The Pope’s go to to Central Europe places his well being and diplomacy to the check
VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is making his first trip abroad since his bowel surgery in July, a four-day visit to Central Europe that not only puts his health to the test, but also offers one of the most unpleasant moments of his papacy – a meeting with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a populist right-wing leader whom Francis usually despises.
Francis spends just seven hours in Budapest on Sunday before setting off on a three-day hop-scotch tour of neighboring Slovakia. The crooked itinerary suggests that Francis wanted to avoid giving Orban the boastful rights, political boost, and photo opportunities that come with picking up a Pope for a proper state visit.
The tour operators insisted that Francis not snub Hungary, noting that the Hungarian Church and State only invited him to conclude an international conference on the Sunday Eucharist. “If I am only invited to dinner, I cannot stay the night,” said Pastor Kornel Fabry, general secretary of the Eucharist.
But the message that is being sent is clear, and Francis even got to the heart of it in a recent interview with the COPE broadcaster of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference. In the interview last week, Francis said he didn’t even know if he would meet Orban in Budapest. Vatican officials have announced that he will of course meet with the Hungarian President for a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister.
Botond Feledy, policy expert at the Institute of Social Reflection, a Hungarian Jesuit organization, said it was clear that Francis and Orban were at odds on some fundamental issues – migration top the list – but said the goal was not to have differences or escalate conflicts.
“It is very 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,” said Feledy in an interview. “This shows that he is not really coming for a political visit, but rather to hold a mass at the congress after a protocol-based welcome with the Hungarian politicians.”
Francis has long expressed his solidarity with migrants and refugees – he once brought home a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees during a trip to a refugee camp in Greece – and criticized what he called “national populism” promoted by governments like the Hungarian was promoted.
Orban is known for his tough stance on immigration and often portrays his government as the 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 EU asylum seekers out.
When asked about Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico in 2016, Francis famously joked that anyone who builds a border wall is “not a Christian”.
The start of the closed-door meeting will not be filmed live – one of the few interesting moments the Pope will be off camera during the trip. It’s a visit that is being closely watched as it marks Francis’ first major and extended public outing since he underwent a scheduled surgery in July that was a severe narrowing of his colon, according to the Vatican.
Francis, 84, had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon removed and was hospitalized for 10 days to recover. He recently held public and private audiences again and says he is now leading a “completely normal life.” But he is still on medication and cannot stand for long.
Papal journeys are strenuous under normal circumstances, with successive meetings, multiple transfers, and lengthy liturgical services, all monitored 24/7 by live television cameras. After his last trip – a trip to Iraq in March before the surgery – Francis admitted that given his age and fatigue, he may need to slow down.
But the Hungary-Slovakia program shows no evidence of an aging or healing Pope and is indeed reminiscent of the hectic scheduling that was the hallmark of Saint John Paul II’s many trips abroad. Francis will give 12 speeches over four days, flying to Budapest at 6 a.m. on Sunday and ending the day after nine separate events in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
“Maybe I should be more careful on this first trip because you have to relax completely,” said Francis in the COPE interview. “But in the end it will be like the others, you will see.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said no additional health measures would be taken for the trip, “just the usual caution”. Francis’ personal physician and nurses would travel with him in the Vatican delegation as usual, he said.
Bruni also emphasized that the main focus of the Hungarian leg of the trip was on the spiritual and noted that Francis had made other short trips for certain events without fulfilling the protocol trappings of a regular state visit. The Pope traveled to Strasbourg, France, on a one-day visit in 2014 to give speeches to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, but did not stay.
After the brief stopover in Budapest, Francis travels to Slovakia, where the highlight of the trip on Tuesday will be his visit to members of the country’s Roma minority, persecuted during World War II and still today with racism, discrimination and abject poverty are faced.
The “Pope of the Periphery” has been trying for a long time on his trips abroad to visit the most marginalized and insists on stopping off in slums, prisons or drug rehabilitation centers. His visit to the Lunik IX settlement in the second largest city in Slovakia, Kosice, fits in with this: parts of the settlement have neither running water, nor gas or electricity.
Francis will also meet with the Jewish community of Slovakia and hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor before concluding his visit with a mass on Wednesday in Sastin, the site of an annual pilgrimage every September 15 in honor of the patron saint of Slovakia, Ours Dear woman of worries.
Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary.