Ambassador Habsburg: Pope Francis comes 'to fire up the faith' in Hungary

In an interview with Vatican News, Ambassador Eduard Habsburg of Hungary to the Holy See looks ahead to Pope Francis' Apostolic Visit to Hungary this month, saying the Holy Father returns among friends and comes 'to fire up the faith' of the Christian European country on the border with Ukraine, which eagerly anticipates the Pope's arrival.

Apr 04, 2023

Pope Francis and Ambassador Eduard Habsburg in January 2023

By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Pope Francis visits Hungary to return among friends and, to fire up the faith of the Hungarian people.

In an interview with Vatican News - Vatican Radio ahead of the Pope's Apostolic Journey, 28-30 April, Ambassador Eduard Habsburg of Hungary to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, made this observation, as he discussed the European country's great desire to welcome Pope Francis, once again, into Hungarian territory, later this month, even now as the war in Ukraine looms at the border.

He clarifies that this is the third moment that the Holy Father has brought his closeness to Hungarians, shares personal anecdotes, addresses the country's views on migration and values, and even invites the Holy Father to enjoy some Tokaji wine.

Hungary has had the rare privilege of receiving Pope Francis twice in a two-year period. We know that the first time the Holy Father was visiting around the international Eucharistic Congress, but the Pope is now making this Apostolic ourney. Why is this visit so significant? Why is it important? Why is he returning?

One thing that you learn as a diplomat to the Holy See is to never try to guess why the Pope does something. And I wouldn't say it on record. In fact, I have to clarify that this will be the third time the Pope meets Hungarians. The Pope himself on his flight back from Hungary in September 2021, said that was his second time meeting the Hungarians, as he had met with the Hungarian community during his 2019 visit in Romania in Csíksomlyó in Transylvania, where despite rain and wind, he met almost 100,000 Hungarians. The Pope pointed that out to us too. I see that the Pope simply likes the Hungarians. He told me personally when I met him the first time, that his experience of Hungarians was positive. I asked, 'So how did you how did you get to know Hungary?' And he said, 'I know everything about Hungary.' And I said, 'Why, have you been there?' 'No, no.'

“But the Pope had regularly looked after nuns of a Mary Ward monastery in Buenos Aires, and there was a group of nuns who had fled in 1956 from Hungary. He told me, 'they told me everything I need to know about Hungary.'”

I asked him what he knew about Hungary, and he said, 'The Hungarians are good, upright and courageous people.' I think the Pope has a good attitude towards Hungary to begin with, and that the experience of the Eucharistic Congress 2021 was a positive one. He was there only for seven hours, but made every minute count. A Swiss guard that ran beside the papal car when he arrived in Budapest, had told me, that he was moved by seeing such a great crowd lined up, so enthusiastic about Pope Francis. I think the Pope saw it, too, and felt that the Hungarians really appreciate and enjoyed this visit. And so, he's decided to come a second time. We are incredibly thankful. It's very significant for us.

What type of religiosity will Pope Francis find in Hungary? We know that about 60% of the population is Catholic. How would you describe the Christianity that the Holy Father will find?

When you ask a Hungarian a question, he will always begin with history. I will have to go back and say Hungary is a Catholic country. One thousand years ago, our first king, King Stephen, decided to throw in his lot with Rome. And in fact, he built a pilgrims home for Hungarian pilgrims shortly after the year 1000, just beside Saint Peter's Basilica, where the canonica is now. So we have a long, long history of Christian faith in our country. We are a strongly Christian country that went through very difficult times In the 16th and 17th century. We were occupied by the Ottomans. Large parts of Hungary were Muslim. Afterwards, we had the Hungarians occupied by the Habsburgs. After that, there was the occupation by the communist regime.

“What I think is important to understand is, that, the fact that we today have a religious country, a country full of Christianity, is a miracle.”

We got through communist times because of many, many good Hungarian Christians living their faith. Because of the martyrs, such as, faith is still present in Hungary and alive today. I also want to say that the visit of Pope Francis at the Eucharistic Congress really made a huge difference. I don't know whether you've seen the procession in the streets of Budapest with 300,000 people following the Blessed Sacrament. The Eucharistic Congress was something like a booster for the Hungarian faith. But if you come to Hungary, you will see a country where Christian faith is visible.

“We have a country that's not afraid of showing religion and faith in the public square. We have a clear separation between Church and State as it is always normal nowadays, but Church and State work together.”

The Hungarian constitution begins with the word 'God.' We begin our Constitution with the first words of our anthem, which is 'God bless the Hungarian.' This is a clear sign that faith defines Hungary. This Christian identity is very visible...

