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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Meeting Hungary’s Strongman, Pope Treads a Fine Line With an Embattled Leader


BUDAPEST — Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban positions himself as a defender of Christian Europe against migrants and multiculturalism. After years of undermining democratic institutions, the far-right strongman has strengthened ties with Catholic traditionalists in Europe and the United States in preparation for upcoming elections in Catholic-majority Hungary.

Mr. Orban will receive a visit from Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic world, when he comes to town to celebrate Mass on Sunday. Allies of Mr. Orban, who is increasingly isolated and receives few high-profile visits from Western leaders, have desperately sought face time with the pontiff, and the Vatican has confirmed a private courtesy meeting before the Mass.

But, according to people close to Francis, Mr. Orban may get more than he bargained for when he meets with perhaps the world’s leading advocate for migrants and a clear voice against creeping authoritarianism and nationalism in Europe.

When asked what he expected to say to Mr. Orban, Francis said in an interview with Spanish radio network COPE last month, “One of my ways is not to go around with a script.” “When I’m in front of someone, I look him in the eyes and let things flow.”

Whether or not Francis reads Mr. Orban the riot act on his first trip to Hungary — and his first trip abroad since undergoing major colon surgery in July — the meeting between two leaders with diametrically opposed visions for Europe has already sparked intrigue, drama, and name calling.

Francis had intended to spend only a few hours in Budapest before travelling for three days to neighbouring Slovakia, which is led by a young, pro-environment woman.

Hungary’s top clerics and government officials lobbied the Vatican for more time, while Mr. Orban’s allies in the news media, where his party wields considerable power, applied less polite pressure, excoriating Francis for insulting Hungary and “behaving in an anti-Christian manner,” as well as “causing extraordinary damage to the Christian world.”

The Vatican attempted to defuse the situation by refuting the notion, first floated by Francis and later echoed by conservative Catholic media outlets, that a meeting with Mr. Orban was ever in doubt. According to the Vatican, the pope’s visit to Hungary was a layover because it was spiritual in nature, with the pope there to preside over the final Mass of a weeklong Catholic Congress.

The difference in length between Francis’ trips to Hungary and Slovakia, however, may not have been an accident, according to Francis’ allies.

“You can interpret the fact that he is not making a long visit,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and Francis confidant who will accompany him on his trip. “This is a brief visit. This could also be significant.”

Father Spadaro said he had no idea what Francis would say to Mr. Orban, but he expected the real message about his government’s policies to come after their private meeting, when the pope addresses about 35 Hungarian bishops.

“The confrontation with the country will occur when he speaks to its bishops,” Father Spadaro predicted, adding that he would most likely address the context and government within which his bishops had to operate. “That is the appropriate location for it.”

After years of surging populism, when Mr. Orban and other nationalists appeared to be on the rise and Francis appeared to be in the political wilderness, the pope now has prominent allies in the United States and throughout Europe on issues such as climate change.

Many of Hungary’s bishops are torn between the Pope, who wants his priests to be on the front lines helping migrants and the poor, and the Orban government, which lavishes the church with millions of dollars in subsidies for restorations and schools; enacts what the government calls pro-family “Christian” policies; and establishes offices to protect persecuted Christians in far-off lands.

“The primary issue is that the church’s independence is being jeopardised by the government’s large funding,” said Bishop Miklos Beer, one of Hungary’s few bishops willing to criticise Mr. Orban. “There is church silence on the issue of migration, and this is the issue where we need to represent what the pope says.”

That lack of independence, according to Bishop Beer, was dangerous because it potentially tied the fate of the Hungarian church, as well as its financial assistance, to Mr. Orban’s electoral success. Mr. Orban, he said, was perilously wrapping himself in Christian imagery, reaching out to Catholic traditionalists, many of whom oppose Francis, and seeking to meet the pope — all in order to win the April election.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about how he hopes to protect his voter base,” said Bishop Beer.

There is also no doubt about how Mr. Orban’s voter base in the church is defending the prime minister.

One of the event’s organisers, the Rev. Kornel Fabry, said on Friday at the headquarters of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, which is being held in Budapest, that he did not believe Mr. Orban and Francis were “so far apart.” He argued that Francis would agree with Mr. Orban on valuing family and country over outsiders. (Francis has essentially stated the inverse, stating that caring for migrants and the poor is as holy as opposing abortion.)

Father Fabry said of Mr. Orban’s government, “They want to protect Christian values.” He defended Mr. Orban against accusations of demagogy and dictatorship, claiming that there were “more and more Orban followers” in Europe, despite the fact that his allies in Italy and Germany were losing ground.

The government’s talking points have also filtered down to the city’s priests.

“It’s not just about opening doors to the outside, but also about how we can strengthen the church from within,” said Rev. Kazmer Karpati, a priest at a Franciscan church in central Budapest, who said his order had benefited from state handouts. He was pleased that Mr. Orban was meeting with the Pope so that “the two could better understand each other.”

Some Hungarian clerics worked tirelessly to ensure that the meeting took place and that Pope Francis stayed as long as possible.

When asked about his role in extending the pope’s visit so Francis could meet local officials, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Hungary’s most powerful prelate, said in an email that “the fact that the Holy Father, despite his brief time, could meet representatives from the political world,” as well as leaders of other faiths, is a “great sign of his friendship.”

Msgr. Norbert Nemeth, an adviser to the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See, stated that he worked with the Vatican to plan the pope’s visit.

“The Hungarian bishops wanted him to stay longer, for the afternoon and even the next day,” said Monsignor Nemeth, who insisted that a meeting with Mr. Orban was always planned because the pope “could not avoid these protocol meetings.” He added that Francis “is not meeting someone who does not accept Christian values.”

“On the contrary,” said Monsignor Nemeth, “this government is truly Christian and supports the church in Hungary.”

Nonetheless, he admitted that “the first programme had other encounters, other places of meeting.”

He did, however, say that the Vatican instructed the Hungarians to keep the pope’s visit focused on the Square of the Heroes, where Sunday’s Mass is scheduled.

“We wanted to help the Holy Father in this way because he is elderly and recently underwent surgery,” Monsignor Nemeth explained.

Following a seven-hour layover in Budapest, Francis will spend the next three days on planes and in motorcades traversing much of Slovakia in an exhausting schedule of speeches and meetings. “So we sacrificed his trip a little,” Monsignor Nemeth explained, “according to the Holy See’s wishes.”

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