POPE FRANCIS presided from the throne at a mass before an estimated crowd of 50,000 in Kossuth Square, beside the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, on Sunday morning. The service was the high point in a three-day apostolic visit to the capital of Hungary, where the Pope walked a diplomatic tightrope on Ukraine.
The visit to Hungary was the first that the Pope has made to a country neighbouring Ukraine since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of 24 February last year. The choice was a surprise to some observers. Given close ties between Hungary’s government, led by the far-right Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and President Putin’s, in Russia, some feared that the trip might be exploited for propaganda purposes. That was especially so given an apparent overlap between Mr Orbán’s and Pope Francis’s urgings for peace in Ukraine.
Pope Francis has called repeatedly for an “immediate ceasefire”: a move that, some defence analysts suggest, would, in practice, favour Russia. The same demand has been made by Mr Orbán and other government officials. In recent weeks, Mr Orbán has repeatedly stated that, in Europe, “only Hungary and the Vatican stand on the side of peace.” Pope Francis’s calls for a ceasefire are generally understood to arise from concern for the sanctity of human life; Mr Orbán’s are widely regarded as a ploy to allow Russia to “freeze” the conflict and retain territorial gains.
On Thursday of last week, a day before travelling to Budapest, Pope Francis met the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal. During the meeting, Mr Shmyhal asked for the Pope’s help in securing the return of more than 16,000 unaccompanied children abducted by Russian security forces since February last year.
The Pope, however, seemed to approach the visit to Hungary with ambitions for mediating a peace settlement in Ukraine, using Mr Orbán’s proximity to President Putin as a path to a settlement. This hope, trailed to Vatican correspondents in advance, was referred to by Pope Francis on being received by the Hungarian President, Katalin Novák, at her official residence, soon after arrival in Budapest, last Friday morning.
In a speech to journalists and officials, Pope Francis expressed the hope that, in troubled times, “Hungary can act as a bridge-builder.” After the speech, the Pope attended a public reception with civic leaders, and met Mr Orbán privately.
Saturday appeared to deepen the mediation theme with a previously unannounced 20-minute encounter between Pope Francis and Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), formerly the Russian Orthodox Church’s Foreign Minister and now Metropolitan of Budapest.
On the plane journey after the visit, Pope Francis told journalists who asked about the content of his meetings with Mr Orbán and Metropolitan Hilarion: “We not only talked about Little Red Riding Hood, right? We talked about all these things [peace, and the repatriation of children]. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. . . There is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet.”
Metropolitan Hilarion appeared to deny Pope Francis’s account of their meeting, in a video posted in Russian on the website Jesus-Portal. “No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends,” Metropolitan Hilarion said, as reported by the Italian outlet Il Sismografo.
The idea of such a peace initiative has been greeted with scepticism by some experts, given that, owing to sectarian frictions, the Vatican has never had the powerful diplomatic standing, based on moral legitimacy, with Orthodox countries which it traditionally enjoys among Western states. Analysts warn that the Pope’s efforts in relation to President Putin and Mr Orbán risk backfiring.
“Pope Francis needs to tread a more careful line on Ukraine,” a former Conservative Party foreign-policy adviser, Garvan Walshe, said. Otherwise, he continued, “his historical reputation may end up tarnished, like Pius XII’s, who, during World War II, seemed unable to distinguish mediation from appeasement.”
Owing to physical exhaustion, Pope Francis did not celebrate on Sunday morning, but presided, vested in a cope, while the Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, celebrated. Pope Francis, however, preached from his chair in Italian, helped by a Hungarian interpreter.
Preaching on the day’s Gospel (John 10.1-10), he took as his text its closing verse: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” His homily linked those words to Jesus’s foregoing assertion “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (verse 9). Pope Francis, in words that appeared to challenge Mr Orbán’s stance on migration, urged worshippers to imitate Christ’s example by being “open doors”.
“Brothers and sisters,” he exhorted the congregation, “we, like Jesus, must become open doors. How sad and painful it is to see closed doors. The closed doors of our selfishness to others . . . towards those who suffer; the doors we close towards those who are foreign or unlike us, towards migrants or the poor.”
Crowd reactions were mixed. “I worried ahead of time that the Pope’s visit would be used by the Hungarian government to provide ‘confirmation’ of their political views,” said Mark Knapp, an American resident in Hungary who attends St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy, in Budapest. “Sure enough, during mass I got a Facebook post from Hungary’s Justice Minister, Judit Varga, along those lines.”
Mr Knapp’s wife, Irna de-Leon Knapp, said: “I was excited to participate in Pope Francis’s apostolic journey. . . The Pope has many challenges to make to the Catholic Church, but his message urges us all, not just Catholics, to help others in desperate circumstances.”
Besides Sunday’s mass, highlights of the Pope’s visit included a meeting with refugees and disabled children helped by Catholic charities at St Elizabeth’s, in Rozsak Square, Budapest, on Saturday morning, and an event that evening with young people at the Papp László Sportarena. While in Hungary, the Pope also met local Jesuits; the (opposition) Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony; and Eastern-rite Catholic representatives.
On Sunday afternoon, the Pope visited the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, in Budapest, where he delivered a speech on the ethical use of technology. The papal plane left Budapest for Rome at about 6 p.m. on Sunday.