Budapest | Pope Francis on Friday blasted the “adolescent belligerence” that brought war back to Europe and said the continent must recover its founding spirit of peaceful unity to confront Russia's war in Ukraine.
Francis outlined his vision for the future of Europe as he began a three-day visit to Hungary. In a carefully calibrated speech, he demanded that the European Union approve safe and legal ways for migrants to enter and for the Hungarian government not to hold Europe “hostage” to populist demands.
Francis didn't mince words when he addressed President Katalin Novak and Hungary's populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose lukewarm support for Ukraine has rankled other EU countries.
The pontiff recalled the lofty ideals behind the bloc's founding and lamented that rising nationalism and “adolescent belligerence” had replaced them.
“We seem to be witnessing the sorry sunset of that choral dream of peace, as the solists of war now take over,” Francis said. “At this historical juncture, Europe is crucial. … It is called to take up its proper role, which is to unite those far apart, to welcome those other peoples and refuse to consider anyone an eternal enemy.” Hungarian officials said the pope's visit, his second to Budapest in as many years, was designed primarily to let him minister to the country's Catholic community. But with the war in neighbouring Ukraine and Orban butting heads with other EU nations over rule of law issues and LGBTQ+ rights, Francis' words and deeds in the heart of Europe carried strong political undertones.
He has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution to the war and expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people, although his trip to Hungary brought Francis the nearest he's gotten to the front line of the fighting.
The pope plans to meet Saturday with some of the 35,000 Ukrainian refugees who remain in Hungary. Nearly 2.5 million refugees entered the country early on in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Orban has called for a cease-fire. But the nationalist prime minister has refused to supply Kyiv with weapons and threatened to veto EU sanctions against Moscow while maintaining Hungary's strong dependence on Russian energy. His government also said it would not arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant on war crimes charges, if he came to Hungary.
While sharing his hopes for Europe, Francis appeared to call out the country's growing isolation.
“I think of a Europe that is not hostage to its parts, neither falling prey to self-referential forms of populism nor resorting to a fluid, if not vapid, supra-nationalism that loses sight of the life of its peoples,” the pope said.
Novak, for her part, praised Francis as a man of peace and asked him to confer with “Kyiv and Moscow, to Washington, Brussels, Budapest and to anyone without whom there can be no peace. Here, in Budapest, we ask you to act personally for a just peace as soon as possible!” Francis has expressed appreciation for Hungary's recent welcome of Ukrainian refugees, but his views on the moral imperative to welcome all people fleeing conflict, poverty and climate change contrast with Orban's hard line on migration.
In 2015-2016, Hungary built a razor wire fence on the border with Serbia to stop people from entering.
Francis said time was up for Europe's “excuses and delay” in responding to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives trying to reach the continent each year. He called for the EU to agree on “secure and legal corridors” that would provide a safer route.
Europe must come up with “shared mechanisms to confront an epochal challenge that cannot be faced by pushing back, but must be welcomed to prepare a future that, unless it is shared, will not exist”, the pope said.
The 86-year-old pontiff, who walks with difficulty because of bad knee ligaments, is testing his frail health with his latest trip. He spent four days in the hospital last month with bronchitis. Hungarian officials had hoped Francis would travel around the country, but the Vatican opted to keep him in Budapest, where he spent seven hours in 2021 to close out a church congress.
The visit comes as the European Union's legislature continues to put pressure on Hungary to counter what EU lawmakers consider a deterioration in the rule of law and democratic principles, including media freedom and LGBTQ+ rights.
The four biggest groups in the European Parliament have called on the bloc's executive commission to withhold pandemic recovery funds for Hungary until liberal democracy principles are met.
Francis didn't wade in directly to the dispute, but he quoted the Hungarian Constitution and the founder of the Hungarian state, St. Stephen, in calling for the country to remain open toward others, another apparent reference to Orban's nativist rhetoric.
On LGBTQ+ rights, the pope and the Hungarian government's policies were not totally at odds. Catholic doctrine forbids gay marriage, though Francis has backed legal protections for people in same-sex unions.
He also has long ministered to gay and transgender Catholics while condemning “gender ideology” as an alleged form of the West's ideological colonisation of the developing world.
Hungary outlaws same-sex marriage, and the government has prohibited same-sex couples from adopting children. The government has also outlawed the depiction of homosexuality or divergent gender identities to minors in media content.
Francis repeated his condemnation of “gender ideology” Friday along with what he described as “the so-called right to abortion”. He praised Hungary for promoting family values.
“How much better it would be to build a Europe centred on the human person and on its peoples, with effective polices for natality and the family – policies that are pursued attentively in this country,” he said.
Francis' arrival was met with a quiet welcome, with small groups of people cheering his motorcade as it entered the city centre. Zoltan Gozner, a religious education teacher from Esztergom, north of Budapest, took his class to a place on the motorcade's route so students could see it.
“Hungary is still a Christian country, and we are a guardian of this faith,” he said.