5 Takeaways From a Historic Papal Visit to Hungary

Pope Francis touched on immigration, war in Ukraine, and gender issues in a country whose government has styled itself as a defender of Christian values.

Pope Francis greets the faithful in Hungary.
Pope Francis greets the faithful in Hungary. (photo: Simone Risoluti / Vatican Media)

On April 30, Pope Francis wrapped up a three-day visit to Hungary. It was his second trip to Budapest in two years, making Hungary the only country other than Italy that he has visited twice during his papacy.

The Holy Father drew in tens of thousands of Hungarians and touched on immigration, the war in Ukraine, and gender issues in a country whose government has styled itself as a defender of Christian values. Here are five takeaways from the historic trip:

1. Peace in Ukraine

In the annual “State of the Nation” address in February, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made the bold claim that there are only two countries in Europe striving for peace and de-escalation in Ukraine: Hungary and the Holy See. The implication is that while Hungary emphasizes peace talks and cease-fire, other European countries are involving themselves in the conflict in a way that may cause it to careen out of control.

Francis, who has regularly called for peace and has offered to act as mediator, did not shy away from the topic during his visit to Budapest. He visited refugees from Ukraine and met with Metropolitan Hilarion, a previously high-ranking official in the Russian Orthodox Church who was relegated to the Archdiocese of Esztergom–Budapest last year likely due to his opposition to the war.

In his first speech in Budapest, Francis emphasized the need for resolution to the conflict: “I ask myself, thinking not least of war-torn Ukraine, where are creative efforts for peace?” In his closing message at the Sunday Mass, Francis asked for the Blessed Virgin’s intercession to, “in a special way, watch over the neighboring, beleaguered Ukrainian people and the Russian people.”

In a press conference on his plane back to Rome, Francis hinted at the fact that the Vatican is currently engaged in a behind-the-scenes mission aimed at peace in Ukraine, though he did not elaborate further.

2. Disagreement on Immigration

Francis did not shy away from immigration either, an issue on which he and Orbán have not seen eye to eye. This has been the primary lens through which the mainstream media has interpreted the visit. Francis’ allusion to immigration during his 2021 appearance at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest also received similar attention at the time. “Open doors” was the theme of the Holy Father’s homily at the Sunday Mass, and he included one brief remark on the need to welcome migrants.

A new element in the discussion of Hungary’s approach to immigration in the last year, however, is the country’s wide acceptance of refugees from neighboring Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion of 2022, Hungarians have taken in some 35,000 Ukrainian refugees — including into their own homes — and around 1 million others have fled Ukraine through Hungary. Francis lauded the “generosity and enthusiasm” of their efforts in a meeting with refugees and the poor. Hungary’s government has been a vocal proponent of its Christian heritage and values, and Francis has spoken favorably of the government’s mission to protect and financially support persecuted Christian minorities abroad.

3. Strong Words on Gender Issues

Some of Francis’ comments on other social issues were not nearly as amenable to the Western left-leaning consensus as those on immigration. He referred to “so-called gender theory” as an “ideological colonization” with dangerous consequences. The statements carry a special weight in a country that has received sharp criticism from fellow European Union members and the United States for its stances on gender issues. In 2021, the government, led by the conservative Fidesz party, adopted legislation aimed at limiting children’s exposure to “LGBT” content in media and schools.

4. Importance of Supporting Families

Francis’ comments on family and birth rates also seem to line up well with the actions of the Hungarian government. Since coming to power in 2010, the Fidesz party has aimed to address Hungary’s declining population by offering financial incentives to encourage marriage and childrearing, including generous loans, subsidies and tax breaks for families with children. The marriage rate has increased, and the abortion rate has decreased.

“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,” said Francis during the visit. He also alluded to aging populations in other European countries and has spoken previously about the danger of falling birth rates.

“Do you sense how good it is to love the Lord, to have a large family, to help those in need?” asked Francis in a packed arena of more than 10,000 youth. “Then carry on; don’t think that these are unattainable desires.” He urged them to reject a “couch potato” mentality and to embrace the adventure of real life, which “does not take place on a screen, but in the world!” Meeting with Hungarian President Katalin Novák earlier this year, Francis expressed his pleasure at the Hungarian government’s efforts in prioritizing the family.

During the trip, he also referred to abortion, which is legal in Hungary up to 12 weeks, arguing that it is always a “tragic defeat.” Arguments for a right to abortion, he said, are “senseless” and rely on a “reductive concept of freedom.”

Pope in Hungary collage 2023
Some trip highlights: The Pope meets and prays with a variety of Hungarians. (Photo: National Catholic Register//Vatican Media photos)

5. Cardinal Erdő’s Rising Papabile Profile

Though Francis has signaled that he does not plan to resign his office like his predecessor Benedict XVI, some names have emerged as papabile (potential papal successors). Cardinal Péter Erdő, Hungary’s only cardinal, is one such name. He appeared alongside Francis at several functions over the three days and presided as the main celebrant over the trip’s culminating Mass on Sunday.

This second visit to his country will only increase his profile within the College of Cardinals, a key factor in any papabile’s chances. As Vatican analyst Andrea Gagliarducci noted in a public discussion in a Budapest café leading up to the visit, the college consists largely of new members appointed by Francis who have not had many opportunities to meet and get to know one another. Cardinal Erdő, who has a background in canon law, is seen as an effective administrator and a possible compromise candidate between conservative and liberal wings of Church leadership.