BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in Hungary early Sunday at the start of his first big international outing since undergoing intestinal surgery in July. He will celebrate a Mass and meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose right-wing, anti-immigrant policies clash with Francis’ call for countries to welcome refugees.
Francis' arrival at Budapest airport opened his four-day trip primarily to Slovakia with a seven-hour stop Sunday in the Hungarian capital. He is passing through Budapest to celebrate the closing Mass of an international conference on the Eucharist, though he will also meet with Hungarian religious figures and Hungary’s president and prime minister.
Organizers expect as many as 75,000 people at the Mass in Heroes' Square, which is going ahead with few coronavirus restrictions even as Hungary, like the rest of Europe, is battling infections fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.
Despite pleas from the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, congress organizers decided not to require COVID-19 vaccinations, tests, masks or social distancing for attendance. Organizers, however, said they had ordered 30,000 masks to distribute as well as hand sanitizer, and urged all attending to be prudent.
During the flight from Rome, Francis seemed in good form and stayed so long greeting journalists at the back of the plane that an aide had to tell him to get back to his seat because it was time to land.
Francis said he was happy to be resuming foreign trips again after the coronavirus lull and then his own recovery this summer from surgery to remove a 33-centimeter (13-inch) section of his colon. “Bad weeds never die,” he quipped about his recovery, quoting an Argentine dictum.
The Vatican and trip organizers have stressed that Francis has only been invited to Hungary to celebrate the Mass — not make a proper state and pastoral visit as he is doing in Slovakia. But Francis and Orban disagree on a host of issues, top among them migration, and Francis’ limited stay in Budapest could indicate that he didn’t want to give Orban’s government the political boost of hosting a pope for a longer pilgrimage before the general election next spring.
“At the beginning there were a lot who were angry (that Francis wasn’t staying longer), but now I think they understand,” said the Rev. Kornel Fabry, secretary general of the Eucharist conference.
He noted that a majority of Hungarians back Orban’s migration policies, “that we shouldn’t bring the trouble into Europe but should help out where the trouble is.”
Orban has frequently depicted his government as a defender of Christian civilization in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries. Francis has expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees and criticized what he called “national populism” advanced by governments like Hungary’s. He has urged governments to welcome and integrate as many migrants as they can.
About 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Roman Catholic in a 2011 census, while 13% declared themselves to be Protestant, either Lutheran or Calvinist, a Protestant branch with which Orban is affiliated.
Still, religious commitment in Hungary lags behind many of its neighbors. According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 14% of Hungarians said religion was an important part of their lives, and 17% said they attend religious services at least monthly.
Despite that, registered churches have been major beneficiaries of state support under Orban since he returned to power in 2010. According to estimates by business website G7, contributions to churches from Hungary’s central budget rose from around $117 million in 2009 to more than $588 million in 2016.
Additionally, around 3,000 places of worship have been built or restored using public funds since 2010, part of an effort by Orban’s government to advance what he calls “Christian democracy,” an alternative to liberal governance of which he is a frequent critic.
Orban has been under fire for recent policies seen as targeting the rights of LGBT people, including a law passed in June forbidding the depiction of homosexuality or sex reassignment in media consumed by minors. The European Union's executive branch launched two separate legal proceedings against Hungary’s government in July over what it called infringements on LGBT rights. The government says the measures, which were attached to a law that allows tougher penalties for pedophilia, seek only to protect children.
Critics, though, have compared the legislation to Russia’s gay propaganda law of 2013, saying it wrongly conflates homosexuality with pedophilia as part of a campaign ploy to mobilize conservative voters before elections.
The Roman Catholic Church, which has a dreadful record on protecting children from priestly predators, holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and Francis recently authorized a statement saying priests can't bless same-sex unions.
But he has also called for the church to accompany the LGBT community and backed civil unions when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires as an alternative to gay marriage. He is seen as being much more welcoming of gays than his predecessors.
As a result, some gay Catholics were welcoming Francis’ visit to Hungary, however brief, in hopes he might issue a message of encouragement.
“Pope Francis has been extremely accepting of them, and I trust that for those who may still have some prejudices or reservations about LGBTQ people and other minorities, it will open their hearts a little bit and make them more accepting,” said Csaba Hegedus, a member of Hungary’s LGBT community and a practicing Catholic who planned to attend the pope’s Mass.