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Francis in Hungary

Despite their differences, Pope Francis and Viktor Orban are the only European heads of state trying to end the Russia–Ukraine war.


BUDAPEST — Pope Francis is very sick. How sick? On the day last week His Holiness was to arrive in Budapest, a Hungarian priest told me that the Vatican sent a hospital plane staffed with Gemelli Clinic personnel to accompany the ailing 86-year-old pontiff. And yet, Francis came anyway, to a country where, to put it mildly, the progressive pope has not always seen eye to eye with the nationalist conservative leadership. 

In particular, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hard line on immigration runs directly counter to Francis’s open-borders preference. Francis’s very brief visit to Hungary at last year’s Eucharistic Congress in Budapest was seen by many as a snub to Orban, the Calvinist leader and bête noire of Brussels. Support for liberal migration policies is close to Francis’s heart, and it is why he has stayed away from this small, conservative Central European nation for so long. 


So why did he come now? Clearly Francis intended to make a statement with this visit, which entailed significant physical sacrifice for him. From the Hungarian point of view, that statement was: Peace. 

That is, Francis’s choice to come to Hungary now, despite his poor health and his deep-seated opposition to Hungary’s migration stance, conveys how passionate the pontiff is to see an end to the ruinous Russia–Ukraine war. The Holy See and Hungary have found common cause as the only European states pushing for peace. The Orban government regards the papal pilgrimage as a sign of support for its repeated appeals for a cease-fire and a negotiated end to hostilities. 

To be sure, in his public addresses, Francis leaned more into pressing Hungary to adopt liberal immigration policies towards refugees. Though the Magyar nation has been generous in accepting those fleeing war from neighboring Ukraine, the Orban government has been unbending in refusing to take in migrants from outside of Europe. This is partly because many of these migrants are not fleeing war, but are rather seeking better economic opportunities in Europe. This is mostly, though, because the Hungarians recognize that mass Islamic and other non-European migration stands to alter permanently its civilization. 

The pontiff’s words are not likely to change migration policy here. The Orban government’s immigration stance is widely popular with the Hungarian people, a majority of whom are Catholic. Moreover, it’s common to hear Catholic conservatives visiting Budapest from other European praising Hungary’s position, and grumbling about what they regard as Francis’s naïve humanitarianism on migration. 

Nevertheless, for the Hungarians, there was much to cheer in this papal visit. 


For one, Francis stood up for Hungary against the progressive bullies in Brussels. In a Friday address before government leaders and diplomats, the Pope praised European unity, but said it should not come at the expense of local diversity.

“I think of a Europe that is not hostage to its parts, neither falling prey to self-referential forms of populism nor resorting to a fluid, if not vapid, ‘supranationalism’ that loses sight of the life of its peoples,” he said. “This is the baneful path taken by those forms of ‘ideological colonization’ that would cancel differences, as in the case of the so-called gender theory, or that would place before the reality of life reductive concepts of freedom, for example by vaunting as progress a senseless ‘right to abortion,’ which is always a tragic defeat.”

Francis also cited Hungary’s pro-natal family policies as an example for the rest of Europe. Facing a steeply declining fertility rate, as is all of Europe, the Orban government has implemented measures to encourage more births by offering generous support to couples who have larger families. 

More important to the Hungarians, though, was Francis’s urging peace. In his speech to politicians and diplomats, the Holy Father lamented that the heroic determination, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, of the European Union’s founding fathers to work together for peace is nowhere to be found today. Citing the suffering of Ukraine, Francis plaintively asked the government representatives, “where are creative efforts for peace?”

This is precisely the question the Hungarians hoped the Pope would ask here. Prime Minister Orban has been all alone among European political leaders in dissenting from NATO’s war policy. Hungary, which shares a border with Ukraine and which heavily depends on Russia for its energy, has suffered serious economic damage as a result of the war. Though Orban has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion, he has also questioned the official NATO narrative about the war’s origins (that is, he believes the West played a role in foolishly provoking Russia). 

There is no special love between Hungary and Russia, which occupied the Magyar nation for almost half a century. Bullet holes from the 1956 anti-communist revolution, and the subsequent armed Soviet suppression of the uprising, can still be seen throughout Budapest. Nevertheless, the Hungarian people fear that the Ukraine war could spread westward, imperiling the gains they have made rebuilding the country after Communism’s fall. Moreover, the prime minister has publicly expressed his concern that the war is part of a broader plan to restructure Europe, including forcing the once-unthinkably dangerous move to shepherd Ukraine into NATO and the European Union. 

