In the middle of July Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of communication between the government and religious, nationality and civic organizations, called together the Council of Charitable Organizations, whose members are the Catholic Caritas, the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, the Baptist Charity Service, the Hungarian Red Cross, and the Hungarian Ecumenical Aid Service. It was becoming painfully obvious that these charitable organizations were doing very little to alleviate the suffering of the asylum seekers who were arriving in Hungary on their way farther west.
The spokesmen for these organizations protested and tried to prove that quietly, behind the scenes they were hard at work. They said that they don’t like to brag about their accomplishments, that they were doing their job in a discreet manner. According to their critics, they had succeeded so well that they were practically invisible.
The media decided to look into the “quiet” activities of these organizations. Upon questioning, each of them described their accomplishments which, compared to the work of the ad hoc civilian groups, were minuscule. Two shelters that could give temporary shelter to 80 people (families exclusively), some food distribution in transit zones, psychological counseling, and occasional mobile medical service. The least active, I believe, had to be the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, which seemed to be involved primarily with refugees who had already received refugee status in Hungary. Admittedly, integrating newcomers into Hungarian society is an important job, which should be the duty of the Hungarian government. Language lessons, for example, are much more effective if they are given by professionals instead of church volunteers.
In fact, earlier we were told that there was no need for any charitable services, that the refugees living in camps were well looked after by the Hungarian government. So far this year the Catholic Caritas has sent only four trucks with food, baby food, clothes, and toiletries. In the future, they promised, they will distribute 10,000 bottles of mineral water. The Hungarian Red Cross apparently managed to get 92 million forints from the International Red Cross which is, of course, a drop in the bucket, so they are asking for contributions from the public. I have the feeling, however, that Hungarians have lost their trust in these charitable organizations and that they’d rather offer help to the civilians on the spot.
All in all, the general impression was that neither church-related organizations nor the churches themselves were doing much when it came to the refugee crisis. The silence of the so-called historic churches was deafening. Months ago György Bolgár decided to ask for an interview with Bishop Miklós Beér, perhaps the only bishop who seems to be at all sensitive to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden, especially Hungary’s Roma population. Although Beér was sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, it was clear from his answers that the Hungarian Catholic Church was not contemplating any statement about what a good Christian’s attitude ought to be toward the refugees. Pope Francis at least twice had called on Europeans to take in the desperate refugees and condemned the fences some countries were building to keep them out. In the face of the pope’s statements, it was more and more difficult for Hungarian church leaders to remain quiet.
On September 3 Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, gave an interview to Népszabadság which outraged those Hungarians sympathetic to the refugees. To the question of why the Catholic Church does not open its doors to refugees who need shelter, the archbishop claimed that the reason for the church’s refusal to follow the example of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who will make space for 1,000 refugees, is that Hungarian law prohibits it. Giving such shelter is tantamount to human trafficking/smuggling. This excuse, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, is nonsense. Smuggling anything or anybody can only be done across national borders.
There is nothing surprising in Erdő’s reluctance to do anything that might irritate the Orbán government. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Catholic Church throughout its history has been a steadfast supporter of the government in power, especially if it leaned right. As far as I can see, the main concern of church leaders is how much money they can get from the government.
After the backlash to his interview, the archbishop claimed that the media “misunderstood” what he had actually said. The journalist took his words out of context. His explanation was anything but convincing, and the only additional information he provided was that “the church was planning to open church properties to the refugees.” Yes, sometime in the future.
Here I would like to record two reactions. One is Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s open letter to Cardinal Archbishop Péter Erdő. Kerék-Bárczy, who is currently on the executive board of the Demokratikus Koalíció, was previously one of the leading politicians of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), a right-of-center party demolished by the machinations of Viktor Orbán. Kerék-Bárczy is a practicing Catholic.
In this letter he reminds Erdő of Pope Francis’s view that turning these refugees away amounts to “war, violence, and murder.” In June the pope called on those who build fences to beg the forgiveness of God. Many national churches have followed the pope’s instructions and teaching, but there is total silence from the Hungarian Catholic Church. Kerék-Bárczy “as a Hungarian Catholic” is full of questions. This is not the first time that he is confused. He no longer knows “what the Hungarian Catholic Church stands for.” The Bible says that “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). And now, a thousand years after Hungarians accepted Christianity, “a government that calls itself Christian does the exact opposite” of what Christ ordered. Instead of accepting them, it sends armed soldiers to keep them out of the country. In Kerék-Bárczy’s opinion, the Conference of Bishops should as a body take a stand against the government’s inhumane behavior. It is not enough to do charity work quietly. One must stand up and provide guidance to Hungarian society, even if that means being on a collision course with the current government.
The other remarkable reaction came from László Vértesaljai, a Jesuit monk who is editor-in-chief of the Hungarian-language Vatican Radio. He delivered a mass yesterday whose message came from the story Luke tells:
On a sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath?” And Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:1-5)
In Vértesaljai’s eyes, Erdő and the rest of the leading Catholic leaders are Pharisees who hide behind the laws. There are times when the laws ought to be transgressed because they go against the teachings of Christ.
Harsh words from both Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy and László Vértesaljai and foremost from Pope Francis who this morning called on Europe’s Catholics to shelter refugees. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family.” According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 120,000 parishes in Europe.
To be fair, one Hungarian churchman, the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma, has in the last couple of days sheltered a few refugee families. But one must keep in mind two things. First, Abbot Asztrik Várszegi is an exception to the incredibly conservative Hungarian clergy. Second, it seems that it was not Várszegi who went to the civic organizers and asked how he could help, as, for example, Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister, did. He was approached by the organizers who were shepherding some refugees going to Austria on foot. Almost as if these young volunteers said to themselves: let’s see what they will do. Will they follow the example of Cardinal Erdő or will they decide to act as true Christians?
I assume that sooner or later the Hungarian high clergy will be shamed into offering shelter to the growing number of refugees, but at the same time I doubt that they will do what Szabolcs Kerők-Bárczy asked Cardinal Erdő to do: to speak openly and condemn the Hungarian government for its heartless, un-Christian behavior.