An overview of the Church in Hungary

As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his Apostolic Journey to Hungary, we offer an overview of the Hungarian Church.

Apr 27, 2023

The logo of Pope Francis' Apostolic Journey to Hungary

By Lisa Zengarini
The history of the Church in Hungary is closely linked to that of the Hungarian state.

St. Stephen, the founder of the Church in Hungary
It’s founder, St. Stephen I (István) of the Magyar Árpád dynasty, was consecrated as the first King of Hungary in year 1000, after converting to Christianity. He was canonized by Pope Gregory VII, together with his son, Emeric, and Bishop Gerard of Csanád, in 1083, and is the patron saint of the country.

Also known as the "Apostolic King", he not only reorganized the political structures of the Magyar nomadic people (who had migrated from Asia to the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century)  uniting their 39 counties in a single kingdom, but also its religious life, laying the foundations of a solid Christian national identity.

Under his reign churches and monasteries were erected, including the famous Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin in Pannonhalma and ten dioceses were created, including Strigonium/Esztergom (50 kilometers north of Budapest), seat of the Archbishop and Primate of Hungary.

After St. Stephen’s death the Hungarian kingdom was involved in the "War of the Investitures" between the Empire and the Papacy, taking the side of the latter. In this period State and Church structures consolidated and under the reign of Louis the Great, in the 14th century, other new dioceses were erected: Nagyvárad (now Diocese of Nitra in Slovakia) Csanád and Nagyszeben (now Diocese of Sibiu, in Romania).

During the Reformation, the majority of Magyars converted to Protestantism, but many returned to Catholicism after Hungary was definitely annexed to the Habsburg Empire in the 17th century, thanks to the Catholic missionaries operating in the Hungarian territories.

The protagonist of the Counter-Reformation in the country was the Jesuit cardinal Péter Pázmány (1570-1637) of Strigonium/Esztergom, founder of  the University of Nagyszombat (now Trnava, in Slovakia), the first Hungarian Catholic university.

In the 18th century, the Empress Mary Theresa and her son Joseph II of Austria expelled several religious orders from the territories of the Austrian Empire, including Hungary.

In 1920, two years after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918), the Holy See and independent Hungary, led by the Regent Miklós Horthy, established diplomatic relations that lasted until the Soviet occupation in 1945. However they did not sign a Concordat, but only a "Treaty of Understanding" (1927) regulating the appointment of bishops and of the military ordinary.

The Hungarian Church under the Communist regime
The Soviet occupation at the end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the persecutions against the Church in Hungary as in all the Warsaw Pact countries. Many Catholic clerics were imprisoned or killed (several of whom were raised to the altars after 1989), the Church was expropriated, its schools nationalized (1948), its religious orders dissolved (1950) and, in 1957, a measure made it impossible for the Holy See to appoint bishops for the Hungarian dioceses. The measure was laterb suppressed by an agreement signed on 15 September 1964 in Budapest, which formally recognized the Vatican’s prerogative in appointing bishops, while still reserving the government’s right to refuse its consent.

A leading figure in the resistance to the Communist regime was the Primate of Hungary Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892-1975), who was declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2019. Mindszenty, who had been created a Cardinal in 1946 by Pius XII, the year after his appointment as Archbishop of Esztergom, was arrested in 1948, tortured and convicted, after a farce trial, of "high treason, espionage and currency trafficking". Released during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, after eight years in prison, he found political asylum in the American Embassy in Budapest, and for many years refused the invitation to seek refuge in the Vatican. He moved there only in 1971, later settling in Vienna where he died in 1975. In 1991 his remains were moved from Mariazell, in Austria, to Esztergom, to be buried in the crypt of the Basilica. On the occasion of his visit to his tomb in 1991, St. John Paul II said Mindszenty left  a “radiant testimony of fidelity to Christ and is Church and of love for one's country.” 

On 12 February 2019 Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of Cardinal Mindszenty and therefore declared him Venerable.

