Pope Francis arrived in Hungary on Sunday for his first trip abroad since his bowel surgery in July.
The four-day visit to Central Europe will not only put his health to the test, but also provide one of the most embarrassing moments of his papacy – a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the kind of populist leader Francis generally despise.
Francis only spends seven hours in Budapest on Sunday before moving on to a three-day tour of neighboring Slovakia.
The trip organizers insisted that Francis is not snubbing Hungary, noting that the Hungarian church and state did not invite him to close an international conference on the Eucharist until Sunday.
In an interview last week, Francis said he wasn’t even sure if he would meet Orban in Budapest. Vatican officials said he would of course meet the Hungarian prime minister and president at a scheduled meeting.
Disagreements with Orban
Botond Feledy, policy expert for the Institute of Social Reflection, a Hungarian Jesuit organization, said it was clear Francis and Orban disagreed on some basic issues – migration tops the list – but said the aim was not to exacerbate differences or conflicts.
“It’s pretty clear that the 30 minutes Pope Francis has in his schedule to meet with the Head of State, Head of Government and 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 had a formal greeting with the Hungarian politicians.”
Francis has long expressed his solidarity with migrants and refugees – he has already brought home a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees on a trip to a refugee camp in Greece – and criticized what he called “populism. national ”put forward by governments like that of Hungary.
Orban is known for his tough stance against immigration and frequently describes his government as a defender of “Christian civilization” in Europe and a bulwark against migration from majority Muslim 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 prevent EU asylum seekers from enter.
Busy schedule despite the July operation
The visit is closely watched as it marks Francis’s first major and prolonged public outing since undergoing scheduled surgery in July.
Francis, 84, had his colon removed 33 centimeters and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. He has recently resumed holding public and private hearings and says he is now leading a “very normal life”.
Papal journeys are grueling under ordinary circumstances, with back-to-back meetings, multiple transfers, and lengthy liturgical services, all covered 24 hours a day by live television cameras. After his last trip – a trip to Iraq in March before the operation – Francis admitted he might have to slow down, given his age and fatigue.
But the Hungary-Slovakia program bears no evidence of an aging pope or a recovering pope and in fact refers to the frenetic schedule that marked St. John Paul II’s many overseas trips. Francis is due to deliver 12 speeches over four days, starting with a 6am flight to Budapest on Sunday and ending the day in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, after nine separate events.
“Pope of the peripheries”
After the brief stopover in Budapest, Francis heads to Slovakia where the highlight of the trip will be his visit on Tuesday with members of the country’s Roma minority, who were persecuted during WWII and continue to face today. to racism, discrimination and abject poverty.
The “pope of the peripheries” has long sought to visit the most marginalized during his travels abroad, insisting on stops in slums, prisons or drug addiction centers. His visit to the settlement of Lunik IX in Slovakia’s second city, Kosice, is consistent with this: some parts of the settlement have no running water, gas or electricity.
Francis will also meet with the Jewish community of Slovakia and hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor before concluding the visit with a mass on Wednesday in Sastin, site of an annual pilgrimage every September 15 to venerate the patroness of Slovakia, Our -Lady of Sorrows.