“The point is, it should hurt” – A Good Friday interview with cardinal Péter Erdő about Lenten, politics and Christian Europe

·2019.04.19

Seeing the Cathedral Notre-Dame on fire filled not only the religious hearts with deep sorrow. And this common sorrow shows us perfectly how deeply and strongly interconnected are Christianity and the European identity, cardinal Péter Erdő explains Válasz in a good Friday interview in which he also made some statements about various aspects of public life. Here are a few of them:

  • The Church itself does not wish to sympathise with any political groupings.
  • There are dangers of hostilities that can develop if we let people turn against each other based on labels like “Christian” or “Muslim”. A clash of civilisations can be a forecast – but also an intention!
  • The ratio of people going to church on Sunday was the same in the early 1900s.
  • The memory of the 1938 International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest – shadowed by that year’s anti-Jewish laws in Hungary – is itself positive. The aim of next Congress in the Hungarian capital in 2020 is not to overwrite the memory of the last one.
  • Sciences are one and scientific research must be free.
  • Christianity cannot be a negative concept. It never defines what one is not. It means one belongs to Christ.

– Have you made any Lenten vows this year?

– I do not usually make vows, as a vow is a deeply solemn religious act. I would rather use the term “resolution”. Lent is a time of penance and there are three acts of the penitent: fasting, praying and charity. We need all these three very badly.

– And have you managed to keep these resolutions?

– I never define a sum I want to set aside for charity, therefore it is hard to measure.–

– How do you measure it, then?

– The point is, it should hurt.

– Should it hurt?

– Yes. To give and do as much as to feel its weight. It should be an effort, it should be uncomfortable.

– Anything more mundane? For example, do you like chocolate and do you give it up for Lent?

– I do not know of any such passions of mine. I rather resolve to pay for example a long due visit to a disabled, sick person I could not find the time to see for a long time. These resolutions are more personal than a set sum of money or giving up sweets.

– During this Lenten Season, there was also ample reason for joy: the preparations for International Eucharistic Congress scheduled for next September in Budapest are nearing their final phase.

– It is a reason for joy indeed. We have found the most suitable organisers, the theological document is already available in Hungarian, the list of lecturers is set, we have received many positive answers from those we have invited.

– An ordinary citizen with little to no interest in theology may as well ask what this event might be or even raise the question why the Hungarian state is supporting it.

– The Congress is something far more general and more comprehensive, it is by no means an academic conference. More of a gathering of people whom the Eucharist is something important to. But what is the Eucharist, after all? It can be a holy mass, holy communion, the Transubstantiation or the Blessed Sacrament.

– So the motto is “No Protestants Allowed”? They do not believe in Transubstantiation…

– The Lord’s Supper does have a different meaning indeed but it is far from keeping out Protestants. Last September, two Protestant bishops were invited to Esztergom (the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church – editor’s note) for a conference; their papers were excellent – and not in the least concealing the differences in confessional principles. It also revealed a number of shared elements in the observation of the Lord’s Supper and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Heads of other Christian denominations are invited for the Closing Mass of the Congress: everybody is welcome at the venue of the event at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square as well as the city’s Puskás Ferenc Stadium where more than a thousand young people are to receive First Communion. There will be musical programs as well. The Holy Mass to be celebrated at Kossuth Square and the candlelight procession afterwards are also open to everyone.

– There has only been one Eucharistic Congress in Hungary so far, namely in 1938, the year of the adoption of the anti-Jewish laws in Hungary, a year drifting towards a new war in Europe. Is there an intention to overwrite memories of the first congress of this infamous year?

– No, as the memory of the International Eucharistic Congress itself is positive. It was a desperate attempt to prevent war. Remember the last line of the anthem of that Congress: “Bind us all in jubilation, peace and friendship on this Earth!” All people wishing peace and fraternity were gathered for that Congress. The policy makers, though, did not hear these voices.

– Is the intention the same behind this second congress?

– Yes, it is. Although we all hope for better conditions.

– It all sounds very noble, but don’t you fear the expansion of Islam, the masses of migrants besieging the Christian Europe?

– Can you call a country or a continent Christian? You can, if you only take cultural traditions and architecture but personal beliefs are more important. Let us ask what those people arriving to Europe think about the world. This question is, alas, not an easy one.

Can you call a country or a continent Christian? Photo: Marcsi Ambrus

– Why not?

– Let me give you an example. In those hectic days of 2015, there was a priest, a black-haired young man with an excellent knowledge of English who was not only talking with people in front of the main railway station in Budapest but also got on a train and accompanied these people till Salzburg. He learned that most of them were not even believers. We also took up the issue within the Council of European Bishops Conferences, discussing the challenge of religious fanaticism and terrorism in 2016 in Paris. Church leaders and experts from the Mid-East all reported about difficulties in the inter-religious dialogue, our Western colleagues on the other hand were more optimistic. The French have ample experience with immigration and they called our attention to the dangers of hostilities that can develop if we let people turn against each other based on labels like “Christian” or “Muslim”.

