Cardinal Erdő: ‘A Man of Unity, a Bridge Between East and West’

The primate of the Church of Hungary has established himself over the years as one of the leading ecclesiastical figures of our time.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Budapest, during a Mass at Kossuth Lajos Square on April 30, 2023, in Budapest, Hungary.
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Budapest, during a Mass at Kossuth Lajos Square on April 30, 2023, in Budapest, Hungary. (photo: Vatican Pool / Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Cardinal Péter Erdő is today one of the few Catholic authorities to arouse the admiration of his peers and the interest of Catholic observers around the world. Yet he makes himself relatively scarce in the media and keeps away from the controversies and power plays that have often surrounded the Church in recent years. 

What are the aspects of his work and personality that continue to set him apart, making him a model of religious leadership for our time and one of the leading papabili in the event of a conclave?

This passage from an article published in the journal of the Italian Catholic movement Communion and Liberation in 2004 reflected the perception the Catholic establishment already had of the newly created cardinal: “When Cardinal Péter Erdő gave his address at the Catholic University in Milan, the older professors recalled a precedent. In 1978, a young cardinal passed through the same Aula Magna in Largo Gemelli, Karol Wojtyla. There was the same impression of polite power, the same fascination for students.”

He was 51 at the time and had just become the youngest cardinal in the Sacred College. The archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest since 2003, a renowned expert in canon law, was also described as belonging to that “brilliant cluster of bishops with culture and charism on which Pope Wojtyla’s hope for the future is based.” 

Almost 20 years later, in December 2022, it was the turn of the late Australian Cardinal George Pell, at a private lunch with U.S. journalist Rod Dreher in his Vatican apartment, to praise “a very fine canon lawyer” whom he would one day like to see become pope. According to Dreher, it was above all the promise of stability emanating from the primate of Hungary that appealed to the former archbishop of Sydney. 

“The fact that a man of Pell’s stature, conviction and, indeed, holiness backed him was a powerful endorsement,” Dreher told the Register. 

President of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference from 2005 to 2015 and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences from 2006 to 2016, the 71-year-old prelate has to his credit hundreds of publications in the field of canon law and several spiritual essays. He gained international stature as relator general for the Synod on the Family in 2014-2015 and again stood out for his unifying role at the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in Budapest in 2021.


Suffering for the Catholic Faith

Born in Budapest in 1952, Péter Erdő is the eldest of six children. In the Hungary of his childhood, caught up in Soviet communist totalitarianism, his father, a lawyer, and his mother, a teacher, could not practice their professions because they were considered too Catholic. He experienced firsthand what it means to pay a high price for the faith that has always had an existential dimension for him, as he revealed in an interview with the Register in 2021. 

For Vatican analyst Andrea Gagliarducci, this personal history has shaped the understanding of the world that today gives the cardinal an uncommon clear-sightedness and loftiness. 

“He has been legally trained by also looking at the situation in his nation,” Gagliarducci told the Register. “He knows the burden of a state on religious freedom, he understands the tricks that secularist totalitarianism has to harness religion, and he sees first where some situations are going, because he experienced all of this in a time that could be the day before yesterday, and he feels he has a responsibility in that sense.”

During the work of the 2014-2015 Synod on the Family, this witness embodied by the archbishop, following in the footsteps of Pope St. John Paul II, reached a good number of faithful in countries often tempted by the communist message. This was particularly true in Africa, where anti-colonial revolt movements were often supported by communist regimes in the second half of the 20th century (from the Soviet Union to Maoist China or the Cuban guerrillas). 

South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, archbishop emeritus of Durban and one of the five presidents of the Synod on the Family, recalls how Cardinal Erdő’s guidance contributed to a certain change of mentality among the African faithful at that time. 

“The fact of having, for this synod, which was followed closely in Africa, an authority figure from Budapest, having experienced the reality of communism was a significant milestone for us, as the persecutions we are used to generally come from other sources,” Cardinal Napier told the Register. “At the same time, his original background and perspective enable him to brilliantly emphasize how strong in the faith you have to be if you’re going to lead in a country where there is opposition to the basic teachings of Christianity, which is very much needed.”


