Pope Francis celebrates mass at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest


POPE FRANCIS went to Budapest on Sunday to celebrate a mass in Heroes’ Square which closed the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) of a week. It was the first time that a Pope had attended an IEC in 20 years. In addition to its spiritual significance, the event was notable for signs of diplomatic tension with the Hungarian far-right government Fidesz.

IEC takes place every four years. It includes a week of liturgies, conferences and cultural events designed to foster devotion to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and to reflect on its significance for Christian life. This year’s convention was postponed from last September, due to the pandemic.

About 50,000 people from 100 countries registered to attend the congress, and about double that number filled Heroes’ Square on Sunday. The crowd spread to Andrássy Avenue, the large boulevard that dominates the center of Pest.

Mass was in Latin using the Novus Ordo rite; the reading and epistle of the Old Testament were in English and Spanish; and the gospel was sung in Hungarian. The announcements were made in Italian.

A key point of the pope’s program was a celebration according to the Byzantine rite of the Roman Catholic Church – the Patriarch of the Melkite Greco-Catholic Church, His Beatitude Youssef Absi, presided over the divine liturgy in St. Stephen’s Basilica on Wednesday from last week.

A related theological symposium in the nearby town of Esztergom reflected on the Eucharist as a relief for Christians facing persecution. The theme was illustrated by the presence of Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, where the Church operates under difficult conditions following last year’s military coup. In his speech, Cardinal Bo underlined the relationship of the Eucharist with justice. He called for a “world Eucharist of common resources, economic and ecological justice – a world in which the justice of God triumphs”, according to the Austrian publication KathPress reported.

Despite the restrictions on the admission of non-RCs to communion, the IEC and the Papal Mass stood out for their inclusiveness, both ecumenical and interfaith. At public events leading up to the CEI, Reformed and Lutheran bishops were invited to articulate the meaning of the Eucharist in their churches. Rabbinical scholars have also contributed to reflections on the meaning of bread in Jewish ritual tradition.

Pope Francis met with Protestant and Jewish leaders in Hungary before mass. Pastor Frank Hegedüs, of St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy in Budapest, was also briefly introduced to the Pope. During the service, ecumenical and interfaith representatives sat directly opposite the Pope. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, was next to the altar.

Pope Francis’ reports with other religious leaders contrasted with signs during the visit of his strained relations with the Hungarian government.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has presented himself as “the defender of Christian Europe” against the perceived challenges of Muslim migration “and LGBT ideology” (Commentary, July 30). He also presided over a deterioration of the rule of law and press freedom, according to monitoring reports from NGOs and the European Commission. On August 7, his government legally banned the display or sale of materials “promoting homosexuality” within 200 meters of churches.

Pope Francis urged governments to provide compassionate responses to those fleeing violence in hot spots around the world, and encouraged RC clergy to show greater pastoral sensitivity to LGBT people.

The two leaders sent signals during the visit. In a short meeting before Mass, Mr. Orbán (a Calvinist) presented the Pope with a facsimile of a letter from 1243 from Hungarian King Bela IV, asking Pope Innocent IV to help him resist the Mongol invasion of Europe. Mr. Orbán added a personal appeal to the Pope not to “let Christian Hungary perish”. During Mass (preaching of Mark 8:28), the Pope spoke of the “false messianism” of worldly power which seeks to “silence our opponents”.

After seven hours in Budapest, the Pope traveled to Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, to begin an official three-day state visit.

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