The pope’s still flying high

Isten hozott Magyarországon! That’s a common way of saying, “Welcome to Hungary!”

Literally, it means God (Isten) brought you here. And in the case of Pope Francis’ weekend visit to Budapest, the nation’s picturesque capital straddling both sides of the Danube, one could also say “ITA hozott”.

ITA, of course, is currently Italy’s flagship airline. It was established in 2020 when Alitalia was closing down its operations.

ITA now transports the pope – along with his entourage and some 70 journalists – to and from his foreign destinations.

(By the way, the reporters and camera crews in the back of the airbus don’t fly for free. Those in the press pay premium prices for cattle class, thus subsidising the pope’s travels.)

It used to be standard procedure that the pope would return from his foreign journeys on the flagship airline of the last country on his itinerary. That doesn’t happen much anymore. But if it did, it would pose a slight problem for this trip.

Hungary’s national carrier, Malév, went out of business in 2012.

The only thing approximating something like a flag carrier in the Central European country now is privately owned Wizz Air, a multinational Budapest-based super low-cost airline.

Can you imagine the headlines? “Pope is Wizzed back to the Vatican”… “Francis takes a Wizz flight home”…

The pope’s dogged determination

Seriously, though, the pope deserves our admiration for his dogged determination to keep travelling, despite being 86 years of age and having extreme difficulty walking.

But as our correspondents have noted, his decision to visit Hungary has confounded many observers.

Francis was in Budapest for a few hours in September 2021 in order to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress before moving on to neighbouring Slovakia for a State visit.

While he was here back then, he held talks with Hungary’s president and prime minister, privately addressed the nation’s Catholic bishops, and met with representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches and some Jewish communities.

No such ecumenical or inter-confessional meetings were scheduled for this weekend’s trip, which is odd given that Hungary is a multi-faith, if mostly Christian, country. In any case, it is not predominantly Catholic.

And although this papal trip is an official State visit to Hungary, the entire itinerary was planned to unfold in central Budapest. No trips to any other cities in this small, landlocked country.

A visit to the famous Benedictine Archabbey of Pannonhalma? Nem köszönöm. A trip to the Ukrainian border? Not on the schedule…

One of my Hungarian friends joked that Francis wanted to come back to Hungary because he probably misses the food! It’s delicious, of course, but many non-Hungarians find it a bit too rich and heavy for their daily diet.

Anything for peace in Ukraine

The best possible explanation for the papal visit is that Francis is once again exercising what I like to call his “diplomacy of vulnerability”.

This pope has shown time and again that he is willing to go to any length – even to abase himself – in order to achieve certain results.

Such was the case with his historic meeting with Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, in 2016.

The pope practically had to beg for the meeting, which took place at an airport hangar in Havana. He even set aside certain guarantees and pre-conditions that his Vatican aides were insisting on.

Relations between the pope and the patriarch, which were never what you’d call rosy, have soured terribly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There’s that little matter of Francis accusing Kirill of being Vladimir Putin’s “altar boy”, of course, an odd thing to do if you really believe – as the pope for some reason does – that the Holy See can play a role in mediating an end to Russia’s aggression and land grab.

It cannot. But, again, one must admire Francis for trying so hard even to the point of debasing himself.

The pope evidently believes that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has warm relations with the Kremlin, can help him get to Putin or somehow end the Russia-Ukraine war.

And Francis doesn’t give a fig if Mr Orban or others in Hungary try to use the papal visit for their own advantage, the pope will happily allow them if the end result is peace in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

The big news from the Vatican this past week was the announcement that Pope Francis has decreed that a fixed number (70) of “non bishops” (priests, deacons, non-ordained religious, lay men and women) are now to be full voting members of assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.

Naturally, this was greeted by reform-minded Catholics – and bemoaned by traditionalists – as some sort of ecclesial revolution.

The former see it as a major breakthrough that includes the laity (especially women) in the Church’s decision-making process.

The latter seem to see that, too, but they are not in favour of taking authority away from bishops (heirs of the apostles).

Neither group seems to have grasped what has happened. The bishops are still very much in charge. Well, one of them is anyway – the Bishop of Rome.

He’s the one who decides who the 70 non-bishops will be, choosing them “from among a list of 140 people selected (and not elected) by the five International Reunions of Bishops’ Conferences (CELAM, CCEE, SECAM, FABC, FCBCO), the Assembly of Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches and, jointly, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Canada (20 for each of these ecclesial realities)”.

The Synod secretariat said that it is”requested that 50% of them be women and that the presence of young people also be emphasised” (italics mine).

The pope can also add more people if he chooses. Another development is that heads of Roman Curia offices are not automatically ex officio members of Synod assemblies.

The pope will decide which Vatican hierarchs to include.

That’s because the Synod of Bishops is not part of the Roman Curia. It is a permanent body that functions as a consultative body at the discretion of its president, the Bishop of Rome.

  • Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of La Croix International
  • Published in La Croix and republished with permission
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