As Western Europe is rejecting its Christian heritage, the opposite is occurring in much of Eastern and Central Europe. Among the post-communist countries experiencing a rediscovery of traditional values is Hungary, which is becoming a leader in recognising Europe’s Judaeo-Christian roots, promoting the marriage and family, and standing up for persecuted Christians.
Hungary’s first king, St Stephen I, adopted Christianity and brought his people into European Christendom. While it was a major regional power in the Middle Ages, Hungary was victimised by its more powerful neighbours in later centuries. Nonetheless, the Hungarians clung to their religious heritage.
In the 20th century, the nation’s primate, Cardinal József Mindszenty, courageously fought against the communist government. In 1974 Pope Paul VI, as part of his myopic Ostpolitik, declared Mindszenty’s archbishopric vacant. “The communist leadership in Moscow and Budapest was rejoicing,” says Gergely Ternovszky, a history teacher from Budapest. Afterwards, the Vatican appointed communist sycophant bishops and many Hungarians lost their trust in the Church.
But Ternovszky says that, while communism and Ostpolitik had destructive effects, it failed in eradicating Hungarians’ religious roots. He notes that in the first census taken after the fall of communism, 74.5 per cent of Hungarians declared their membership of a church. Most were Catholics, but there was also a sizeable Calvinist minority. But church attendance in Hungary remains low: according to a European Values Study survey in 2008, just one in 10 Hungarians attend weekly.
Yet there are signs that the country is rediscovering its religious roots. The constitution of 2011 begins with the words: “God bless the Hungarians”. Christian symbolism is becoming increasingly public. Around the same time that secularists in France tried to dismantle a statue of St John Paul II, a statue of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a pro-Solidarity priest murdered by Poland’s communist police, was unveiled in Budapest. That speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Mindszenty is increasingly seen as a national hero. Since 1993, an annual pilgrimage has been organised to his tomb in Esztergom, outside Budapest, attracting thousands. In recent years, the Hungarian government has transferred many public schools to religious institutions, which has proved popular, and Hungarian schools are reintroducing religious hymns and prayers at the start of classes.
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