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BUDAPEST, Hungary (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis and Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán met for 40 minutes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest on Sunday morning in a historic event charged with loaded symbolism and ideological sniping.
After months of diplomatic wrangling punctuated by mutual put-downs, the pope and prime minister exchanged gifts and discussed the Church's role in Hungary, protecting the environment and the protection and promotion of the family, the Holy See Press Office announced.
The meeting took place "in a cordial atmosphere," the Vatican Press Office said, before the pontiff proceeded to preside over the concluding Holy Mass at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress and then left for a four-day visit to Slovakia.
Hungary's Catholic president János Áder, deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén, Vatican secretary of state Cdl. Pietro Parolin and secretary for relations with states Abp. Paul Gallagher were also present with Francis and Orbán — with none of the leaders wearing face masks.
The ideological fissures between Francis' pro-Islam and open borders stance versus Orbán's opposition to Muslim immigration and his defense of Western civilization surfaced in the pope's address to bishops, ecumenical leaders and especially his Angelus address.
"Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots," Francis said. "Yet the Cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted; it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone."
"The Cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness," he added, urging Hungarians to be "grounded and open, rooted and considerate" in their proclamation of the gospel.
"Diversity is always a little scary because it jeopardizes acquired security," the pontiff told bishops, exhorting them to be "a builder of bridges and a promoter of dialogue."
"Faced with cultural, ethnic, political and religious differences," we can "close ourselves in a rigid defense of our so-called identity or open ourselves to the encounter with the other and cultivate together the dream of a fraternal society," Francis pleaded.
"Let us allow Jesus, the Living Bread, to heal us of our self-absorption, open our hearts to self-giving, liberate us from our rigidity and self-concern, free us from the paralyzing slavery of defending our image and inspire us to follow Him wherever He would lead us," the pope preached in his homily at the closing Holy Eucharist.
Orbán shot back on Facebook: "I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish."
In what Catholic commentator Rocco Palmo called "an act of brazen obstinacy," Orbán presented Francis with "a 13th-century king's letter to a prior pontiff warning of 'invaders.'"
The prime minister's political director Balázs Orbán explained on social media that the gift was "a letter that King Béla IV wrote for Pope Innocent IV in 1250" warning of "the looming threat of the Tatar [Mongol] invasion and called for the unity of Europe. He was ignored. Thirty-five years later, Hungary fended off the Tatars with great bloodshed."
King Béla IV pleaded with Pope Innocent IV "as to the sole and very last protector of Christian faith in our ultimate need, so that what we fear will not happen to us, or rather, through us, to you and to the rest of Christendom."
"It is rather against the whole of Christendom that their forces are unified" and "they have firmly decided to send their countless troops against the whole of Europe soon," wrote Béla, "unless by its careful consideration the farsighted Apostolic See securely and powerfully fortifies our kingdom in order to comfort the peoples living in it."
"If — God forbid — this territory were possessed by the Tartars, the door would be open for them [to invade] the other regions of the Catholic faith," the letter warned.
Béla concludes his warning to the pontiff by noting that if the petition "suffers a refusal (which we cannot believe), then we should be obliged by necessity, not like sons but like step-sons, excluded from the flock of the father, to be for aid elsewhere."
Hungarians on social media were quick to view the gift as a rebuke of Francis' "open borders" policy towards Islamic immigration and as an icon of Orbán's defense of Christian Hungary in imitation of King Béla (who developed fortified towns and allowed barons and prelates to erect stone fortresses and set up private armed forces in preparation for a second Mongol invasion).
"The question is whether the pope takes the effort to understand why he received this gift," one commentator wrote. On his Facebook page, Balázs Orbán wrote: "there are many similarities between the situation at that time and today...we should learn from history."
Francis earlier presented Orbán with a mosaic depicting the "papal blessing in St. Peter's Square" based on an oil painting by Ippolito Caffi (1809–1866).
Orbán, a committed Calvinist, had a front-row seat during Francis' Mass, during which the pontiff spoke of the Eucharist as "impelling us to the realization that we are one body, to the willingness to let ourselves be broken for others."
Most of the 75,000 congregants at the pope's concluding Mass did not wear masks, and no tests or vaccination certificates were required to gain entrance.