Greek-Catholic Metropolitan of Hungary Offers Epiphany Blessing of the Waters on the Danube

On the occasion of a traditional blessing, Archbishop Fülöp Kocsis reflects on the Christian meaning of purification and its ability to counter contemporary secularization, saying proudly displaying traditional emblems is also a way of evangelizing.

Archbishop Fülöp Kocsis, metropolitan of the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog, blesses the water on Jan. 6.
Archbishop Fülöp Kocsis, metropolitan of the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog, blesses the water on Jan. 6. (photo: official photos of the eparchy / Görögkatolikus Médiaközpont)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — The traditional ceremony of blessing the waters of the Danube River on the feast of the Epiphany is always an eagerly awaited event in the Hungarian capital.

In this more Byzantine-influenced part of Europe, Jan. 6 marks less the visit of the Three Kings to Baby Jesus in Bethlehem than the inauguration of Christ’s public ministry with his baptism in the Jordan River and the miracle of water turned to wine at the Wedding at Cana.

In Hungary, the feast of vízkereszt — literally “Baptism of Water” — marks the end of the Christmas season and the opening of the farsang carnival season, which in the Byzantine Catholic tradition lasts until the vespers of Cheesfare (Forgiveness) Sunday, on the eve of the start of Lent. Strongly rooted in the country’s folk culture, this commemoration is particularly popular in Hungarian villages, where, every year, faithful families sprinkle their homes with holy water from top to bottom.

Epiphany blessing Danube 2024
The silver cross is immersed in the newly blessed Danube.(Photo: official photos of the eparchy/Görögkatolikus Médiaközpont)

In the northeastern region of Tokaj in particular, it has been customary over the last few centuries for communities of believers to gather on the banks of the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers, which are mostly frozen at this time of year. The villagers would make a hole in the ice, into which the priest would place a cross, to be found when the ice melted in early spring.

“It was this custom that I wanted to perpetuate when I became bishop in 2008, by extending it to the Danube River, right in the heart of the Hungarian capital,” Archbishop Fülöp Kocsis, metropolitan of the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog and head of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, told the Register on the sidelines of the Jan. 6 ceremony, which was attended by hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the Byzantine Rite faithful gather in procession behind their priests and bishops as they set off to bless the waters of various springs, streams, springs, canals, lakes and rivers, in a tradition that grows in popularity year after year.

Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in Hungary live in full communion with Rome. Their eparchy was elevated to a metropolitan see in 2015.

Danube Epiphany blessing 2024
Archbishop Kocsis is shown blessing the waters of the Danube and celebrating Mass at St. Florian’s Church. A procession traveled to the river from Batthyány Square in Budapest. The iconic Parliament building can be seen.(Photo: Solène Tadié photos)

Jesus, the Only Path to Purification

It was on the Christian symbolism of immersion in water and the underlying idea of purification that Archbishop Kocsis focused his homily at the blessing of the waters from Batthyány Square in Budapest, following a procession from St. Florian’s Church on the banks of the Danube, opposite the iconic Parliament building.

“In water baptism, Jesus entered the Jordan River, touched the water, and human history was reversed: The water was purified by Jesus’ touch. It is the sanctification of the world, of materials, of our lives, which happens through a touch and which changes them forever,” he stated in comments situated between two-centuries-old religious chants.

Standing on the narrow pontoon floating on the Danube in a drizzle of cold rain, the metropolitan reflected on the origin of the deep desire for purity, cleanliness and clarity that is ontologically inscribed in the human heart, manifesting a need of the soul. Yet water alone, he stressed, cannot offer us that purity to which we naturally aspire and eliminate the defilement caused by sin and lack of love.

“Jesus did not enter the waters of the Jordan to be purified by them, but to purify them,” he continued. “Water can wash our faces, our hands, our bodies, but the purity of our soul can only be given to us by the very source of purity, namely God himself through his Son Jesus Christ.”

“Today we celebrate the fact that the ultimate Source of purity has come to purify the earthly instrument that brings us purity.”

Displaying the Colors of a Glorious Tradition

After immersing a silver cross in the newly blessed Danube and collecting some water, the archbishop also blessed the crowd of pilgrims who, one by one, kissed the cross fervently, under the questioning gaze of passers-by. Here and there, a few drivers blocked by the procession grew impatient, while tourists and onlookers stopped to film the scene.

“Our flamboyant liturgical vestments and our hymns, unchanged for four centuries, necessarily stand out in this urban landscape, but that’s what we’re looking for, too, because we know that we are the bearers of a special message to the people of today,” Archbishop Kocsis told the Register.

Jan. 6 water blessing Budapest
Archbishop Fülöp Kocsis, metropolitan of the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog, blesses the crowd.(Photo: official photos of the eparchy/Görögkatolikus Médiaközpont)

Archbishop Kocsis
Archbishop Kocsis as he blesses the crowd(Photo: official photos of the eparchy/Görögkatolikus Médiaközpont)

“Our strength as an Eastern Church is to carry the colors of our tradition loud and clear and to touch hearts by making people far from the faith aware that our practices are not anachronistic, but can, on the contrary, give meaning to their existence, which is vitiated by a culture of death and consumerism.”

According to the prelate, this exaltation of tradition over and above fashions is one of the reasons why the Greek Catholic Church is resisting better than expected the wave of Western de-Christianization that is not sparing Hungary.

Based on the last national census of 2022, which reported around 165,000 Greek-Catholic faithful in Hungary, the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog has estimated their current presence at around 180,000. This higher estimate is partly due to the fact that 3 million citizens did not declare their religious affiliation at the time of the survey. These figures have remained relatively stable over recent decades.

Encountering People Wherever They Are

Archbishop Kocsis’ outspoken expression of his religious identity also captured the spotlight at the recent Synod on Synodality in Rome in October 2023. Moving around the Vatican always perched on a scooter, the metropolitan sported a long beard, a traditional black cassock and a kamilavkion (a traditional oriental clerical headdress), attracting all eyes as he passed.

At the same time, a picture of him standing next to Pope Francis wearing a trucker’s cap while holding a t-shirt reading “Jesus makes me brave and strong” went viral on social media.

“Young people need landmarks, and young men in particular need this image of healthy masculinity embodied by Christ, this promotion of courage and fortitude, especially at a time when role models and tutelary figures are so scarce,” Archbishop Kocsis continued. This means, in his eyes, seeking out souls wherever they are and speaking their language, in the digital world, as in all spheres of society. This is what the archbishop does on a daily basis in Hungary, where he actively evangelizes biker circles, with whom he regularly shares goulash soups. He is also often seen playing soccer, swimming, hang-gliding, climbing and leading pilgrimages on foot with young people.

“The Church must not only preach the Gospel, it must also enable people to experience God,” he concluded, “particularly through its works of charity and by taking part in all cultural events likely to bring them into contact with God in a lived experience, which will make them aware that he is never a stranger to our daily lives.”