As Pope Francis prepares for his upcoming visit to Hungary, many are curious about why he has chosen this country. In an exclusive interview with the Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Habsburg, he sheds light on the strong Christian faith and coexistence of different Christian churches in Hungary. With a vibrant faith and a thriving Jewish community, religion and faith are everyday topics in Hungary. Habsburg also reveals that Vatican affairs are of great interest to everyone in Hungary, regardless of their religious background. With the Pope's visit, Habsburg believes that the world will see how much the Pope appreciates Hungary and their shared desire for peace. The visit will also highlight Hungary's humanitarian work in accepting and supporting refugees. With Hungarians from all over the country expected to meet the Pope, Habsburg believes that the visit will be a joyful and cordial meeting between Hungarians and the Pope.
Why is Pope Francis coming to Hungary now?
As a diplomat to the Holy See, I have learned never to question or try to guess why Pope Francis does something. He's a Jesuit, so he undoubtedly has his reasons.
As a Hungarian, I would like to believe that the Pope likes our people, and I have some evidence to support this belief. When I met him for the first time, he told me he knew everything about Hungary. I asked him how he knew so much, and he recounted a story about a group of Hungarian nuns who lived in a monastery in Buenos Aires. He learned all he needed to know about Hungary while eating with them, hearing their confessions, and saying Mass.
Curious, I asked him what he had learned about Hungarians, to which he replied that we are upright, courageous, and good people. This exchange leads me to believe that Pope Francis has a positive impression of Hungary. Furthermore, I believe he enjoyed his visit to the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in 2021 and that the Hungarians were enthusiastic about his presence.
As a diplomat, I am also aware of the many topics we have in common. The Pope is undoubtedly familiar with our activities supporting persecuted Christians worldwide. Our "Open Hospitals" project, which we carried out with Cardinal Zenari, the nuncio in Syria, received significant support from Hungary. Thus, the Holy See is well-informed about our efforts to help persecuted Christians worldwide.
If I could stop you there, Hungary has its own state department, the Secretary of State, focusing on persecuted Christians. Tell me more.
"Yes, you know, we're a small country with not even 10 million inhabitants, and for such a small country wanting to help Christians all over the world, it's a big step. But our Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was here at an event about six years ago and met with the Patriarchs from the Middle East. After hearing their plight, he said, "We have to do something for our Christian brethren in these countries in the Middle East, in Pakistan, Nigeria, wherever Christians are under pressure." He immediately founded an office, first within the Prime Minister's Office, and now it has found a place within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For about six years, we have been helping Christians worldwide. It's a personal project that is very close to the heart of our Prime Minister, but it's also something that goes with Hungarian identity. We see ourselves as a Christian nation for 1000 years, so helping other Christians is something we do."
Hungary is a Christian nation and has been one for a thousand years, but not necessarily only a Catholic country.
"Yes, most people are amazed when I tell them that Viktor Orbán, our Prime Minister, and Katalin Novák, our President, are not Catholic. Most people are really surprised. That is because, in Hungary, we have about 60% Catholics, but we also have about 15% Calvinists. Hungarian Calvinists are an exceptional brand; they're fierce, proud Christians who speak openly about their faith. This leads to the Christian faith is strongly present in our public space, and our government, which has a high ratio of Hungarian Calvinists, or "reformatus" as they call themselves, is very outspoken about faith. There is an excellent relationship between the state and church in Hungary while they are separated. Our Constitution tells us that the state, churches, and religious communities work together for the good of the state. Our Constitution begins with the word "God," and it's the beginning of our anthem, "God Bless the Hungarians." So when the Pope visits Hungary, he will see a truly Christian country, and I'm sure he's aware of that too.
Christian dialogue seems to work. You come from a very prominent Catholic family, which has been so for centuries, and you are the ambassador to the Holy See for Hungary. Could you tell us a little more about how Christian dialogue actually works in Hungary, with two different churches?
"I think when you come to Hungary, you will notice a healthy coexistence of the different Christian churches. We have a Calvinist presence, and within the Catholic Church, there is a strong presence of Greek Catholics, who are very visible. They have about 300,000 faithful, and we have three bishops. Hungary also has the strongest and most vibrant Jewish community in Europe. In Hungary, as a Jew, you are encouraged to wear the kippah, whereas, in many other countries, you are strongly discouraged from doing so. Religion, faith, and Christian faith are everyday topics in Hungary. As a diplomat to the Holy See, when I return from my ministry, everybody is interested in what I have to say about what's happening around the Vatican. This is only sometimes the case with some of my colleagues. In Hungary, everybody is interested in Vatican affairs. Whenever I meet with somebody, whether a state secretary or a minister, they want to know exactly what's going on. Many of them have been educated in Benedictine and Catholic schools, even if they are Protestant. So Hungary is a vibrant Christian country with a rich mixture of Christian churches that coexist very well. You will see this when the Pope comes to Hungary."