Leadership at the Synod on the Family 

It was during the Synod on the Family, in which he played a pivotal role, that Cardinal Erdő acquired a more international stature, praised by various commentators at times for his “positive attitude,” “realism,” openness and sense of balance, while not compromising with Church teachings.

In his report at the opening of the synodal work in October 2014, he had reaffirmed the centrality of mercy in “the hermeneutics of ecclesial action,” specifying nevertheless that it “neither eliminates nor relativizes truth” but “leads to its correct interpretation within the hierarchy of truth” and also “does not eliminate the demand for justice.”

His remarks, although presented as a temporary working document, initially caused some tension among some other cardinals, including Cardinal Napier himself and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Their main criticism was that it gave too much space to the remarks and demands of groups they considered to be in the minority within the assembly, notably on the controversial issue of allowing the reception of Communion by civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics. 

But having been chosen by Pope Francis to deliver the keynote address at the October 2015 session, Cardinal Erdő caused surprise and disappointed the expectations of another group of other synod fathers by clearly reframing the terms of the discussions. Stating that “the integration of the divorced and remarried in the ecclesial community can be realized in various ways, apart from admission to the Eucharist,” he closed the door from the outset to doctrinal developments on the indissolubility of marriage — and in particular on access to Communion for remarried divorcees, which the progressive wing of the Church had been calling for. Some of these synodal participants criticized his speech as being too “rigid” or “legalistic.”

“The overall impression I came away with at the very end of the synod discussions was that Cardinal Erdő is quite independent in his thinking; it was quite clear that this man had great leadership and wasn’t afraid to take on the positions he was convinced of,” Cardinal Napier told the Register. 

Recalling his always “very friendly” interactions with the high prelate, who was readily accessible and eager to understand the different needs and realities that make up the Churches around the world, the African cardinal added that he was struck by his determination not to give in to tensions of an ideological nature or attempts to steer discussions in one particular direction.


Diplomatic Skills

This insistence on Cardinal Erdő’s independence of mind echoes that of Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See since 2015, who has worked with him on an institutional level for a number of years. 

According to Habsburg, the first 38 years of the cardinal’s life spent under the communist yoke somewhat immunized him against political dynamics and power games — whether in his own country or in Rome. 

“He’s not someone who grants a lot of interviews; he keeps out of the limelight and always takes time to deliberate before acting, which isn’t always seen positively in a world of immediacy and appearance, but his approach is all the more powerful, as he has a sharp eye for all the ideological drifts and new forms of tyranny lurking in today’s world,” Hapsburg told the Register, emphasizing at the same time the natural cheerfulness and sense of humor that characterizes the cardinal in private interactions. 

He added, “He’s a fine diplomat, backed up by his erudition and mastery of many languages; he’s very sympathetic in his approach, but he’s definitely not a lobby man or a man of the mundane.”


‘Man of Unity’

But it is above all the man of faith, the pastor endowed with an unshakeable faith and a deep love of the liturgy, the Hungarian ambassador esteems most highly. 

Citing conversations in which the cardinal would revisit Church events dating back to the sixth century, from memory and in great detail, Habsburg recalled his understanding of the liturgy as firmly anchored in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council, while at the same time showing interest and great respect for other liturgical traditions. 

“It’s no coincidence that during the 2021 IEC in Budapest, there was a procession with hundreds of thousands faithful walking behind the Blessed Sacrament and Cardinal Erdő leading the way: He is a man who knows the importance of the sacraments,” he said, also noting that the first time the Hungarian capital had hosted this global gathering was in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. The 2021 event was held just a few months before the resumption of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, on Europe’s doorstep.

This surprising and highly symbolic temporal convergence did not escape the cardinal who, at the request of a large number of faithful, recently inaugurated a prayer chapel commemorating these two events in the outskirts of Budapest, intended as a worldwide shrine of prayer for peace.

For Vatican watcher Gagliarducci, who has been interested in the figure of Cardinal Erdő for several years, the 2021 IEC demonstrated to the world that he was a “man of unity,” managing to bring together the many souls of both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in front of the Eucharist. “He has shown how he can work on several fronts, be they pastoral, cultural or diplomatic,” he said. 

“In short, in addition to having established himself as a man of liaison between the old and the new, between the Church as an institution and the novelty brought by Pope Francis, Cardinal Erdő has distinguished himself as a man of unity, a bridge between East and West.”