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Pope set for visits to Hungary, Slovakia

by The Associated Press | September 12, 2021 at 5:17 a.m.
technician sets up lights inside the St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. Pope Francis is making his first foreign trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in July. His four-day visit to Hungary and Slovakia starting Sunday will not only test his health but also provide what may be one of the most awkward moments of his papacy ? a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the sort of populist, right-wing leader Francis scorns. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis is making his first foreign trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in July, a four-day visit to Central Europe that will not only test his health but also provide one of the most tense moments of his papacy -- a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the sort of populist, right-wing leader Francis typically scorns.

Francis is only spending seven hours in Budapest today before moving on to a three-day tour of neighboring Slovakia.

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Trip organizers have insisted Francis isn't snubbing Hungary with the lopsided itinerary, noting that the Hungarian church and state only invited him to close out an international conference on the Eucharist today. "If I am only invited to dinner, I cannot spend the night," said the Rev. Kornel Fabry, secretary-general of the Eucharist conference.

But the message being sent is clear, and Francis even hammered home the point in a recent interview with the COPE broadcaster of the Spanish bishops' conference. In the interview, Francis said he didn't even know if he'd meet with Orban while in Budapest. Vatican officials have said he will meet with the prime minister along with the Hungarian president in a scheduled meeting.

Botond Feledy, policy expert for the Institute of Social Reflection, a Hungarian Jesuit organization, said it was clear Francis and Orban disagree on some fundamental issues -- migration topping the list -- but that the aim is not to escalate differences or conflicts.

"It is quite clear that the 30 minutes that Pope Francis has in his program to meet with the head of state, the head of government and the bishop is a very, very short time," Feledy said in an interview. "This shows that he is not really coming for a political visit, but to give a Mass at the congress after having a protocol greeting with the Hungarian politicians."

Francis has long expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees -- he once took a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees home with him during a trip to a refugee camp in Greece -- and criticized what he called "national populism" advanced by governments like Hungary's.

Orban is known for his hard-line stance against immigration and frequently depicts his government as a defender of "Christian civilization" in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries. In 2015, he rejected proposals to settle refugees from the Middle East and Africa in Hungary and erected a fence along Hungary's southern border to keep out EU asylum-seekers.

Asked in 2016 about Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico, Francis quipped that anyone who builds a border wall is "not Christian."

The start of the private meeting will not be filmed live -- one of the few moments of interest that the pope will be off-camera during the trip. It's a visit that is being closely watched given that it marks Francis' first big and prolonged public outing since he underwent scheduled surgery in July for what the Vatican said was a severe narrowing of his large intestine.

Francis, 84, had 13 inches of his colon removed and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. He has recently resumed holding public and private audiences and said he is now living a "totally normal life." He is still on medication and cannot stand for long periods of time.

But the Hungary-Slovakia program bears no evidence of an aging pope or of one on the mend, and it in fact harks back to the frenzied scheduling that was the hallmark of St. John Paul II's many foreign trips. Francis is to deliver 12 speeches over four days.

"Maybe in this first trip I should be more careful because one has to recover completely," Francis said in the COPE interview. "But in the end it will be the same as the others, you will see."

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