VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is making his first foreign trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in July, a four-day visit to Central Europe that will not only test his health but also provide one of the most awkward moments of his papacy — a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the sort of populist, right-wing leader Francis typically scorns.
Francis is only spending seven hours in Budapest on Sunday before moving on to a three-day, hop-scotch tour of neighboring Slovakia. This truncated itinerary indicates that Francis did not want to give Orban all the political benefits, photo opportunities and bragging rights that go with hosting a pope on a state visit.
Trip organizers have insisted Francis isn’t snubbing Hungary, noting that the Hungarian church and state only invited him to close out an international conference on the Eucharist on Sunday. The Rev. said, “If I’m only invited for dinner, then I can’t spend the whole night.” Kornel Fabriry is the secretary general for the Eucharist conference.
But the message being sent is clear, and Francis even hammered home the point in a recent interview with the COPE broadcaster of the Spanish bishops’ conference. Last week Francis stated that he did not know whether Orban would be meeting him in Budapest. Officials from the Vatican have confirmed that he would meet the prime minister and the Hungarian president at a planned meeting.
Botond Feledy, policy expert for the Institute of Social Reflection, a Hungarian Jesuit organization, said it was clear Francis and Orban disagree on some fundamental issues — migration topping the list — but said the aim is not to escalate differences or conflicts.
“It is quite clear that the 30 minutes that Pope Francis has in his program to meet with the head of state, the head of government and the bishop is a very, very short time,” Feledy said in an interview. “This shows that he is not really coming for a political visit, but to give a Mass at the congress after having a protocol greeting with the Hungarian politicians.”
Francis has long expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees — he once brought a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees home with him during a trip to a refugee camp in Greece — and criticized what he called “national populism” advanced by governments like Hungary’s.
Orban is known for his hard-line stance against immigration and frequently depicts his government as a defender of “Christian civilization” in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries. In 2015,, he refrained from accepting proposals to resettle refugees from Africa and the Middle East in Hungary. He also built a wall along Hungary’s south border to stop EU asylum-seekers.
Asked in 2016 about Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, Francis famously quipped that anyone who builds a border wall is “not Christian.”
The start of the closed-door meeting will not be filmed live — one of the few moments of interest that the pope will be off-camera during the trip. This is Francis’ first major and extended public appearance since July, when he had scheduled surgery to correct a narrowing in his large intestine.
Francis, 84, had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon removed and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. He is currently able to hold public and private audiences again and claims that he lives a normal lifestyle. However, he still takes medication and is unable to stand for prolonged periods.
Papal trips are grueling under ordinary circumstances, with back-to-back meetings, multiple transfers and lengthy liturgical services, all covered around-the-clock by live television cameras. Francis acknowledged that he may need to slow down after his last trip, which was to Iraq in March prior to the surgery.
But the Hungary-Slovakia program bears no evidence of an aging pope or of one the mend and in fact harks back to the frenzied scheduling that was the hallmark of St. John Paul II’s many foreign trips. Francis is due to deliver 12 speeches over four days, kicking off with a 6 a.m. flight to Budapest on Sunday and ending the day in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, after nine separate events.
“Maybe in this first trip I should be more careful, because one has to recover completely,” Francis said in the COPE interview. “But in the end it will be the same as the others, you will see.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said no extra health care measures were being taken for the trip, “just the usual caution.” Francis’ personal doctor and nurses would be traveling with him in the Vatican delegation, as usual, he said.
Bruni, too, stressed that the main focus of the Hungary leg of the trip was spiritual and noted that Francis has made other quick trips for specific events without fulfilling the protocol trappings of a proper state visit. While the pope was in Strasbourg to make speeches at European Parliament and Council of Europe for a day, he didn’t spend much time there.
After the brief stop in Budapest, Francis heads to Slovakia where the highlight of the trip will be his visit Tuesday with members of the country’s Roma minority, who were persecuted during World War II and continue to face racism, discrimination and abject poverty today.
The “pope of the peripheries” has long sought to visit the most marginal during his foreign trips, insisting on stops at slums, prisons or drug rehabilitation centers. The visit to Lunik IX, Slovakia’s second-largest city, Kosice is consistent with this: Some parts of the settlement are without running water, gas, or electricity.
Francis will also meet with Slovakia’s Jewish community and hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor before he finishes up the visit with a Mass on Wednesday in Sastin, the site of an annual pilgrimage each Sept. 15 to venerate the patron of Slovakia, Our Lady of Sorrows.
Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary.