By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Pope Francis’ second apostolic journey this year – after his remarkable visit to Iraq – took place in the heart of Europe. He visited Hungary and the Republic of Slovakia with the aim to give a message of hope and confidence to the people in Central Europe. The Pontiff on September 12 visited Budapest, the capital of Hungary – on the occasion of the concluding Holy Mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress. He concluded the 7 hour visit with a mass at the Heroes’ square and continued his apostolic journey to Slovakia, where he stayed until September 15th.

Having watched several of these quite moving ceremonies, one could experience a Pope, who despite  84 years of age and having been hospitalized for an intestinal operation in the month of August, was rejuvenated and energized, showing deep compassion towards the people that he addressed. He focused his message to the Catholic audience as well as to the ecumenical representatives, including the ones from the Orthodox churches and the Jewish communities, by conveying a strong spirit and self- confidence. Rather than sticking to a rigid church doctrine and formal solutions, he tried to convey the sense that each individual is “unique” and has to live and act on the basis of his faith i.e. solidarity and compassion.

What became clear during his visit was that in those two Central European countries, which until 1989 had belonged to the communist Warsaw Pact, the unity between Eastern and Western spirituality plays an even more significant role than in the Western part of Europe. In Slovakia for example the Pope presided at the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in Preŝov on the 14th of September, while in the final mass in Budapest he greeted Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch, who had been participating at the 52nd Eucharistic Congress in Budapest. The 52nd Eucharistic Congress, where also the Russian Metropolitan Hilarion had spoken, was addressed by 14 Cardinals (among them the Chaldean Patriarch from Iraq who had played a key role during the Iraq journey of the Pope in March).

In a special message given by Cardinal Peter Erdö, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary, the Cardinal underlined that the world today has a “desperate need for a unified testimony of Eastern and Western Christianity.” He noted that Patriarch Bartholomew I had canonized King Saint Stephen I (Hungary’s national Saint) in the Orthodox Church in Budapest in 2000, adding that “Eastern and Western Christianity were still united at the time of the death of Hungary’s first king in 1038.” He also spoke of the moments dedicated to the Roma minority in Hungary that will take place during the Eucharistic Congress and explained that in 2008 with the approval of the Hungarian Bishop’s conference, the entire Bible was published in Romani language which is the most widely spoken language among the Roma in Europe. He stated, that “encouraged by Pope Francis, we started to prepare a translation and managed to arrive at a mature text of the Ordinary of the Mass that will be sung in this language… Some musicians have composed beautiful music, based on the musical traditions of Roma people throughout Europe, suitable for the Mass.”

Pope Francis:  Church must be close to the people and compassionate, not political

During a press conference on his return flight from Slovakia, Pope Francis talked about his dialogue with Hungarian authorities and resumed some key ideas of his trip. He commented about his visit to Hungary and his meeting with Prime Minister Victor Orbán, that despite his short visit to Hungary, he is looking to come back next year or the following one, underlining that the “ Hungarians have so many values, I was struck by a deep, deep sense of ecumenism.” He used this remark to reflect about Europe, which as he said “must resume the dreams of its Founding Fathers. The European Union is not a meeting in which to get things done, there is a spirit behind the EU, that Schumann, Adenauer, De Gasperi dreamed of. There’s the danger that it has just become a ‘managerial office’ and that is not good, it must delve into its essence, search for Europe’s roots and nourish them.”  He underlined that during his discussion with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, he had among others discussed the demographic problems which many countries in Europe are confronted with. That he discussed with him about the law for the family, whose purpose is to help young couples to get married and have children. “You can see that there are so many young people, so many children. In Slovakia too, there are many young couples. Now the challenge is to find jobs, so that they don’t go abroad looking for them.”