Our Constitution says that the churches and the religious communities work together with the state for the good of society. That's a very clear yes. But I would go further and say in my job as Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See, I find lots of interest in the entire government because on nearly all the levels from our Calvinist devout Prime Minister, via our Calvinist devout President, Katalin Novak, but down to State Secretaries and on all levels, you find people for whom Christian faith is important. Therefore, you find interest for what's going on around the Holy See all the time. On all my trips home, people always ask me, What did the Pope say? What's going on in Rome? What's going on in the world Church? You will find a strongly Christian country when you go there.

Enthusiasm and readiness for this visit is even bigger than before. Friends in Hungary tell me there's a lot of conferences, interview requests, and the population is preparing. They realize the Pope is coming for three days to their capital and Hungarians will come from all over Hungary and the neighbouring countries to meet with the Pope. I see lots of enthusiasm, and expect a huge turnout for the final Mass, of course, on Sunday, but also for the event with the with the youth in the stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The Pope will also be meeting with refugees during those days. The Pope has been very vocal about the need to welcome migrants and those forced to flee. In the backdrop of this papal visit, there's the war going on in Ukraine, and we know that some million Ukrainians have passed through Hungary. A fraction have stayed. There's been a large commitment to help those suffering. Could you tell us more about that?

We are a neighboring country of Ukraine. We have a minority of about 150,000 Hungarians living just across the border in Ukraine. So we really feel what is going on there. And Hungary has from the beginning opened its arms for refugees from Ukraine. As you said, we have we have taken in about 1 million refugees that have arrived through our help organizations on the border. Most of those wanted to continue to other places, but those who wished to remain were put into places of work, were put into schools where except I would say it's about 30,000 right now that that remained. And quite a group of these people will be present when Pope Francis will be at Saint Elizabeth's church on Saturday morning. We like to say that this is the greatest humanitarian help initiative that Hungary has ever done in its history so far. It's been very shaping for us. We were very thankful to see that many, many, many Hungarians were ready to help in this situation. And we will continue to do so as long as it's necessary.

I think Pope Francis is also aware that we are very active in many countries of the Middle East, in Africa and other countries to make it possible that people don't have to go on the long trip of migration, and also illegal migration.

You know that Cardinal [Michael] Czerny [Prefect of the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development] is preparing a document on the right to stay, not only to migrate, but to stay. Hungary has very strongly tried to help people who want to remain in countries, rather than them having to embark on terrible, terrible trips, and making them vulnerable to human trafficking. The Pope is aware of that. I remember a meeting where I made him meet young students that Hungary is taking for several years to help them study in Hungary and to go back then to their countries of origin to help to build up their communities, and the Pope told me, thank you for showing me that Hungary is doing this, and helping people to remain. The Pope told me that a few years ago. The Pope is aware that Hungary is playing its part in helping to alleviate the migration situation. We just have a problem with illegal migration, and we're doing what we can on all the other fronts.

And the rich history of Hungary, which you have already explained before, how would you say that this impacts the current affairs in Hungary's future?

I would say Hungary was first for a while, part of the Ottoman Empire. Then it was a part of the Habsburg Empire. Then it became a part of the Eastern Bloc. And when finally Hungary was a sovereign state after 1989, and I would say there's a tendency in Hungarians to get nervous when people from outside of Hungary try to tell us how to manage our affairs. Hungary has a clear identity, very clear ideas about values and other things, and they will sometimes react nervously if people, institutions from outside NGOs. Sometimes Brussels tries to tell us how to do things in Hungary. This sometimes leads to tensions within international organisms, sometimes within the European Union. But that is, it's also a positive sign. Hungary has clear ideas. A clear identity is ready to stand up for our ideas.

And at the same time, one has to know that the enthusiasm for the European Union is nowhere higher than in Hungary and in Poland. If you make polls nowadays, the population loves the European idea, loves the European Union, and so do we. The future of Europe is within the European Union, but sometimes we feel that if our values would be respected even a bit more, it would be even more wonderful.

As an ambassador on Twitter, I see that Hungary is being seen as a symbol for Christian values, traditional values of family all over the world. I've got many, many contacts with people from all over the world writing me direct messages on Twitter saying Hungary is a hope. I think Hungary can play a role as an important voice in today's discourse, especially on values, family, traditional values.

Ambassador, what are your personal hopes and expectations for this Apostolic Journey? What would you like to see come from it?

I would like the wonderful history of friendship between Pope Francis and the Hungarian people to continue. I want this to be a wonderful, wonderful encounter, a celebration of three days. I want Pope Francis to fire up the faith in Hungary even more, as he did the last time he came. And I would wish him to be able to enjoy a good glass of Tokaji at some point during his visit.

“When I met him for the first time, he told me, I know what the most sacred symbol of Hungary is.' And I said, "What is it?," expecting him to say, the crown of Saint Stephen. And he said, "the Tokaji wine!" So I hope Pope Francis will also enjoy the Hungarian side of Hungary while he stays in Hungary.”--Vatican News

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