Pope Francis urged Hungary on Sunday to “extend its arms towards everyone,” as the pontiff opened a four-day visit to Central Europe.
The comments were interpreted by some as a veiled critique of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-migration policies, whom Francis met earlier on Sunday despite conflicting views on a range of issues.
Orban greeted the Argentine pope at the Museum of Fine Arts and the two went into a private meeting attended also by the Hungarian president and Vatican officials. Hungary's hard-line stand on migration apparently didn't come up.
“I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish,” Orban wrote on Facebook.
Video footage of the encounter showed Francis shaking hands with President Janos Ader, Orban and deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen and smiling, and then the Hungarian and Vatican sides sitting apart in a cavernous room of the museum.
The Vatican said the meeting was held in a “cordial atmosphere" and lasted longer than expected — 40 minutes.
“Among the various topics discussed were the role of the church in the country, the commitment to the protection of the environment, the protection and promotion of the family," said a Vatican statement.
The pontiff presided over a lengthy Mass in the Hungarian capital, standing and waving to crowds during a jaunt in his open-sided popemobile.
Pope headed to Slovakia
Francis only spent seven hours in Budapest on Sunday before moving on to a three-day, hop-scotch tour of neighbouring Slovakia.
Trip organisers have insisted Francis isn’t snubbing Hungary, noting that the Hungarian church and state only invited him to close out an international conference on the Eucharist on Sunday.
In an interview last week, Francis said he didn’t even know if he would meet with Orban while in Budapest. Vatican officials have said he will, of course, meet with the prime minister along with the Hungarian president in a scheduled meeting.
Frenzied schedule despite July surgery
The visit is being closely watched given it marks Francis' first big and prolonged public outing since he underwent scheduled surgery in July.
Francis, 84, had 33 centimetres of his colon removed and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. He has recently resumed holding public and private audiences and says he is now living a “totally normal life." But he is still on medication and cannot stand for long periods of time.
Papal trips are gruelling under ordinary circumstances, with back-to-back meetings, multiple transfers and lengthy liturgical services, all covered around-the-clock by live television cameras. After his last one — a trip to Iraq in March before the surgery — Francis admitted he might have to slow down, given his age and fatigue.
But the Hungary-Slovakia program bears no evidence of an ageing pope or of one the mend and in fact harks back to the frenzied scheduling that was the hallmark of St. John Paul II’s many foreign trips. Francis is due to deliver 12 speeches over four days, kicking off with a 6 a.m. flight to Budapest on Sunday and ending the day in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, after nine separate events.
'Pope of the peripheries'
After the brief stop in Budapest, Francis heads to Slovakia where the highlight of the trip will be his visit Tuesday with members of the country’s Roma minority, who were persecuted during World War II and continue to face racism, discrimination and abject poverty today.
The “pope of the peripheries” has long sought to visit the most marginal during his foreign trips, insisting on stops at slums, prisons or drug rehabilitation centres. His visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Slovakia’s second city, Kosice, is in keeping with that: Parts of the settlement don’t have running water, gas or electricity.
Francis will also meet with Slovakia’s Jewish community and hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor before he finishes up the visit with a Mass on Wednesday in Sastin, the site of an annual pilgrimage each Sept. 15 to venerate the patron of Slovakia, Our Lady of Sorrows.