Being asked by an American journalist about abortion laws in the US, he clearly stated that “abortion is more than a problem, its homicide, whoever has an abortion, kills. Take any book on embryology for medical students, the third week after conception, all the organs are already there…it is a human life, this human life must be respected. (…) That is why the Church is so harsh on this issue, because if it accepts this, it is as if it accepts daily murder. Similar his stance on marriage for homosexuals where he emphasized, that “marriage is a sacrament, the Church has no power to change the sacraments as the Lord has instituted them. There are laws that try to help the situations of many people who have a different sexual orientation. The state has the possibility, civilly to support them…But marriage is marriage. This does not mean condemning them.”

The metaphoric significance of the Chain Bridge in Budapest

In his meeting with representative of the ecumenical council of churches in Hungary and some Jewish communities in Hungary, on September 12, the Pontiff used the occasion to reflect about the “evocative image” of the Chain Bridge, the most famous bridge in Budapest, which connects the two halves of Budapest (Buda and Pest). He used the Chain Bridge as a metaphor. (The Chain Bridge is known in Budapest and the world as the “Széchenyi Chain Bridge”; it  spans the river Danube between Buda and Pest, the western and eastern side of Budapest.  The Hungarian Count István Széchenyi, one of the most famous Hungarian politicians (1791 -1860 ) who is known as a great statesman and reformer of Hungary, inspired the idea to build the bridge which was opened in 1849.) As the Pope underlined: “The bridge does not fuse those two parts together, but rather holds them together. That is how it should be with us too. (…) We must commit ourselves to fostering together ab education in fraternity, so that the outbursts of hatred that would destroy that fraternity will never prevail. I think of the threat of anti- Semitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere. (…) The bridge has yet another lesson to teach us. It is supported by great chains made up of many rings. We are those rings and each of us is essential to the chain. We can no longer live apart, without making an effort to know one another… A bridge unites.”  Individuals and communities should be “bridges of fellowship with all” in this country. “You, who represent the majority religions, are responsible for promoting the conditions to enable religious freedom to be respected and encouraged for all.” He emphasized that “this precious patrimony can enable us together, to build a different future.”

Meeting with the Bishops in the Museum of Fine Arts

The text of his address to the Hungarian bishops was the longest of all addresses which he gave in Hungary and Slovakia. It apparently is characterized by the Pope’s passionate desire to transmit to the Church representatives, not only in Hungary but all over the world, that in light of faith being nowadays confronted with increased secularism, the leaders of the Church must not be complacent.

The Pope urged the bishops to be “close” among each other, to the priests and to the people and be “builders of hope”. “The Church in Hungary had cause to reflect on how the transition from the age of dictatorship to that of recovered freedom has had its contradictions: a decline in morality and a surge in organized crime, the narcotics trade and even organ trafficking, and so many cases of children killed for this purpose. There are social problems: the troubles experienced by families, poverty, the problems faced by young people, all in a context where democracy remains to be solidly established. The Church must not fail to be an advocate of closeness, a source of care and consolation, lest people end up being robbed of the light of hope.”

Three days of apostolic journey in Slovakia: “Slovakia is a poem”

In the garden of the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, on 13th September the Pontiff addressed members of the governments and of the diplomatic Corps and other civil authorities. In addressing President Čaputová, he stated that he had come to Slovakia as “a pilgrim to a young country, yet one with an ancient history, a land of deep roots situated in the heart of Europe. Truly this land is, and has always been, a crossroads. It was an outpost of the Roman Empire and a point of encounter between Western and Eastern Christianity. From Great Moravia to the Kingdom of Hungary, from the Czechoslovak Republic to the present day, you have overcome numerous trials and attained integration and distinctiveness through a fundamentally peaceful process. …This long history challenges Slovakia to be a message of peace in the heart of Europe!”

He spoke about the “legacy” of the Saints, the holy brothers Cyril (826-869) and Methodius (815-885) who worked to spread the Gospel at a time when the Christians of this continent were united; today they continue to unite the different religious communities in this land. “Cyril and Methodius identified with all, and thought communion with all: Slavs, Greeks and Latins alike. Their firm faith found expression in a spontaneous openness to others. This is the legacy that you are now called to preserve m so that in our times too, you can be a sign of unity.”

