‘Keeping Our Eyes Riveted on Christ’: Did the Eucharistic Congresses of 1938 and 2021 in Budapest Carry a Prophetic Message for the West?

A recently inaugurated chapel in Hungary, commemorating the two events that anticipated major upheavals in the West, is intended as a shrine of prayer for world peace.

Cardinal Péter Erdő celebrates Mass at the chapel commemorating the two Eucharistic events on Dec. 8, 2023.
Cardinal Péter Erdő celebrates Mass at the chapel commemorating the two Eucharistic events on Dec. 8, 2023. (photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef / Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — What if Hungary’s history and persistent Christian identity embodies a message for the West? 

This possibility seems to be suggested by the startling convergences across time between Hungary’s first International Eucharistic Congress (IEC), held in May 1938 just as Europe was about to plunge into a war of unprecedented atrocity, and the one held in September 2021, a few months before the resumption of the Russia-Ukraine war that has once again upset the geopolitical balance of the Old Continent. 

For many Hungarian faithful, this timing is no coincidence but instead part of a larger plan by God, who throughout history has been distilling his messages in various places around the world, whether through apparitions or events of great symbolic significance. 

For them, the two events, which had in common the fostering of a deep popular fervor, constituted a spiritual preparation both for the faithful present and for the universal Church, on the eve of tribulations for Europe and the West. 

Moved by this deep conviction, local communities have joined forces to erect a chapel commemorating the two events, designed to become a place of international pilgrimage for the peace of peoples. Nestled in the heart of a natural park in the outskirts of Budapest, the new shrine was inaugurated last December by the primate of Hungary and archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Cardinal Péter Erdő.

The chapel honors the Virgin Regina Mundi ('Queen of the World').
The shrine honors the Virgin Regina Mundi ('Queen of the World').(Photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)


Spiritual Gift

“The 1938 Congress was a special moment of grace, marked by great and intense prayer for peace, with a special concern for Catholics in the German Empire who could not attend [Hitler having prohibited their participation in the event],” Cardinal Erdő said in an interview with the Register.  

The International Eucharistic Congress is a religious gathering of clergy and laypeople with the aim of evangelizing the world through the adoration of the Eucharist. The 2021 event in Budapest was the 52nd international congress to take place since they were initiated in 1881 in Lille, France. 

Held May 25-29, 1938, in a climate of deep concern as the threat of war in Europe became ever more apparent, that year’s gathering attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over Hungary and many other countries, united in their unshakeable faith in divine Providence and their Eucharistic devotion. 

It was precisely to forge a common front of Christians against the rise of the ungodly ideologies of the time — Nazism and communism — that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the papal legate who would become Pope Pius XII a few months later, appealed to the 150,000 people gathered in Heroes’ Square in Budapest on the opening day of the celebrations. 

“This Eucharistic Congress represented a kind of spiritual preparation for all the peoples represented, on the eve of the terrible ordeal that was World War II,” Cardinal Erdő said, highlighting that Pius XII himself would later mention this event as a special spiritual gift given to Hungary, to help it survive the war and the subsequent Soviet occupation that would oppress its people until 1989. 

In September 2021, more than 80 years after the first IEC in Budapest, the second gathering there took place in a world profoundly shaken by the COVID-19 epidemic. It was the first large-scale Catholic event since the beginning of the COVID lockdowns in March 2020, resulting in the suspension of all religious celebrations in most Western countries, alongside a large number of other public civil liberties. No one imagined then that, only a few months later, war would once again be at the gates of the Old Continent in Ukraine in February 2022. 

The reprise in 2021 of the refrain from the official anthem of the 1938 Congress — “O adorable Redemptor, Jesus in the Eucharist, bless this earth with peace and honor” — added, according to the primate of Hungary, to the providential dimension of the second Budapest gathering as a new embrace of comfort for a Christianity facing its worst crisis since the Second World War. 

“This 2021 IEC was a very strong spiritual experience, an unforgettable meeting that culminated in the great candlelight procession and Pope Francis’ concluding Mass the following morning,” Cardinal Erdő continued. It was the first time in 21 years that a pope had attended this international event.

“When war broke out in Ukraine a few months later, many of us felt that Providence had once again come to give a great sign to all the faithful, to comfort them so that they could endure and face the new difficulties of history that were opening up before us with a truly Catholic spirituality.”

