A tale of two eucharistic congresses in Hungary

As Pope Francis prepares to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, the challenges facing the world the last time the event was held in Hungary still resonate today.

Sep 11, 2021

An illuminated St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, is seen at night March 3, 2016. (CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)


By Junno Arocho Esteves
As Pope Francis prepares to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, the challenges facing the world the last time the event was held in Hungary still resonate today.

Issues such as war, immigration and unity among Catholics may overshadow the congress. Yet, those same issues were also prevalent at the 34th International Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest more than 80 years ago.

Arriving in Budapest Sept. 12, the pope will stay for roughly seven hours, during which he will meet with Hungarian President János Áder and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The pope will also meet with the country’s bishops, representatives of other Christians churches and Jewish communities in Hungary. He will then celebrate the congress’ closing Mass before flying to neighboring Slovakia for a three-day visit.

While some have speculated that the brief visit was due to the pope’s opposition to Orbán’s stance against immigration, Hungarian Father Kornél Fábry, secretary-general of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, downplayed those suspicions.

“There were many who asked, ‘Why is the pope coming for a few hours and not longer?’ We had to explain to them that if, for example, I’m invited to dinner, I cannot sleep there, I’m only invited for dinner,” Father Fábry told journalists at an online media meeting Sept. 3.

“The pope was invited to the eucharistic congress and he accepted this invitation. I am sure that had we invited him to stay longer, he would have stayed for more days,” he added.

Pope Francis also shut down rumors of a showdown between him and Orbán, saying he preferred “not to go around with a script” and that when he is in front of someone, “I look him in the eyes and let things come out.”

“It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, (to think about) those potential future situations; that doesn’t help me,” the pope told COPE, the radio station owned by the Spanish bishops’ conference, in an interview broadcast Sept. 1.

“I like the concrete. Thinking about potential future situations tangles you, it is not good for you,” he said.

While his position on immigration is firmly at odds with Orbán’s worldview, Pope Francis may find himself at odds with Hungarian Catholics as well.

When asked if Catholics in Hungary agree with Orbán’s immigration stance, Father Fábry said that what the Hungarian prime minister says “is the same thing the majority of Hungarians say.”

“We should not bring troubles into Europe, but instead we should help where there is trouble,” he said, adding that the Hungarian government “has been the state that has helped the most” in providing humanitarian aid in war-torn countries, such as Syria.

“We must help people to be able to live with dignity, in peace and in comfort in their own country,” he added.

In 1938, in what was the last International Eucharistic Congress before World War II, tensions were already at an all-time high, with the looming threat of the Nazi regime hanging in the air.

That same year, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened representatives from more than 30 countries in Évian, France, to address the growing immigration crisis as thousands of Jews escaped the Third Reich’s persecution.

However, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, the conference ultimately failed as nearly every country present, except the Dominican Republic, was unwilling to welcome Jewish migrants into their territories.

The West’s attempt to address the immigration crisis while refusing to welcome Jewish migrants drew ridicule from Adolf Hitler, who labeled Jewish citizens as “criminals” that he was willing to place “at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships” if nations were willing to accept them.

Much like in 1938, a similar attitude and lack of commitment can be seen among some European leaders today who, like their predecessors, are hesitant to welcome migrants escaping war, particularly from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover in August.

The Nazi regime’s menacing presence also cast a shadow over the 1938 congress, especially after it prohibited German Catholics from attending the event in Hungary.

At the congress’ opening Mass, Cardinal Jusztinián Gyorgy Serédi of Esztergom-Budapest, an outspoken critic of the Third Reich and its treatment of the Jewish people, pondered whether the future would be different if Catholics were truly united against the prevailing ideology.

“How different would be the fate of humanity … if the solidarity of all Catholics of the world could really be achieved,” Cardinal Serédi said.

Nevertheless, just as it hoped to accomplish in 1938, the International Eucharistic Congress aims to show that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can be a source of unity and bring people of goodwill together, Father Fábry said.

“We have two goals with this congress,” Father Fábry said. “The first is to strengthen Catholics in their faith in the Eucharist; the other goal is to evangelize.”

Pope Francis also believes in the unifying power of the Eucharist. In his 2017 homily on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the pope said the Eucharist is a tangible reminder of God’s love that heals Christians from the urge “to greedily hoard things for ourselves, to foment discord and criticism.”

“In experiencing this Eucharist, let us adore and thank the Lord for this greatest of gifts: the living memorial of his love that makes us one body and leads us to unity,” he said.

Nevertheless, the portents of the 1938 International Eucharistic Congress still linger today in a time when Europe’s ability to overcome differences and help the marginalized is being tested once again.--CNS

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