A clash of civilisations can be a forecast – but also an intention! One thing is for sure: we may never aim to turn civilisations against each other. On the contrary.

The word that the Eucharistic Congress wants to send out is the closing line of Psalm 86: all my fresh spring are in thee. The Psalm is about the city of Jerusalem, about all peoples and nations being its citizen. Egyptians, Babylonians – everybody, even those considered as strangers that time. This also means that we will have to open up our hearts more towards other nations than we were used to.

– Do you mean nations in general or do you have any specific nations in mind?

– I think it is paramount to be on friendly terms with the nations around Hungary. As the venue of the 2020 Congress was announced on the previous Congress on the Philippines, the Czech and the Romanians were first in line to congratulate, saying ,,you can count on our presence”. And on that of their saints, as with the Mission Cross that was blessed by Pope Francis, the relics of the saints and the blessed of the Carpathian Basin also embark on a journey. Some of them are Romanians or Slavs. This is something I had to make clear even to my colleagues and it was not easy. But if the imprisoned Transylvanian bishop, Áron Márton sharing a cell with a Romanian bishop was right, this should not cause any public outcry either.

– Apropos of imprisoned bishops: how probable do you think it is that the Pope himself will beatify cardinal József Mindszenty in Budapest? Say, at the Eucharistic Congress.

– It is customary that local prelates and the bishops invite the Pope. This we have done already but received no answer from His Holiness so far. It is also customary for the Pope to send a papal legate to the Congress to represent him, as it was the case the last time in Hungary in 1938 when cardinal Pacelli was sent as a legate.

We have received no answer from His Holiness so far. Photo: AFP/Andreas Solaro

– Who later became a Pope himself.

– Exactly. Being an apostolic legate is not a bad omen. But it is rather a novelty that in Blaj seven martyr bishops will be beatified by Pope Francis himself. The last pope to beatify someone in person was John Paul II, since then they only celebrate canonisations. This is how I got the humbling task of beatifying Sára Salkaházi on behalf of the Pope – on a day in September 2006, the evening of which is mostly remembered for a political scandal that marked the end of a era in Hungary – it put an abrupt end to the cathartic feeling of the beatification, still we must remember her.

– Coming back to Mindszenty: he stood up against all kinds of oppression, he got imprisoned by the fascists and the communists alike; he said referring to Péter Pázmány that nobody could forbid him from giving his voice forth in public matters, in defence of the rule of law and liberty. Is this a defining feature of him?

– The face of Jesus shines forth on the faces of the saints in an ever so different way. “God is wonderful in His Saints”. Jesus Christ has shown us one possible life of a man on Earth but he never got to be an old man, for instance, or a mother… He could not become many things that are among the possibilities in human life. Christian virtues in different situations and life choices are thus delivered to us by different characters. Mindszenty was one of these characters but so was his auxiliary bishop, Zoltán Meszlényi too: a bishop quiet in talking, great in contemplating. He did not have long to pastor the diocese: he disappeared within a week. He was never brought to court. He died in the Kistarcsa prison in 1951. He was kept in an unheated cell but he gave his last pullover to someone who needed it more. He was not at all like Mindszenty, he was not in the press, people did not talk about him so much but within the Church he is already among the blessed.

– You can identify more with him than with Cardinal Mindszenty, then?

– I can identify with both of them on a certain spiritual level. Cardinal Mindszenty had a keen sense to articulate the truth for everybody to understand, even among the most severe hardships.

– He bowed his head too when he accepted to go in exile – nevertheless, this was this move that brought the Americans and the Kádár government to building up a friendlier relationship. Doesn’t all this imply in the end that Your Eminency’s studies were rendered possible by Cardinal Mindszenty?

– In 1971, when Mindszenty left the country, I was still a student of the Central Seminary. These kinds of changes need time. With the election of cardinal Lékai, things got easier, it was palpable from the ‘70s on, we could even visit Western countries.

– This makes the impression that the Polish Church was unyielding, whereas in Hungary things “got easier” with time. Is this impression right?

– There are some who like contrasts, whereas the truth is, there was no significant differences in the behaviour of the Churches in the region. As for the Hungarian bishops: in the early ‘50s, as the bishops were arrested one after another, the chapter had the task to elect vicars but these elections were neither fair nor free; which entails the invalidity of these elections. The Holy See has the right to declare such elections invalid. They failed to do so in the case of the Hungarian but also in the case of the Czechoslovakian elections.

