If you’re like me, this year’s International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest hasn't been on your radar. But by happenstance, when I arrived in Budapest last week for a yearlong stay, the congress was just beginning. I was not prepared for what an encouraging week it would be.
In recent months the media has noted the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) only to ask one question: Whether the pope’s visit to Budapest for the congress would include an official meeting with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. (It did.) Otherwise the IEC, which was held Sept. 5–Sept. 12, has received little coverage—except from local media and EWTN. As a result, few know that Budapest’s IEC was the first attended by a pope in twenty-one years. At the papal Mass on Sunday, offered in Latin accompanied by Gregorian chant, the Holy Father delighted the crowd by reciting a few phrases in the notoriously difficult Hungarian tongue. Andrassy Avenue, the grand boulevard leading up to Heroes Square, was packed as far as the eye could see.
Yet the congress was also impressive for several other reasons. As hundreds of thousands of people packed the streets for Masses and processions, masks rarely appeared, and the event imposed none of the restrictions that have come to be daily irritants in America and elsewhere.
And the distinctiveness of Hungarian Catholicism was apparent, beginning with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco's opening Mass on Sept. 5. At this ceremony, an endless stream of cassocks swept along the pavement of Heroes Square. Dancers in traditional Hungarian garments performed on the stage—but only before, not during, Mass. The Mass honored the most beautiful elements of national tradition, but without any of the funny business that too frequently mars large-scale liturgies. On the altar stood a stunning cruciform reliquary. From afar it looked a bit wiry, but on inspection the reason was clear: Extraordinary metalwork had wrapped precious relics of every Hungarian saint into a cross fit for public veneration.
Throughout the week, the entire city took note of the IEC. Symbols of the Eucharist were visible outside every church, and many displays, as well as the liturgies themselves, drew attention to the Holy Crown of St. Stephen that symbolizes the Hungarian state. Musical performances dotted the week and talks functioned as testimonies. At one talk, Hungarian president János Áder told of the importance of Catholicism in his life. Every Catholic that I met was somehow involved with the planning of the IEC. Indeed, the Catholics of Hungary had long been praying after every Mass for the success of the congress.
As the week progressed, the influence of Hungarian historical memory was evident. On Tuesday evening, the fourteenth-century Matthias Church featured a Mass imploring the beatification of Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who died in 1989. Afterward Vespers was held in memory of each religious house—Dominican, Cistercian, and others—that was liquidated during the Soviet takeover.
Cardinal Péter Erdő offered Mass on Saturday in Kossuth Lajos Square—a broad plaza. The Hungarian Parliament Building rose like a giant reredos behind the altar. To mark the occasion, the treasured reliquary of St. Stephen was brought from St. Stephen’s Basilica to the Parliament Building. The reliquary, containing St. Stephen’s right hand, thus stood beside the Holy Crown of St. Stephen in the building just behind where the cardinal celebrated Mass. The thousand-year-old crown was worn by the kings of Hungary throughout the centuries. In the constitutional revision of 2011, the Holy Crown was dusted off and invoked again as a symbol of state.
Afterward, crowds joined the miles-long Eucharistic procession from Parliament to Heroes Square. We passed the House of Terror, a former Soviet interrogation building converted by the Orbán government into a museum of its earlier horrors. Gazing at the building, the gentleman to my left—an American-born Hungarian who returned in the 1990s—told me how his grandfather had been imprisoned there during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. While his grandmother kept watch outside, his grandfather was told by his captors that the screams coming from the neighboring room were those of his wife.
The International Eucharistic Congress was thus a statement about the rebirth of Hungary and the persistence of faith. Budapest’s last eucharistic congress had been held in 1938—when German Catholics were forbidden from attending. Eighty-three years later, the Catholics of Hungary poured their hearts into the public recognition of the Eucharist at the heart of their national life—and into welcoming the Holy Father.
As I departed Heroes Square on Saturday night, a middle-aged Hungarian couple asked me where I was from. Hearing that I was from the United States and now living in Budapest, the lady welcomed me and reflected, “Hungary is a peaceful place.” Let the West pray it stays that way.
Gladden Pappin is a visiting senior fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest and associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.