Tens of thousands of Hungarians flocked to Budapest’s main square Sunday for Pope Francis’ final Mass, gathering on the banks of the Danube as the pontiff wrapped up a weekend visit to the heart of Europe with pleas for a peaceful end to Russia’s war next door.
The Mass on Kossuth Lajos Square, with the Hungarian parliament and Budapest’s famed Chain Bridge as a backdrop, provided the visual highlight of Francis’ three-day visit that has been dominated by the Vatican’s concern for the plight of neighboring Ukraine.
Citing local organizers, the Vatican said some 50,000 people were participating at the Mass, more than 30,000 of them in the square on a brilliantly sunny spring morning. Among them were President Katalin Novak and Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose lukewarm support for Ukraine has rankled fellow European Union members.
After the Mass, Francis had a final event in Budapest before returning to Rome: a speech on European culture at the Pazmany Peter Catholic University.
The 86-year-old Francis has tried to forge a diplomatic balancing act in his pleas to end the war, expressing solidarity with Ukraine while keeping the door open to dialogue with Moscow. On Saturday, he prayed with Ukrainian refugees and then met with an envoy of Russian Patriarch Kirill, who has firmly supported Moscow’s invasion and justified it as a metaphysical battle against the liberal West.
Francis kissed the cross of Metropolitan Hilarion in a sign of respect for the Russian Orthodox Church during what the Vatican said was a “cordial” 20-minute meeting at the Vatican’s embassy in Budapest. Hilarion, who developed good relations with the Vatican as Kirill’s longtime foreign minister, said he briefed Francis on his work now as the Moscow Patriarchate’s representative in Budapest.
Francis’ visit to Hungary, his second in as many years, brought him as close as he’s been to the Ukrainian front but also to the heart of Europe, where Orban's avowedly right-wing Christian government has cast itself as a bulwark against a secularizing Western world.
Francis, though, has used the visit to call for the continent to find again its spirit of unity and purpose, referencing Budapest's bridges across the Danube as symbols of unity and connection.
The site for his final Mass couldn’t have been more appropriate for that message: The sprawling square is named for one of Hungary’s most famous statesmen who served as its first prime minister after the 1848-1849 revolution against Habsburg rule. It is separated from the left bank of the Danube river only by Hungary’s iconic neo-Gothic parliament, the country’s largest building and home of its National Assembly. Nearby is the Chain Bridge, one of several bridges spanning the river and linking the Pest and Buda sides of the city. ___
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