– So the responsibility lies with Rome.

– Responsibility to what? When Rome wanted to improve our situation, they picked a priest that might be acceptable for the state as well and appointed him as an apostolic administrator. Under Pope Pius XII, as the aforementioned Zoltán Meszlényi was taken into prison, Endre Hamvas was appointed as apostolic administrator – although archbishop Tardini of Rome was not a friend of the Communists.

Cardinal Pacelli – later Pope Pius XII – during the 1938 Eucharistic Congress in Budapest. Photo: Fortepan/Új Ember

– Did being a priest ever get you in trouble in the Kádár era?

– My predecessor, the local chaplain was conscripted as a soldier. After my ordainment, I took over his duties in Dorog. Including religion classes. Classes were not allowed in the parish house, only in the sacristy of the church. The sacristy had a meagre iron stove to heat the room, it turned everything black with soot and gave very little heat. On a rainy afternoon, maybe exactly due to the rain, only three children came to class. Suddenly, an inspector of the city council appeared. “Is that all of you?” Hastily, he said goodbye. He almost pitied me. He is hardly any danger to the public order, he probably noted to himself. It did not entail any atrocities – probably also thanks to the bad weather.

– How is the Church doing thirty years after the political transition? Having seven per cent of the population practicing their faith, it seems the odds are against the Church.

– The ratio of people going to church on Sunday was the same in the early 1900s. There was some upswing in the interwar period but today’s ratio is not a tad worse than before 110 years.

– So nothing to see here?

– Of course there is but in a different way. The question for example of being a practising Catholic sounds very discriminative to me. If someone goes to mass thirty times a year, one approach is to say, why not fifty-two times plus the holy days of obligation? If someone belongs to another denomination that will not expect you to attend masses, though, his person can call himself practising, even if he did not go to one single mass. It is a very distorted reflection. It is more relevant if a person claims to be a Catholic and if this person is baptised. This changes the figures to a great deal.

– So are we not expected to go to church? I am surprised.

–Going to church is an important way to express and to support our personal faith and our feeling of belonging. The Holy Mass, the Eucharistic community constitutes the Church, unchanged since the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian. In some countries this also serves social purposes. The Cathedral of Istanbul for example is always full of young people. Why? It is not easy to meet Christian youngsters, that you can possibly marry, in a city of this size. Probably this is why.

–We hear about a Christian Hungary, a Christian Europe every single day: in political rhetoric, Christianity basically equals non-Muslim, non-migrant, white skinned and European. How do you feel about this?

– When talking about Catholics, I would not stress ,,white of skin” too much – just go to Saint Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest where the English-speaking mass is celebrated by an excellent colleague from Ghana every Sunday. In Budapest you can find masses in sixteen languages. Also, Christianity cannot be a negative concept. It never defines what I am not. It means I belong to Christ. In the early days, those who accepted Him as Messiah were called Christians – by other people, in Antioch, that is today in Turkey, right next to the Syrian border, to be precise. The term “Christian politics” exists of course and if this kind of politics means that a politician wishes to conduct his policies according to the Church’s teachings, it is well so – nevertheless, a commitment full of hardships. In Germany, confessing Christianity and cultural Christianity were already differentiated between as early as the 19th century. But Hungary’s current situation would not fit into the category of a National Church either. Only because someone is born Hungarian, it does not mean that he is also a Christian.

– According to what was said so far, yes it does: culturally.

– What is culture? It is unity in a community’s life. Architecture, cuisine, music, art, holidays. In this sense yes, there is a Christian culture. Sunday is free, Easter is a public holiday, our built environment is marked by church towers all around Europe. A week ago all these should have required an explanation but seeing the Cathedral Notre-Dame on fire filled not only the religious hearts with deep sorrow. And this common sorrow shows us perfectly how deeply and strongly interconnected are Christianity and the European identity. In the middle of all this, you find an ideology. Mostly a religion. It all constitutes a unity if it is based on faith. Where there is no faith, the next generation will keep on adhering the traditions, because it is more comfortable. But not much longer.

The Notre-Dame on fire filled not only the religious hearts with deep sorrow. Photo: Marcsi Ambrus

– Does the state’s financial support of building of new churches contribute to the number of the faithful?

– Not necessarily. The building stock was never financed by the alms of the churchgoers, though. Until World War II, its maintenance was granted by the cities and the patrons; after the war this obligation ceased to exist but the buildings did not. And we have no independent resources.

– You need to be on good terms with the state, with the governments, then?

– This question rises everywhere in secularised Europe where the institutional commitment is strong. French theologist Henri de Lubac already pointed out this problem during the war: as the Church maintains a network of institutions, it must also maintain orderly relations to the state. He considered this statement as a contradiction. Dependence is not a defining element of this relation, though.

