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In Budapest last week, one of Europe’s leaders gave a passionate speech critiquing the “ideological colonization” that has overtaken the European project. Christianity, this leader said, could provide a distinctive path for preserving the unity of Europe while also respecting national differences. Lamenting the aging populations of western Europe, the speaker touted the Hungarian pro-family policies that have drawn the ire of some in Brussels. He summoned the legacy of St. Stephen both in rulership and in personal charity—later recalling Hungary’s generosity in welcoming two and a half million refugees.

Who am I speaking of?

If you answered Pope Francis, well done. The Holy Father just completed a visit to Hungary—for the second time in less than two years, and with few other European trips in between. People have come to Budapest from across the country to attend the Holy Father’s many services here. Trains and buses to the city have been reserved to facilitate participation.

When he last visited, it was for the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in September 2021. At the time, the international media tried to present his short visit as a snub to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Even then, the Holy Father expressed interest in making a proper pastoral visit to Hungary as soon as the occasion presented itself.

This time around, the media have once again tried to drive a wedge between the Holy Father and Hungary, by acting as though the tensions of 2015 were still in the air—when Hungary closed its borders to migrants during the initial migratory crisis. Though Hungary remains concerned about the danger mass migration would pose, the most pressing current issues are the war in neighboring Ukraine as well as hostility from other Western countries to Hungary’s child protection policies.

Yet the Holy Father made Hungary’s family policies, now so famous among conservatives, a key element of his speeches. In his address Friday morning before President Katalin Novák and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, “politics” was the first word. The pope held up Budapest as a model city, exemplifying “the practical desire to live together in unity, ensuring rights and respecting obligations.”

Recalling Budapest’s sesquicentennial as a city at the crossroads of European civilization, the pope expressed pain at the division now tearing through the world, and the corresponding loss of Europe’s Christian mission. He pleaded for Europe to return to its true goal, “to generate forms of diplomacy capable of pursuing unity, not aggravating divisions.”

Pope Francis called for a Christian balance respecting national sovereignty and identity while building a cooperative Europe as a whole—one that seeks “creative efforts for peace” on the international stage. The Holy Father denounced the “‘supranationalism’ that loses sight of the life of its peoples”:

This is the baneful path taken by those forms of “ideological colonization” that would cancel differences, as in the case of the so-called gender theory, or that would place before the reality of life reductive concepts of freedom, for example by vaunting as progress a senseless “right to abortion,” which is always a tragic defeat. How much better it would be to build a Europe centered on the human person and on its peoples, with effective policies for natality and the family like those pursued attentively in this country.

Finally, the Holy Father invoked the bridges across the Danube as an emblem of how “the Christian faith can be a resource, and Hungary can act as a ‘bridge builder’ by drawing upon its specific ecumenical character.”

How do the Holy Father’s evocations map onto the Hungary of 2023? I have lived in Hungary throughout the last year, and the war immediately affected daily life—from the rise in prices to the arrival and transit of more than two million refugees. From this vantage point, it was clear that a shift in the world order was taking place. Lines of trade that were open days earlier were suddenly closed. Communities on both sides of the Ukrainian-Hungarian border were upended. For those of us in Hungary, an aspiring middle power, it was easy to see that the world’s big powers were all too eager to carve up geopolitical space between them.

The situation has led Hungary to plead instead for connectivity among nations—not by dissolving them into a global order, but by creating practical relationships between them that respect national traditions, including religion. “To generate forms of diplomacy capable of pursuing unity, not aggravating divisions” is a formidable challenge from the Holy Father. Increasingly, it seems like something that only a Christian transnational viewpoint—rather than an isolated, culturally alien liberal one—can achieve.

It is this viewpoint that Hungary has been advancing in recent years. And it appears this has not escaped the Holy Father’s notice. Against a media backdrop determined to frame Hungary as Europe’s black sheep, it certainly seems that the Holy Father would prefer, as he often says, to “smell of the sheep.”

Gladden Pappin is the incoming president of the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs, in Budapest. 

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Images by Jörg Upahl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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