “it is a great opportunity for opening the heart to the Gospel message: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’”
Francis told the bishops: “Faced with the cultural, ethnic, political and religious diversity, we can adopt two attitudes: to close ourselves in a rigid defense of our own so-called identity, or to open ourselves to encounter with the other and to cultivate together the dream of a fraternal society.”
He recalled that in 2017 Budapest the representatives of the bishops’ conferences of central and eastern Europe met and reaffirmed that “the belonging to one’s own identity should never become a motive of hostility and despisal of others, but rather a help to dialogue with different cultures.” He encouraged them on this path.
He told the Christians and Jews that “those who follow God are called to leave certain things behind,” like “our misunderstandings, our claims to be right while others are wrong.”
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge crosses the Danube river and joins the western (Buda) and eastern (Pest) sides of the city. Built in 1849, it has had enormous significance in the country’s economic, social and cultural life. Referring to this bridge, Francis told the bishops, “If we want the river of the Gospel to reach the lives of people, making a more fraternal and solidarity society in Hungary, we need the church to build new bridges of dialogue.”
He called on the Hungarian bishops, together with their priests and pastoral collaborators, “to show always the true face of the church: a face that is welcoming towards all, also to those who come from outside, a face that is fraternal, open to dialogue.”
He said, “Let the style of fraternity that I ask you to cultivate with your priests and with the whole People of God become a shining light for Hungary.” He called on the Hungarian church “to be builder of bridges and promoters of dialogue.”
Last of all, he said, bishops should “be builders of hope.” He told them, “If we put the Gospel at the center and we give witness to it with fraternal love, we can look to the future with hope, even if today we go through small and big storms.” He said, “This is what the church is called to spread in the lives of people: the reassuring certainty that God is merciful, that he loves us in every moment of life and is always ready to pardon and to lift us up.”
At this point he recalled “the heritage of hope” the Venerable Cardinal Jósef Mindszenty—“a son and father of this church and this land”—when, at the end of a life filled with suffering because of persecutions, he said, “God is young. The future is his. It is he who evokes what is new, young and the tomorrow of individuals and peoples. Therefore, we cannot abandon ourselves to despair.”
He concluded: “Hungary has need of a renewed proclamation of the Gospel, of a new social and religious fraternity, of a hope to be built day by day to look to the future with joy.”
Following his meeting with the bishops, Francis greeted representatives of the Hungarian Ecumenical Council of Churches and of some of the Jewish communities in the country. The Jewish community in Slovakia suffered greatly when the Nazis were in power here in 1944 – 1945, and more than 400,000 Slovak Jews were deported to extermination camps. Francis praised the efforts of Christians and Jews today “to break down the walls that separated us in the past” and praised them because today “you strive to view one another no longer as strangers but as friends, no longer as foes but as brothers and sisters.” He added, “The change of outlook is blessed by God.”
He told the Christians and Jews that “those who follow God are called to leave certain things behind,” like “our misunderstandings, our claims to be right while others are wrong.” Then, referring to the Chain bridge that links the two sides of Budapest, Francis said “it holds them together” and added “this is how it should be with us too.”
He admitted it was not so in the past when “when we were tempted to absorb each other…..or when we tried to ghettoize others instead of including them.”
He added, “we must be vigilant and pray that it never happens again.” Prancis called for “fostering together an education in fraternity, so that outbursts of hatred that would destroy that fraternity will never prevail.” He drew attention to “the threat of antisemitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere” and declared, “this is a fuse that must not be allowed to burn.”
Pope Francis, clearly in good form, bade farewell and extended his blessing to the people of Hungary at the end of Mass, and then drove straight to the airport to take the plane to Slovakia, where he will remain until Sept. 15.