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President of Hungarian Bishops’ Conference: Calling the Hungarian Church Conservative is More of a Compliment Than an Insult

Pope Francis’ much-awaited visit to the Hungarian capital of Budapest will be held at the end of this month, on April 28-30.

For many Hungarians, it will be an opportunity to generate a different international view of their country, which is regularly singled out by European elites for policies deemed too conservative and criticized for being too neutral in the sensitive context of the war in Ukraine.

Presenting a more accurate picture to the world is also the hope of the president of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference, Bishop András Veres, who deplores the widespread lack of knowledge about his country in the rest of Europe that has contributed to this anti-Hungarian prejudice.

Born in Pócspetri in 1959, Bishop Veres has served as president of the conference since 2015 and was appointed bishop of Győr by Pope Francis in 2016. He is also the grand chancellor of the historic Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest.

In this March 27 interview with the Register, Bishop Veres also discusses why the Holy Father decided to make a pastoral visit to Budapest just 18 months after participating in the 2021 Eucharistic Congress held there, the main challenges currently facing the local Church, and the recent European Synod on Synodality discussions in Prague.

Your Excellency, what do you think prompted Pope Francis to come back to Hungary, just a year and a half after the Eucharistic Congress?

We can perhaps say that there was a little disappointment that he only spent a short time with us. For his two visits to Hungary, Pope John Paul II stayed longer. So, obviously, after Pope Francis’ short visit to Hungary in 2021, the Hungarian faithful were really waiting for him. Indeed, as he was saying goodbye, Pope Francis said that he would love to come back for an official state visit. We were all delighted to hear that.

I think his memorable experience with the fervent crowd of faithful during the Eucharistic Congress weighted in his decision to come again. We could tell that he was very happy to be here. And he was also close to Hungarian nuns back in Buenos Aires, who helped him with his mission. He somehow has a special tie with our country.

Cardinal Péter Erdő, the primate of Hungary, recently said he was hoping that this papal visit brings new impetus to the Church in Hungary. What are your personal hopes and expectations?

The Eucharistic Congress contributed to make Hungary more well-known in the world. This papal apostolic journey will make our country’s Church better known to the rest of the world, as well.

This visit will consist in a series of meetings, during which the whole Hungarian Catholic Church will introduce itself to the Holy Father. He himself requested to get to know most of the parts of the country’s Church.

I personally would like to put more focus on the youth — also on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the revival of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, which was a century-old institution taken over by the communist regime in the 1950. It will give the youth more strength to profess their faith and stand for the Church in a difficult global cultural context. When we were discussing the details on Pope Francis’ meeting with the youth in László Sports Arena, we really wanted to make sure that they would be able to ask the Holy Father questions about how they can profess their faith better and live out their Catholic faith in a more authentic way.

For me, it will also summarize our relationship with the Holy See, which, for over 1,000 years, has been very significant and excellent. It is what we wanted to express through our logo as well. We wanted to express that our faithfulness and loyalty towards the Holy See is constant.

This logo was designed by the bishops’ conference. What is its symbolic meaning?

During the Eucharistic Congress, the Holy Father told us that the Catholic Church is meant to be a bridge connecting the whole humanity and that Hungary should also be a bridge between the East and the West in Europe, like the famous Chain Bridge, which connects Buda and Pest.

The Vatican’s and Hungary’s colors appear, as well. There is also the globe, which can refer to the whole world but also to the Eucharist, which also offers a reminder of the Pope’s previous visit to Hungary. And, of course, the cross is there to represent Christ, who is the one who mediates between God and the world, the one we look upon as the Redeemer of the world, the keeper of our faith.

The places that have been selected are not necessarily the most symbolic places in Hungary, from a religious perspective. The Pope won’t visit places like the famous Marian national Shrine of Máriapócs or Budapest’s oldest parish church, the Inner City Parish Church, that is celebrating its 975 years of existence. According to which criteria did you choose the locations?

A year and a half ago, when we discussed the possibility of a pastoral visit, we thought about an entire country visit. In last November, when we got the news that it would be likely to happen, we were still thinking that the Pope would visit more places outside Budapest, but his health issues made it impossible.

But we’re trying to organize it in a way that enables people from all parts of the country to meet with him. The locations in the program were chosen for that purpose. The Pope will visit St. Stephen’s Basilica and St. Elizabeth’s Church, two very symbolic places. St. Elizabeth was a very well-known Hungarian figure, famous for helping the poor her whole life.

The Sports Arena was picked for the youth. We also chose Kossuth Square because we wanted a place where a large crowd could gather, but we wanted it to be different than Hero’s Square, where the Eucharistic Congress’ main celebrations took place. And the Parliament stands behind, evoking the nation as a whole. We hope that all these places will have a symbolic scope that will communicate who we are and our enthusiasm in receiving the Pope’s visit.

What about the state of the Catholic Church in Hungary? The country seems to be suffering from the same de-Christianization affecting the rest of Europe. Yet Hungary is striving to preserve its Christian tradition through special initiatives, such as the “Hungary Helps” program, and the existence of an official prayer group at the Parliament. What is your take on the situation?