In European media, in mainstream media, Hungary often is portrayed as a country at odds with the European Union, which it is part of. Hungary has a challenging position there. What effect will the Pope's visit have in that regard?
To answer the first part of your question, when Viktor Orban visited the Pope, he gave a speech in the same afternoon in the garden of the Hungarian embassy, and his speech, he said, "We often hear from Brussels that Hungary does not stand for European values anymore, and I asked myself," he said, "If Adenauer, Schuman, De Gasperi, the founders of the European Union, would come back today to Europe, where would they find the European values? In Brussels or Central Europe? This is just for the first part of your question."
As for the other part, people will be watching this visit. The Pope arrives on Friday morning and will leave on Sunday evening - it's three long days. I can't imagine that there is a particular desire not to let the things that he will say in Hungary be too visible in the media because I'm pretty confident he will say a few nice things about Hungary and people in the western parts of Europe are not used to hearing nice things said about Hungary; they're used to hearing strong criticism. Then, he will say something a bit critical in one line, in one meeting, and this will be all over the media in Western Europe. We are used to this.
The same thing happened during his visit to the Eucharistic Congress two years ago. But Europe will see how much the Pope appreciates Hungary and how much common ground we have in many sectors. One of them, of course, is the most important topic right now all over the media, which is the war in Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, only two voices in Europe strongly advocate for peace: an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations. That is Hungary and the Holy See. Viktor Orban and Pope Francis have spoken of this ardent desire for peace several times over the last few months. I hear many voices for war in Europe, but I don't listen to this voice for peace very strongly right now. And I'm sure the Pope... when Orban came to visit last summer, and our President Catalina Novak came to visit last autumn, there were talks about this. He was very aware that Hungary is very close to his position on this, and I'm confident we will hear about this.
On the other hand, the Ukraine war touches all of us. Hungary is a neighboring country. We have a Hungarian-speaking community within Ukraine in Transcarpathia, about 150,000 Hungarians. So we follow this very closely. We follow the stories of the sons of our Hungarian-speaking minority dying in the war, of course. And, of course, Hungary has, over the last year, accepted at the border and brought through Hungary about 1,000,000 refugees. We have offered anyone who wanted to stay to remain in Hungary, and about 30 to 40,000 have remained. All of these remaining people have received housing and schooling, and we have encouraged companies to employ them. We think it is the most extensive humanitarian work we have ever done in Hungary, and it's ongoing. So this topic is looming very strongly over the papal visit to Hungary.
In the middle of a secular Europe, the theme of the visit of the Holy Father to Hungary is: "Christ is our future" Is this something that you see as true in the future of Hungary?
"Yes, very strongly so. Two things: First of all, Christ is our past. Hungary has been a Christian nation for 1000 years since King Stephen decided to throw his lot in with the Pope in Rome and accepted the crown from him. He immediately built a pilgrim's home near Saint Peter's, just on that side of Saint Peter's Basilica. The other thing that I want to say is that when Pope Francis came for the Eucharistic Congress, Hungary has a strong and vibrant faith. Two days before the Pope arrived, there was a procession with 300,000 people following the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance through the streets of Budapest. I've never seen anything comparable in any European country over the last few years. We were surprised by the potential that Hungary seems to have here.
The Hungarians have been praying for the Eucharistic Congress for years, and it has been postponed, and every Mass, at the end of the Mass, there was a prayer. When you ask Cardinal Erdo why the Pope is coming a second time, he would probably answer that it's because the Hungarians prayed for this visit too. Hungarians have been praying for this coming visit over the last month, in every Mass, at the end of the Mass. So, we are incredibly thankful to the Pope for his coming.
I expect this to be, first of all, a fraternal and cordial meeting between Hungarians and the Pope. I think the Pope wants to meet as many Hungarians as he can, and I think Hungarians from all over the country will come to meet the Pope in Budapest. I also hope this will be a new jumpstart for our faith. The Pope always brings faith with him. He will encourage Hungarians to live Christ also into the future. I also hope the Pope has a moment of peace to drink a glass of Tokaji. When I met him for the first time, he told me that he knew everything about Hungary, especially the most important and sacred symbol of Hungary, the Tokaji sweet wine. I sent him a bottle of Tokaji the day after we met in Santa Marta. I hope he will have time to appreciate Hungarian cultural food while he's here. I'm very much looking forward to this great visit.
We're looking forward to covering it all and experiencing Hungarian hospitality as you described it. Thank you so much for being with us and for this interview.
A pleasure. Köszönöm Szépen.
Andreas Thonhauser is EWTN Vatican Bureau Chief. He earned a Master of Business Administration from the WU Executive Academy in Vienna and a Master’s degree in German Philology/Anglistics and Americanistics from the University of Vienna. Prior to joining EWTN, Thonhauser worked as the Director of External Affairs for a global human rights organization, and for several media outlets in Vienna, Austria.