Because it has not marched in lock step with Washington’s war aims any more than it did with Germany’s 2015 open-door migration policy, or with Brussels’ determination to propagandize even children for the LGBT cause, Hungary has endured vicious slanders abroad. Hungary needs friends to help it wage its lonely battle for peace—and there are few allies more visible on this front than the Roman pontiff. 

Some observers eyed with interest a twenty-minute unscheduled meeting the Pope had on Saturday with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox archbishop of Budapest. For thirteen years, Hilarion was the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign minister, in which capacity he came to know Francis, and to develop genuine affection for him. Last year, though, the 56-year-old prelate, unofficially the No. 2 figure in the Russian church, was abruptly removed from office and dispatched to Budapest, a minor diocese. 

No official reason for the transfer was given, and Hilarion remains tight-lipped about it. But it is believed by some Orthodox observers that the Kremlin lost patience with Hilarion’s silence surrounding—that is, his refusal to endorse—the Ukraine war. The unplanned private meeting with Hilarion tindered speculation that the Russian prelate might serve as a back channel to convey the Pope’s plea for peace to Moscow.

Francis himself, on the flight back to Rome, indicated that indeed he had discussed the war with the Russian archbishop, and with the Hungarian prime minister. The pope told reporters that he is involved in a “not yet public” peace mission. About the sessions, Francis said, “In these meetings we did not just talk about Little Red Riding Hood. We spoke of all these things. Everyone is interested in the road to peace.”

On Monday, Met. Hilarion denied that he and the pope discussed political or church issues. In a statement, the Russian prelate said, “It was a personal fellowship meeting between two old acquaintances.”

Budapest is normally sleepy on Sunday mornings, but the streets of the Hungarian capital swarmed yesterday with Catholics streaming to the vast Kossuth Square in front of Hungary’s impressive parliament building for the outdoor papal mass. An estimated 50,000 gathered near the Danube’s banks, under a warm spring sun, for the liturgy. The Calvinist president, the Calvinist prime minister, the Russian archbishop, as well as other Protestant and Jewish leaders were also in the crowd. 

In his homily, the pontiff once again urged Hungarians to open themselves to migrants, and once again called for an end to war. In a prayer addressing the Virgin Mary, Francis begged her to “look especially at the neighboring, tormented Ukrainian and Russian people, your peoples dedicated to you.” This was a poignant acknowledgment that both the Catholics of Ukraine, and the Orthodox of Ukraine and Russia, look to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as their mother too. 

“You, who are the Queen of Peace, pour into the hearts of people and the leaders of nations the desire to build peace,” prayed Francis, “to offer future generations a future of hope, not war; a future full of cradles and not graves; a world full of brothers and not walls.”

One might have asked the Pope how he reconciles his call for open borders to migrants with his exhortations to peace, given that European nations who have welcomed migrants, especially since the 2015 million-man exodus from the Near East, have seen extraordinary rises in crime and violence. This is a problem Hungary has avoided, because it defends its borders – borders that Viktor Orban have said are necessary to preserve the Christian character of Europe. On Friday, a Catholic priest here told me that his government doesn’t get enough credit for its efforts, financial and otherwise, to help foreign Christians live in peace and security in their own countries. 

Those knotty issues seemed far away from Kossuth Square on Sunday morning. An American Catholic expat friend, a conservative who is not normally fond of Francis, was bubbling over with happiness after the mass. Said my friend, “It felt great to be surrounded by the faithful, and in that regard it was a great moment. The Hungarians pulled it off with their usual aplomb.” (No doubt much credit for that goes to Hungary’s extraordinary ambassador to the Holy See, the warm and generous Eduard Habsburg.) 

The next-door war has been raging for almost fifteen months, making the daily lives of Hungarians harder and more fearful, but none of that was discernible among the cheerful throngs headed to Kossuth Square. The Pope’s prayers, the fellowship, the good feeling, and the warm spring sunshine made it seem that for the long-suffering peoples of this region, a future of cradles and brotherhood, of life and peace, might be more than just a dream.