Pope Francis has completed a three-day visit to Hungary duing which he hinted that the Vatican is involved in a peace initiative to end the war in Ukraine, and in which he made clear criticisms of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's semi-authoritarian regime.
On the return flight from Budapest to Rome, the Pope vaguely hinted that the Vatican is involved in a peace initiative concerning the war in Ukraine and that the Holy See will work to return Ukrainian children taken to Russia.
"There is a mission in course now, but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it," he told reporters. “I think that peace is always made by opening channels. You can never achieve peace through closure. … This is not easy.”
Francis has consistently pleaded for peace and offered to act as a broker between Kyiv and Moscow.
Pope Francis closed his three-day visit to Hungary by celebrating a mass on April 30 in Kossuth Square in front of parliament with more than 50,000 faithful from Hungary and abroad.
The 86-year-old head of the Catholic Church called it "sad and painful" to see the closed doors of our indifference towards the underprivileged and those who suffer; the doors we close towards those who are foreign or unlike us, towards migrants or the poor.
Orban’s critics saw these comments as clear criticism of the Hungarian government's "closed-door" policies, its relentless campaign against migrants over the years.
President Katalin Novak and Orban, along with a number of his ministers and MPs attended the service, sharing the seats with opposition politicians such as the Green Mayor of Budapest Gergely Karacsony, in a rare display of bipartisan unity in the deeply divided country.
The government put its diplomacy in full swing to arrange the Pope’s second visit to Hungary in two years. Prior to the visit, media reports speculated that Hungary’s illiberal leader, increasingly isolated in the international arena, would use the journey to advance his own political agenda. Orban has acted as a proponent of peace in Ukraine while accusing its Western allies of being pro-war for supporting the war-torn country, and portraying himself as defending Christian values in Europe plagued with LGBTQ propaganda.
During their closed meeting, Orban told Pope Francis that Hungary would not exist without Christianity, and its future depends on sticking to that path. The two had discussed the situation in Ukraine, as revealed by the Vatican after the visit when Pope Francis spoke to reporters on the plane returning back to Rome.
The pontiff praised Hungary's "carefully tended" family policy, its support for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war-torn country and Budapest’s financial assistance to persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
The three-day Apostolic Journey dominated pro-government media’s news coverage over the weekend with the narrative that Hungary stands out in the Western world for its commitment to Christian values, although around half of the population doesn't have any religious affiliation, while less than 20% attend religious services regularly.
The prime minister’s Facebook site featured two dozen posts related to the pope's visit, including a photo with the Orban family, with his three daughters and five grandchildren. The prime minister’s only son, Gaspar, was not present during the shooting.
The Pope also found time to meet with Budapest’s mayor for a short time, which was not part of his busy itinerary. Karacsony welcomed the fact that the Vatican had chosen the Chain Bridge as the symbol of the papal visit, referring to the need for building bridges between people.
Meeting Hungarian politicians, diplomats and other dignitaries in the Prime Minister's Office on Friday, the Pope called Europe a melting pot of 27 nations that needs harmony and unity that does not crush the individual parts, while not becoming hostage and a victim of self-aggrandizing populism”, which again could be interpreted as clear criticism of the current policies of the government.
On Saturday night, the Pope received a standing ovation in the Papp Laszlo Sports Arena before some 11,000 young people. The pope spoke about the importance of dreams, ambitions, community-building and teamwork, also highlighting the importance of silence and prayer.
Earlier in the day, he met the poor, refugees and representatives of the Greek Catholic community at St. Elisabeth church in central Budapest. Among those attending the service was Iranian filmmaker Abouzar Soltani, a refugee from Iran who spent 553 days in one of Hungary’s transit zones with his 10-year-old son, Armin, after Hungarian authorities rejected their asylum claims in 2018.
One of the most heart-warming moments of the three-day journey came on Friday, when after meeting the local Church’s clergy and ministers at St. Stephen Basilica, the Catholic leader broke the protocol by saluting the crowd in front of the Basilica and gave a blessing to a 77-year father who lost his legs due to diabetes.
Pope Francis, in his closing prayer, appealed to world leaders asking them "to build peace and to give the younger generations a future of hope, not war, a future full of cradles, not tombs". The pontiff has tried to forge a diplomatic balancing act in his pleas to end Russia's war against Ukraine, expressing solidarity with Ukrainians while keeping the door open to dialogue with Moscow.
On Saturday, he prayed with Ukrainian refugees and then met Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Budapest and Hungary, formerly head of the Moscow Patriarchate Foreign Ministry. "Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism – I like this," Francis said.
Local observers say the government will not miss the chance to take credit for the smooth organisation of the three-day journey that has also delighted Pope Francis, who did not look frail at all despite the busy programme and his earlier health issues.
Francis walked a fine diplomatic line with subtle criticism mixed on issues spanning the separation of church and state, and the inclusion of foreigners and the downtrodden, while also praising the government's commitment to Christian values.
The government will likely continue to push its "peace agenda", while the visit could also improve the prestige of Hungarian Catholic Church leaders. Earlier this year, Italian independent newspaper La Verita added 70-year Cardinal Peter Erdo, the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, to the shortlist of possible candidates to follow Pope Francis at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church.