On a four-day visit to Slovakia and Hungary, Francis had strong words for those who use Christian symbols for personal gain.
Rome – Pope Francis on Tuesday strongly rejected the use of the cross as a political tool, an apparent swipe at nationalist forces in Europe and beyond that using the imagery of Christianity for personal gain.
Francis made his first visit since intestinal surgery in July during a four-day visit to that country and Hungary in eastern Slovakia.
The remarks came two days after Francis stopped in Budapest, where he met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has made Hungary’s Christian roots and identity a hallmark of his political message and policies, including anti-immigrant and nationalist measures.
“The cross is not a flag to wave, but a pure source of a new way of living,” said Francis, “a Christian does not see anyone as an enemy, but sees everyone as a brother or sister.” “
Francis has a track record of speaking more freely and critically after leaving a country. In 2017, he spoke out in support of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar after that country left for neighboring Bangladesh.
On Sunday, he urged Hungarian bishops to embrace diversity. And after a mass celebration there, with Mr. Orban on the front row, he said strong Christian roots allowed a nation to reach “towards all”.
But the pope’s remarks in Slovakia on Tuesday were more clear. He appeared to extend his criticism towards politicians and activists who use Christian references and symbols to gain ground in the so-called culture wars.
“How often do we crave the Christian religion of the conquerors,” he asked, “a victorious Christianity that is important and influential, that garners glory and honor?”
Francis was speaking to about 30,000 believers in Preोवov in eastern Slovakia, where he presided over a Byzantine rite known as a Divine Liturgy, which is used by the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
He then added to his message of inclusion by traveling the country to meet the Roma, who have long experienced discrimination and poverty, in the isolated settlements of Kosice.
In his sermon on Tuesday, Francis spoke at length about Christian identity, lamenting that the cross and the crucifixion had often become mere ornamentation, undermining their true meaning.
He asked, if a person has no meaningful relationship with Jesus, then what is the value of being hanged on a cross by the back mirror or one’s neck? “What good is it,” they said, “until we stop to see the crucified Jesus and open our hearts to him?”
In recent years, some politicians in Europe have used religious symbols as part of campaign messages focused on identity politics.
In Italy, the leader of the populist League party, Matteo Salvini, often campaigned with a garland in his hand. At a rally with far-right leaders from France, Germany and the Netherlands, he also called for the protection of the Virgin Mary over Italy.
Some conservative cardinals at the Vatican – many of whom are highly critical of Francis – spoke of Salvini and expressed sympathy for Orbán.
In interviews ahead of the pope’s visit on Sunday, several Hungarian priests and other Catholics in Budapest echoed Mr. Orbán’s emphasis on Hungary as a Christian country. He said the prime minister had been unfairly criticized for standing up against waves of mostly Muslim migration, which he compared to an invasion.
On Sunday, Mr. Orbán and Francis called for a 40-minute courtesy call, and the prime minister urged the Holy See “not to destroy Christian Hungary.”
Francis spent only seven hours in Hungary, despite his bishops urging him to stay longer.
The Vatican said the Pope’s visit to Budapest was purely spiritual in nature, to celebrate the closing Mass of the one-week Catholic Congress. But others close to the pope allowed that the discrepancy between time spent in Hungary and Slovakia could have a tacit message to Orbán, led by a progressive president who, like Francis, is critical of nationalism. Huh.