“Your Constitution expressed the desire that the country be built on the legacy of Saints Cyril and Methodius – Patrons of Europe. (…) These Saints also showed that preserving what is good does not mean repeating the past, but being open to newness without ever losing one’s roots. Your history abounds in writers, poets and men and women of culture which were the salt of this country.” And he remined that so many illustrious men and women suffered from prison without losing their courage, but being an “example of courage, integration and resistance to injustice. And most of all forgiveness that is the salt of your earth.” He urged the Slovakians to cultivate the beauty they inherited: “Your mountains combine in one range a variety of peaks and landscapes, spilling over national borders in order to join together in beauty different people. Cultivate this beauty, the beauty of the whole. It requires peace and effort, courage and sharing, enthusiasm and creativity.”

In his address to the Bishops and religious leaders he again referred to the Saints Cyril and Methodius who “ traversed this part of the European continent  and burning with passion for the preaching of the Gospel they even invented a new alphabet and laid the basis for “inculturation in your midst. They invented new languages for the handing on the Gospel; they were creative in translating the Christian message and they drew so close to the history of the people they encountered that they learned their language and assimilated their culture.”  Today again a “new Alphabet” should be found for Europe.

Meeting with the Roma Community in Kósice and with young people

There were very moving events in the Eastern Slovak city Kósice. Instead of visiting the impressive gothic Cathedral of Kósice, the Pope visited the prefab district Lunik IX – where during the seventies the communist state had settled Roma – approximately 6000 of them live there today- under extreme poor conditions, often  without water, electricity and heating. Since 2008 they are actively supported by the catholic Order of the Salesians. The Roma people, being crowded in front of their windows, were enthusiastically greeting the Pope with banners “Papa Francesco. Benvenuto da Noi.” The Pope thanked all those who are engaged in the work of integration, and those who work with the “marginalized.”

In the late afternoon there was a meeting with the young people from Slovakia, in the Lokomotiva Stadium (Kósice) which turned into a passionate dialogue between the Pope and some representatives of the Youth. Some of them wanted to know what the essence of love nowadays is. The Pope emphasized  that love should not be “trivialized”, that it is not part of “today’s throwaway culture” but that “today, being really original and revolutionary means rebelling against the culture of the ephemeral, going beyond shallow instincts and momentary pleasures, and choosing to love with every fibre of your being, for the rest of your life…” They should dream of creating a family, having children and raising them well, spending the in sharing everything with another person.” He underlined that “none of us is ‘standard issue’; instead, we are unique, free and alive, called to make bold and firm decisions to accept the marvelous risk of loving.”

He further gave them the advice, which throughout the trip was used by him like a red thread, to be conscious of their “roots”. “What are your roots? Surely, they are your parents and especially your grand- parents… They prepared the soil in which you have grown. Cultivate your roots, visit your grandparents, it will do you good. Ask them questions, take time to listen to their stories. Today there is the danger of growing up rootless, because we feel we always have to be on the go, to do everything in a hurry. (…) Bombarded by virtual messages we risk losing our real roots. To grow disconnected from life, or to fantasize in a void, is not a good thing; it is a temptation from the evil one.” He underlined that the young should be firmly grounded, but always open to others. He strongly advised the young people not to be “dismayed” or yield to those who will tell you that nothing will ever change. “Once you start believing that, you will soon yield to pessimism. Pessimism makes us sick with bitterness, it ages us from within, and your youth will quickly grow old.”  He ended his apostolic trip with a mass at the Esplanade of the National Shrine (Ŝaŝtin), the Madonna of Sorrows, which as he underlined, is a “model of faith” for the Slovak people: “a faith that involves journeying, inspired by simple and sincere devotion.”

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