He noted that it was also at Heroes’ Square in Budapest where St. John Paul II stood at the time of the failed 1991 coup in Moscow, which formalized the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Prayer Center for Peace and Atonement

The desire to root these spiritual gifts more permanently in the material landscape of Hungary quickly spread among the faithful in the wake of the 2021 celebrations. This desire was made concrete by the construction of a memorial chapel as a prayer center for peace.

Located in the Normafa nature park on the outskirts of Budapest and inaugurated on Dec. 8, the new chapel is symbolic in more ways than one. 

While several chapels had been built in the region by peasant communities when the country was liberated from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 17th century, it was at this site where a chapel dedicated to St. Anne once stood that initiatives to pray for peace emerged following the Fatima apparitions in Portugal in 1917 and continued during the interwar period. 

During that time, the local faithful had expressed a common wish to erect a chapel of atonement in honor of the Virgin Regina Mundi (“Queen of the World”). At the end of the Second World War, the same community adopted the tradition, initiated by Cardinal József Mindszenty, of a Rosary of atonement every first Saturday of the month, still nurturing the same hope of seeing their chapel project materialize.

But it wasn’t until the 2021 IEC and then the war in Ukraine that their movement gained the necessary momentum for its realization, as candlelight processions for peace and new Rosary chains were prayed in the surrounding area. 

“I was really touched by the fervor of these groups of faithful, and after celebrating a Mass for the Rosary on the first Saturday of the month, in the aftermath of the IEC, I promised to help them,” Cardinal Erdő said. 

A fundraising campaign was then launched among the region’s faithful, which raised the necessary sum in just a few months.

“It may not be a project of the size imagined 80 years ago, but the result is both modern, simple and very aesthetically pleasing,” commented the cardinal, who fondly remembers the beautiful snowy day on which he inaugurated the chapel, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. “The warnings from the authorities about the risk of slipping that day didn’t dampen the motivation of the crowds, who came out in their hundreds to welcome this new prayer center, and the celebration was a truly memorable one.”

Eucharist Budapest outdoor chapel 2023
The faithful receive the Eucharist; Hungary has a long Christian history. (Photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)

The faithful present even included a group of pilgrims who had come from Poland on horseback in traditional costume, and others from Romania, in a sign of the universal scope of the new prayer center.

Budapest outdoor chapel 2023
The faithful included a group of pilgrims who had come from Poland on horseback in traditional costume.(Photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)


Providential Duty to Stay Alive

The parallels between 1938 and 2021, which leave room for a variety of interpretations, as the Lord’s ways are inscrutable, nevertheless, to many, seemed to deliver a message to European Christendom faced with an unprecedented convergence of existential threats. 

This is also suggested by Cardinal Erdő, who pointed out that his birth nation was throughout its history constantly threatened with extinction, being subject to wars, invasions and political crises. What has preserved the Hungarian people, he believes, is their determination to remain alive as a community fundamentally based on their shared Christian identity. 

Indeed, according to tradition, the country’s first king, St. Stephen, having no heir to the throne and fearing for the survival of his people, entrusted his crown to the Virgin Mary before his death in 1038, placing his kingdom under her protection. This founding story has underpinned the entire history of the country, often referred to as the “Kingdom of Mary.” In his 1938 speech, Cardinal Pacelli described Hungary as a “bulwark of Christian Europe, in tragic times.”

Located in the Normafa nature park on the outskirts of Budapest
The faithful pray at the chapel, located in the Normafa nature park on the outskirts of Budapest.(Photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)


Marian banners are present at the outdoor chapel outside of Budapest.
Marian banners are present at the outdoor chapel.(Photo: Wagner Csapo Jozsef/Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest)

“It is for sure that our liberation from Turkish occupation was also attributed to Our Lady’s intercession, as evidenced by many icons in our national shrines, such as the one in Máriapócs, with the icon of the weeping Madonna,” Cardinal Erdő commented. 

And this dynamic at work more than 300 years ago has lost none of its relevance to the challenges of the modern world. 

“While today we are told that nations, cultures, minor languages are to be forgotten,” the Hungarian primate concluded, “we believe that, amidst all the various crises we are facing in the West, our providential task is to stay alive as a community, keeping our eyes riveted on Christ.”