The Hungarian Church after 1989
The end of the Communist regime allowed the Church in Hungary to resume its activities with no restrictions, in force of the new Law on religious freedom passed in 1990. On 9 February of that year, the Hungarian government resumed diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

In the following years, it signed two further important accords: the Agreement on religious assistance to the Armed Forces and the Border Police (January 10, 1994)  and, in 1997, the Agreement on the financing of public service and other particular religious activities undertaken in Hungary by the Catholic Church and on some issues of property ownership  (the latter was amended in 2013 to adapt to the new Hungarian Constitution of 2011). In 1991 the Parliament of Budapest also voted the law on the restitution of ecclesiastical property confiscated after the war and, the following year, the proposal on State funding of the Churches.

Popes' visits
It was in this changing context that Pope St. John Paul II undertook his two Apostolic Journeys to Hungary on 16-20 August 1991  and on 6-7 September 1996  . The Polish Pope also presided over the first beatification of a Hungarian martyr after the fall of Communist regime: that of the Bishop Vilmos Apor, killed by Soviet soldiers on Good Friday 1945 (April 2). Other martyrs were to be beatified in the following years.

Among the salient events of the Magyar Church during the first decade of the post-Communist era are the celebrations of the Hungarian Millennium, in 2000-2001 to commemorate the Baptism of Hungary by St. Stephen, on the occasion of which Pope John Paul II had sent an Apostolic Letter to the Hungarian Catholics (July 25, 2001).

The second Pope to visit the country was Pope Francis, from 12 to 15 September 2021, on the occasion of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest.

The end of the Communist regime has marked the rebirth of the Church in Hungary which numbers today some 6 million baptized, equal to 61 percent of its nearly 10 million population, and which is very active in various fields, including education.

Over the past decades, many religious orders have gradually returned: today there are more than one hundred (compared to the four that survived during the Communist era).  Another positive sign for the Church is the vitality of lay movements.

The Hungarian Church can also rely on various Catholic media, including the historic agency "Magyar Kurir", the weekly "Új Ember" and the broadcasters "Magyar Katolikus Rádió", "Szent István Rádió" of Eger and "Radio Maria".

Upholding the traditional family and the Christian identity of Hungary
Among the pastoral challenges of greater concern for the Church in Hungary is the ongoing secularization of the Hungarian society, affecting in particular the family, as highlighted by late Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of the ad limina visit of the Hungarian bishops in 2008. 

This is shown by the decrease in the number of marriages, the increase in divorces, the decline in births and the widespread practice of abortion (which has been legal since 1956).

Upholding the traditional family is one of the main pastoral focuses of the Hungarian Church which has fought strenuously against initiatives aimed at changing its legal status in the country, as it did in 2009 for the new law recognizing same-sex unions and more recently against gender ideology.

Bishops have intervened several times to reaffirm the Christian roots of European and western civilization and the Christian identity of Hungary threatened by what they have termed as "neo-paganism", “hedonism” and as "radical liberal ideas" trying to impose "the dictatorship of relativism" in the country, as stated in a Pastoral Letter released in 2009.

Supporting persecuted Christians and welcoming Ukrainian refugeesThe Hungarian bishops’ commitment to ecumenical dialogue in the country and to reconciliation with Churches of neighboring countries, in particular Slovakia and Romania (where there are still strong Hungarian minorities), to overcome historical misunderstandings fits in the same perspective, as does the Church’s generous support to persecuted Christians in the world, especially in the Middle East. Over the past years the Hungarian Church has promoted several initiatives for Christian communities in war-torn Syria, and has also provided relief in refugee camps in the region. Moreover, it has been generously supporting the thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country after the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022.

Pastoral concern for the marginalized and Roma people
Another matter of pastoral concern is the fight against poverty and social exclusion. Particularly noteworthy in this context is the important commitment for the otherwise discriminated Roma communities who represent almost 10% of the country's population. For many years the local Church has been at the forefront in promoting initiatives for their integration and their schooling.  In recent years it has produced the first complete translation of the Bible and of the Ordinary of the Mass into Lovari (Roman), the most spoken language of the Roma people.

Solidarity towards the weakest and friendship between peoples were the focus themes of the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in 2021, which had as its motto a verse from Psalm 87 "All my springs are in you", underscoring that the true meaning of the Eucharist is the opening of the heart and the acceptance of the other.--Vatican News

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