In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Primate of Hungary, spoke about the “great joy” he feels for Pope Francis’ upcoming Apostolic Journey to the nation from 28 to 30 April, while recognizing the significance of the visit taking place with the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
Cardinal Péter Erdő expressed his delight about the Holy Father’s upcoming Journey to the Eastern European country, the Pope’s 41st Apostolic Journey abroad and shared his personal reaction to, and his expectations, for the Journey, also as it takes place with the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
He also expressed why Pope Francis’ return to Hungarian territory is significant, and shed light on the program itself, including the Holy Father’s encounter planned with children.
During his three-day journey, the Pope will visit with refugees and poor people, as well as with children of the Blessed László Batthyány-Strattmann Institute. As is customary, the Holy Father will address authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps; young people; bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers; and representatives of the academic and cultural world.
More than half of Hungarians are Christian, and at least 37 percent of the population identify as Catholic.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, nearly 1 million Ukrainian nationals have travelled through Hungary as refugees, according to local sources.
The Holy Father had made a brief stop in the country’s capital of Budapest to celebrate Mass for the closure of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress on 12 September 2021, on his way to Slovakia.
Pope Francis had also shown his closeness to the Hungarian faithful during his visit to Romania, when he celebrated Mass at the popular Hungarian pilgrimage site of Csíksomlyó (Șumuleu Ciuc) in Romania’s Transylvania region. Transylvania had once been part of Hungary, but became Romanian territory in 1920. Ethnic Hungarians in Romania total more than one million people.
Your Eminence, how do you comment on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Hungary and what are your expectations for this trip?
With great joy we received the news of the Holy Father’s visit to Hungary. We invited him as the Hungarian Church, as the Church of Budapest, and we wanted to welcome him for a pastoral visit. Last time, when he visited our city to participate in the closing Mass of the World Eucharistic Congress (September 2021, ed.), it was a lightning visit. Instead, a pastoral visit, a meeting with the community of the faithful, was something that had been desired for many years. So it is an immense joy.
As you mentioned, this is not the first time the Holy Father has come to Hungary. Why is his return to the country important now?
Precisely because of the very fact of a meeting with the Hungarian faithful. The event of 2021 was an international event: pilgrims, bishops, priests, faithful were present from 83 countries. This time, however, Francis is addressing the Hungarians, our people, our local Church. And this gives us great honour and joy.
In the background of this trip, there is the war in Ukraine. Hungary helped so many Ukrainian refugees during this time of the invasion. How does this theme come back into the trip?
The news of the war that broke out a year ago and went on all this year means a lot of sadness for us. Sadness for the very fact of the war, because we have been praying for peace every day for a year, even in different communities. We also regularly hold peace processions and have consecrated Ukraine and Russia to Our Lady, as the Holy Father had invited us to do. We did this act in St Stephen’s Basilica in front of her relic, because St Stephen a thousand years ago was the first who, according to history, offered an entire country to Our Lady. And so we felt a spiritual closeness to the two peoples. And what do we do? First of all we have to face the great challenge of refugees. We are a country of less than ten million inhabitants and in the last year more than one and a half million refugees have arrived from Ukraine. Certainly not all of them wanted to stay in Hungary, but 10-15% of the refugees stayed. So the first challenge was humanitarian aid. We received the refugees both at the border and in Budapest, through the national Caritas, the diocesan Caritas and the charity groups of the individual parishes. Then there were the Knights of Malta who did so much for those who arrived.
And the faithful were rather involved in this assistance?
Then we had to organise the spontaneous help offered by the faithful, the hospitality of certain parishes and ecclesial institutions as well as private individuals. We also saw that there are many women and children who need schools, teaching. We could also organise this in Catholic schools. There were teachers who knew Russian, others among the refugees who spoke Ukrainian. And so we tried to organise the teaching according to the age of the groups of children. There were also Hungarian-speaking refugees from the area bordering Hungary, so integration was easier for them. But we also try to integrate the others, offering them a job, a flat that they can use for a longer period of time... So I think it is a challenge that continues to be very great, but one that helps us to become aware of our Christian vocation.
Looking at the programme released by the Holy See Press Office, one sees a meeting with children. Can you tell us more?
For several decades there has been an ecclesiastical institute in Budapest that takes in blind and disabled children. So they need a lot of affection and help from the entire Catholic community. This institute will be visited in April by the Pope who always shows solidarity and tenderness towards these children.
By Deborah Castellano Lubov