We do have to admit that the Church is experiencing a difficult time in Hungary, as well. For me, it’s evident that the atheistic way of raising kids from kindergarten to college nowadays causes this non-Christian upbringing.

Under the communist regime, the families were at least able to educate their children at home and raise them in the Catholic faith. Aside of the state ideology, there was still the possibility for Christianity to survive.

But now, we’re faced with multiple generations that never received a Christian education, a Christian family background, and they were raised as atheists. From the West also arrived that sort of hedonistic way of life, which strengthened the faithlessness in the country.

In this double-sided pressure context, the Hungarian Catholic Church is doing its best to keep proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel. We have less faithful now because there are less committed Christian families. As a result, we also have less vocations to the priesthood and religious life. With a smaller group, daily evangelization is made more difficult.

But at the same time, we can also say that there are tiny but significant signs of strengthening of the Christian faith in Hungary. I recently talked about that with a bishop who is an old friend of mine, who told me, “Don’t think that many decades ago there were more committed Christians than today.” The smaller Christian community, many of whom were brought to the faith not through their family but through different spiritual movements and communities, are the ones who are bringing forth the light. We see that there are certain results coming out of it.

We can especially see this whenever we meet with the youth and host events like Forráspont, an annual Catholic youth event connected to the Eucharistic Congress. This shows that many young people who didn’t receive a religious education became interested in the faith through their schools or groups of friends, and they can open up to Catholicism.

You took part in the continental assembly of the Synod on Synodality in Prague last February. There were some divisions, as highlighted by several bishops and cardinals who mentioned the push of some participants in the synodal discussions to change the doctrine of the Church, including its teachings on sexual morality; but there also seemed to be an overall quest for unity. What was your personal impression?

As a bishop and as the president of the bishops’ conference, I have to attend meetings like these often. I’ve never seen so many bishops and laypeople gathering together. All the bishops there wanted to make sure that the European Churches’ opinion would be represented at that event. Many opinions were expressed, from different countries, and, indeed, some were really vocal about their opinions and made requests that nevertheless represent a minority opinion. Even in small groups, we actually had constructive conversations on these topics.

Were these requests for doctrine evolution evident in Hungary during the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality, as well? Did a lot of young people participate in the consultations?

There were definitely not the same tensions and requests that were reported in other countries. It was more about finding the way to make the Church more synodal and the things that can be done on a local level. I often explained to people who participated that synodality isn’t really a new thing, that since the very beginning of the Church, synodal ways have always existed; and that if a parish is well-functioning, then this sort of dialogue is continuous — it’s always there.

And, yes, the youth, those in their 20s and 30s, made up a significant part of participants. In these gatherings, we were clear on the fact that we wanted to show the reality of the field and not to paint a picture that wouldn’t reflect things as they really are. Around the synod, there was not the huge excitement that some people would perhaps have expected.

It actually largely depended on the local parish priests. If the parish priests were really involved and organized local gatherings where people could express their opinions, the results turned out to be really positive.

How do you perceive the role of Hungary in the current European landscape? The country is both labeled as being too conservative — and strongly criticized for that — and also praised as a source of inspiration for many people willing to preserve their local traditions and Christian roots.

Traveling throughout Europe, I also experience the fact that, because of the press, a lot of people tend to have a negative perception of Hungary. I have many priest and bishop friends in the German-speaking world, with whom I once studied in Rome, who ask me, “What is going on in Hungary?” I would say to them, “Come to Hungary, and you will see by yourself.” When these friends come and visit me, they realize there is a lot of false information being spread in the press about Hungary.

As for the Church or the government being labeled as “conservative,” to me, that is more of a compliment than an insult. If you look at the things we are criticized for, the most basic things, such as the fact that the Hungarian government refuses gender ideology in schools, for instance, the faithful actually agree with this.

The problem is not the sexual orientation in an individual. The problem is when we want [as a modern society] to create a space so that an ideology can be imposed on the children in order to try and influence them. I also think that God created human men and women, and that’s the norm. Saying otherwise is an aberration.

If we look at the question of immigration, it is not true that Hungary isn’t welcoming to migrants. But from 2015, we refuse to have illegal migrants enter the country. There are plenty of migrants in Hungary. Yesterday, I met with a couple from Syria who were expecting their first child. And they asked for help to find an accommodation. The Hungarian government, in particular through the Hungary Helps program, tries to help Christians in the Middle East.

From Ukraine, we accepted over 1 million refugees. A large number of them went to different countries afterwards, but another significant part stayed in Hungary, and we helped them.

These topics are those that receive the strongest criticism from the European Union and some politicians. But I think things are actually pretty normal and reasonable as they are now in our country.

Do you think that somehow Hungary can be a role model for the future of Europe in a context of political, cultural and spiritual crisis?

I do. I travel a lot and talk to a lot of different people, not just bishops, but also ordinary citizens. It is very rare for me to meet with people whose views are so different from those defended by a majority of people in Hungary. Most attacks come from small circles supported by political movements. But I believe that, in general, the opinion of a majority of Westerners is close to ours.

Source : National Catholic Register

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