Pope Francis walks the fine line with Hungarian Viktor Orban
BUDAPEST – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban presents himself as the defender of Christian Europe against migrants and multiculturalism. After years of weakening democratic institutions, the far-right strongman has prepared for the upcoming elections in predominantly Catholic Hungary by strengthening his ties with Catholic traditionalists in Europe and the United States.
On Sunday, Mr. Orban will receive a visit from the leader of the Roman Catholic world himself when Pope Francis comes to town to celebrate mass. Mr. Orban’s allies, who is increasingly isolated and rarely receives high-level visits from Western leaders, have desperately sought to secure speaking time with the pontiff, and the Vatican has confirmed a courtesy meeting private before mass.
But it is also possible, say those close to Francis, that Mr Orban will get more than he asked for when he possibly meets the world’s leading migrant champion and a clear voice against rampant authoritarianism and nationalism. in Europe.
“One of my ways is not to use a script,” Francis said in an interview with Spanish radio station COPE last month when asked what he expected to say to Mr. Orban. “When I’m in front of a person, I look them in the eye and let things come out.”
For Francis to read to Mr. Orban the act of riot on his first trip to Hungary – and on his first trip abroad after major colon surgery in July – the meeting between two leaders with radically different visions of Europe has already unleashed its fair share of intrigue and drama. and name calling.
Francis had initially planned to visit Budapest for just a few hours, before continuing for three full days in neighboring Slovakia, led by a young pro-environment woman.
Leading Hungarian clerics and government officials lobbied the Vatican for more time, while Mr. Orban’s allies in the media, where his party has great influence, exerted less polite pressure, denouncing Francis for having insulted Hungary and “behaving in an anti-Christian manner,” and for “causing extraordinary damage to the Christian world”.
The Vatican tried to bring the temperature down by overturning the idea – first launched by Francis and then amplified in conservative Catholic media – that a meeting with Mr. Orban was never in doubt. The visit to Hungary lasted as a stopover, the Vatican said, as it was spiritual in nature, with the Pope presiding over the final mass of a week-long Catholic congress there.
But the disparity between the length of trips to Hungary and Slovakia, Francis allies suggested, was perhaps no accident.
“You can interpret the fact that he is not making a long visit,” said Reverend Antonio Spadaro, Jesuit priest and confidant of Francis who will be traveling with him. “It’s a short visit. In addition, it can have meaning.
Father Spadaro said he had no idea what Francis would say to the Prime Minister, but he expected the real message to Mr. Orban regarding his government’s policy to come after their private meeting, when the pope will address around 35 hungarian bishops.
“The confrontation with the country will come as he speaks to his bishops,” Father Spadaro said, adding that he would most likely address the context and the government within which his bishops were to operate. “This is the right space for it. “
After years of rising populism, when Mr. Orban and other nationalists seemed to be on the rise and Francis found himself in the political wilderness, the Pope once again has prominent allies in the United States and throughout Europe on issues like climate change.
But many Hungarian bishops are torn between their pontiff, who wants his priests to be on the front lines to help migrants and the destitute, and an Orban government, which is flooding the church with millions of dollars in grants for restorations and schools. ; enacts what the government calls “Christian” policies in favor of the family; and established offices to protect persecuted Christians in distant lands.
“The main problem is that the big government funding compromises the independence of the Church,” said Bishop Miklos Beer, one of the few Hungarian bishops willing to criticize Mr. Orban. “There is silence on the part of the church on the issue of migration and this is the issue where we need to need to represent what the Pope is saying.”
This lack of independence was dangerous, said Bishop Beer Friday, because it potentially linked the fate of the Hungarian church, and its financial support, to Mr. Orban’s electoral success. He said Mr. Orban was dangerously wrapped in Christian images; reach out to Catholic traditionalists, many of whom oppose Francis; and seeking to meet the Pope – all to win the elections due in April.
“I don’t think there is any question about how he hopes to protect his electoral base,” Bishop Beer said.
And there is also no doubt about how Mr Orban’s electoral base in the church protects the prime minister.
Speaking at the headquarters of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, which Budapest hosts, one of the event’s organizers, Rev. Kornel Fabry, said on Friday that he did not think Mr. Orban and Francis were “so far away l ‘one another “. He argued that Francis would agree with Mr. Orban on valuing family and country before foreigners. (Francis basically said the opposite, stating that caring for migrants and the poor was as sacred as opposing abortion.)
“They want to protect Christian values,” Father Fabry said of Mr. Orban’s government. He defended Mr Orban on charges of demagoguery and dictatorship, arguing that there were “more and more Orban followers” in Europe, despite his allies in Italy and Germany losing ground. .
The government’s talking points also spilled over to priests in the city’s churches.
“It is not just about opening the doors to the outside, but how we can strengthen the church from the inside,” said Rev. Kazmer Karpati, priest of a Franciscan church in central Budapest, who said his order benefited from the generosity of the state. He was happy that Mr. Orban met the Pope, so that “the two understood each other better”.
Some Hungarian clerics worked hard to ensure that the meeting took place and that the Pope remained as long as possible.
Asked about his role in extending the Pope’s trip so that Francis could meet with local authorities, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Hungary’s most powerful prelate, said in an email that “the fact that the Holy Father, despite his short time, being able to meet representatives of the world political class “, as well as leaders of other faiths, is a” great sign of his friendship “.
Mgr. Norbert Nemeth, counselor of the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See, said he worked with the Vatican in preparing for the Pope’s trip.
“The Hungarian bishops wanted him to stay longer, for the afternoon and even the next day,” said Bishop Nemeth, who insisted that a meeting with Mr. Orban was still scheduled because the Pope ” could not avoid these protocol meetings. ”He added that Francis“ does not meet a person who does not accept Christian values ”.
“On the contrary,” Bishop Nemeth said, “this government is really very Christian and helps the church in Hungary.”
However, he admitted, “the first program had other encounters, other meeting places”.
But he said the Vatican told the Hungarians to keep the pope’s visit centered next to Heroes’ Square, where Sunday mass is scheduled.
“We wanted to help the Holy Father in this sense, because he is old and has just had an operation,” said Bishop Nemeth.
After about seven hours in Budapest, Francis will spend the next three days in planes and car parades across much of Slovakia in an exhausting schedule of speeches and meetings. “We therefore sacrificed a little his trip,” said Bishop Nemeth, “according to the will of the Holy See. “