– What is, then?

– It is the fact that a considerable part of society views the world in a secularised way, whereas the Church has institutions with far more workplaces that you could fill with suitable and religious workforce. Which means secular thinking finds its way to the inside of the Church which can lead to tensions. In Belgium, most of the schools are maintained by the Church; according to the regulations, though, if the catechist not only tells the children about religion but also tries to convince them that it is true – he will be dismissed. It is a contradictory matter that bears risks concerning our innermost, personal faith.

– Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the state did what is due and the Church withdrew from these segments?

– We have never been offered a choice.

– It is also rumoured that religion classes in school were not organised to your liking either.

– To our liking? Has anyone ever asked the question how or what we liked? A nice tradition in Hungarian politics. The programme of the Antall-government, the so-called White Book, had a chapter on Churches. It declared that the government expects the Churches to undertake great institutional responsibilities in the social, healthcare and educational domain. Expect? We were hardly alive. A few of old monks came out of illegality, we could not even form a whole school staff. The current Hungarian educational system could also remind anyone of the former Soviet anthem: “Built by the people’s mighty hand”. Many parents would like their children to go to Catholic school and there are also teachers willing to take part in the project. They are, of course, laymen, many of them teachers with deep faith. We support and organise these efforts and try to build up a Catholic spirit.

– Are the bishops divided on political matters?

– There are many different opinions but there is a firm unity in matters of faith and Church. This may sound very Catholic but we love each other.

– If one looks at statements of bishop Miklós Beer of Vác or bishop László Kiss-Rigó of Szeged-Csanád, they are so different as if they were not even from the same denomination.

– We all agree on matters of the Ten Commandments or the social teachings of the Church. There are different approaches to their implementation. To all followers of Christ due independence must be given in the secular parts of their lives. This also goes for bishops, although their responsibility is bigger. People have different experiences with life, different situations to face. They take individual decisions and sympathies but the Church itself does not wish to sympathise with any political groupings. All statements regarding society and morals are product of logical derivation that has its premises in the teachings of the Church.

The ratio of people going to church on Sunday was the same in the early 1900s. Photo: AFP/Attila Kisbenedek

– Like “love your friend as you love yourself”.

– For instance, yes.

– From this commandment, it is hard to conclude “except those, who…”

– The commandment is only one premise. The other one is the specific situation of reality. The result, the conclusion will be as strong or weak as the second premise is founded. It is not a happenstance that the Holy See maintains institutes to investigate our reality, also in the domain of social and natural sciences. We need to see reality in the most scientific level because if we do not found our premises on reality, our conclusion will be of little value.

– The Hungarian Academy of Sciences also has institutes. Yet. You are also a member of the Academy. What are your views on the intervention of the state?

– I have participated in major debates, I will be there on the general assembly too. What I see is a vivid process of thinking. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences is currently a public body which per se is fulfilling its task by order of the state.

Sciences are one, though, and scientific research must be free. Not because I say so or because someone demands this but because it is inherent in the nature of science, it will not work otherwise.

The financial and institutional architecture behind can be really diverse. I was fortunate enough to experience how research universities operate in the US at the Berkeley University. The system is largely shaped by capitalism. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been founded so as it can develop a Hungarian language fit for science and to enable research and administration to be conducted in our mother tongue. It was a huge success but the question today is whether the small languages of Central Europe can stand their ground in this environment. Will there be competitive universities in the region if at least some studies are not provided in English?

– You on the other hand understand nearly any language of the world. How did you become such a polyglot?

– My parents belonged to a Catholic family community. They had a priest, Father Imre Mihalik. A highly erudite man, he graduated at Pázmáneum (Collegium Pazmanianum) in Vienna. His licence was withdrawn, he had no ordainment, he lived in a sublet. My parents asked me if I wanted to learn a language. This is how they supported his living: I took French classes from him from the age of seven. In school, I learnt Russian, later Latin at the Piarists, I took private classes in German, much later in English. I was already a priest when I started to develop an interest for the Spanish language. Cardinal Lékai told me once that he wanted to send me to Rome, so I should get ready and start learning Italian. In Dorog there were no Italian teachers so I had to teach myself from discs, cassettes and books. Six months sufficed for me to enrol at the Lateran University but I was still taking Italian classes at the Dante Institute during my first year there. It is probably easy to see that understanding people with different backgrounds is paramount for me. To receive the peace of the Risen Christ, mutual understanding is inevitable. I am very much contented that, as I have already mentioned, this will be the primary message of the International Eucharistic Congress next year.

 

Cover picture: AFP/Attila Kisbenedek

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