VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is sparking off a diplomatic stink with Hungary after he expressed reluctance to tour the country or meet its political leaders, limiting his forthcoming trip instead to a three-hour stop.
Although the pontiff will celebrate the closing Mass at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress being held in Budapest from Sept. 5–12, he does not plan to call on the Catholic head of state President János Áder and evangelical Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Pope Francis may hop across the border and spend three and a half days in Slovakia — a move that is being seen as a "a gigantic slap in the face" of Orbán, Vaticanist Edward Pentin reported Thursday.
Lambasting the pope's diplomatic bungle as "outrageous," a Budapest churchman compared the papal snub to Francis "spending half a day in Israel and then three and a half days in Iran, or half a day in Poland and then traveling to Russia for a few days."
Cardinal Péter Erdő of Esztergom-Budapest and Hungary's deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén visited Rome last week to plead for a longer visit.
"Something is not right here, at least from the point of view of diplomacy and protocol," Luis Badilla Morales, editor of Italian news aggregator Il Sismografo, wrote Thursday. "Thinking like this is the wrong move."
"What the pope does, any pope, cannot appear or be presented as a use of his diplomacy to divide, separate and distinguish countries, peoples and ruling classes," Morales stressed. "The pope and his paternal arms should be open to all."
Even though Hungary is the only country in Europe whose rulers have resolutely supported persecuted Christians, Pope Francis has repeatedly taken potshots at the anti-communist Orbán for his policies on immigration, Islam and forging a Christian identity for Hungary.
"We believe Poles and Hungarians have a common path, common fight and common goal: to build and defend our homeland in the form that we want ... Christian and with national values," Orbán said on the eve of the election that won him a third term in 2018.
While Hungary's Catholic bishops are conservative and support Orbán's policies, the pope has stigmatized him as a populist and nationalist — along with Donald Trump, Italy's Matteo Salvini and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
Francis' ideological sympathies lie with the Slovakian president, Zuzana Čaputová, who has worked for leftist philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundations.
Čaputová, a lawyer by profession, is a climate change activist who campaigned with Greenpeace, practices Zen yoga and supports abortion and same-sex relationships.
A high-level Budapest source told Church Militant that the row did not reflect the mood on the ground as Hungarian Catholics were overjoyed with the news of the pope's visit.
"It is not often that the Holy Father himself graces a Eucharistic Congress with his presence and most Hungarians are absolutely over the moon to know that Pope Francis will be presiding at the climactic Holy Mass of this great event," he remarked.
Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive on the morning of Sept. 21 at Ferenc Liszt airport, from which he will drive immediately to Heroes' Square in central Budapest to celebrate Holy Mass. After Mass, he is expected to leave for the Slovakian capital Bratislava.
However, observers point out that Francis' refusal to meet with the head of state and the prime minister is odd, especially since the presidential residence Sándor Palace is just five kilometers away and the prime minister's office is based in a former Carmelite monastery next to the presidential palace.
Speaking to journalists on the return flight from Iraq to Rome in March, Francis said: "Now I will have to go to Hungary for the final Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, not a visit to the country, but just for the Mass."
"But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava, why not make a visit to Slovakia?" he added, noting that "the journeys 'cook' over time in my consciousness."
In 2016, Francis granted Orbán an audience when the prime minister was attending the annual meeting of Catholic lawmakers in Frascati, outside Rome.
However, in 2020, Vatican insiders report that the pontiff was upset when Orbán visited Rome to address the Rome conference on "God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and the Freedom of Nations."
Orbán, who caused a media stir at the conference, lauded Pope John Paul II as "the biggest defender of Central European countries on the world stage, whatever their religious background," even though the prime minister himself confessed to being a Calvinist.
Orbán explained how his "new approach" of "Christian democracy" had replaced "liberal freedom" in Hungary. "It is very unique. Nobody likes it outside Hungary, the liberal press is always attacking us, making jokes of us, but it works," he said.
While Vatican Secretary of State Cdl. Pietro Parolin blasted the Rome conference as "fundamentally infantile," Italian populist leader Giorgia Meloni told Church Militant that, except for leaders like Orbán, "nobody [in Europe] is speaking for persecuted Christians."
"This is what I appreciate about Viktor Orbán; he has the courage to address the persecution of Christians and ask Europe to help Christians in the world. Because nobody will do this if Europe doesn't do it," Meloni added.