Pope Francis has met Hungary’s anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orban on a whistlestop trip to the country in which he called for greater openness, before heading for a four-day tour of Slovakia.
During the visit to Hungary on Sunday that lasted just seven hours, the pope had urged tens of thousands thronging the vast Heroes’ Square in Budapest that he wanted them to be “grounded and open, rooted and considerate”.
The head of 1.3 billion Catholics has often urged help for the marginalised and those of all religions fleeing war and poverty.
Thousands crowded a nearby main boulevard, along which screens and loudspeakers had been set up, while others watched from nearby balconies and other buildings.
“The pope never says anything without reason. His words are well chosen and carry a subtle message,” said Zsuzsanna Pusztai, 75.
Hungary is faithful to its roots, but the pope noted that “the cross also invites us to spread our arms and not to entrench ourselves,” he said as he celebrated the concluding mass of the International Eucharistic Congress.
Francis met Orban and other senior politicians.
“I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish,” Orban posted on his Facebook page, along with a photo of the two shaking hands.
Tomorrow I begin my #ApostolicJourney to Budapest and Slovakia. I ask everyone to accompany me in prayer, and I entrust this visit to the intercession of so many heroic confessors of the faith, who, amid hostility and persecution, bore witness to the Gospel in those places.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 11, 2021
As a present, Orban gave the pontiff a copy of a letter written by King Bela IV to Pope Innocent IV in 1250 asking for help against Mongol warriors who threatened Christian Hungary.
The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial”, saying they discussed environmental protection and the promotion of the family among other topics.
There has been no love lost between Orban supporters and the Catholic leader. Pro-Orban media and political figures have called Francis “anti-Christian” for his pro-refugee sentiments.
Earlier, Francis told Hungarian bishops that various ethnic and religious groups had “transformed this country into a multicultural environment”, presenting a “great opportunity”.
In contrast, Orban’s signature attacks against migration have included border fences and detention camps for asylum seekers.
Once he reached Slovakia after his visit to Hungary, the pope said a greater sense of community was needed in Europe and less division.
“It is hard to expect Europe to be increasingly influenced and enriched by the Gospel if we … are not yet fully united and are unconcerned for one another,” he said.
He said it was difficult to call for a Europe that is more influenced by faith without taking into account the fact that people in the region are still divided.
It is the first time a pope has visited Slovakia in 18 years and he has a packed itinerary ahead.
Alongside the official appointments, Pope Francis also plans to visit a housing estate in Kosice that is home to thousands of Roma people who are living there despite difficult conditions. He is also due to stop in Presov and the small town of Sastin-Straze.