If you’re like me, this year’s International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest hasn’t been on your radar. But by happenstance, when I arrived in Budapest last week for a yearlong stay, the congress was just beginning. I was not prepared for what an encouraging week it would be.
In recent months the media has noted the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) only to ask one question: Whether the pope’s visit to Budapest for the congress would include an official meeting with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. (It did.) Otherwise the IEC, which was held Sept. 5–Sept. 12, has received little coverage—except from local media and EWTN. As a result, few know that Budapest’s IEC was the first attended by a pope in twenty-one years. At the papal Mass on Sunday, offered in Latin accompanied by Gregorian chant, the Holy Father delighted the crowd by reciting a few phrases in the notoriously difficult Hungarian tongue. Andrassy Avenue, the grand boulevard leading up to Heroes Square, was packed as far as the eye could see.
Yet the congress was also impressive for several other reasons. As hundreds of thousands of people packed the streets for Masses and processions, masks rarely appeared, and the event imposed none of the restrictions that have come to be daily irritants in America and elsewhere.
And the distinctiveness of Hungarian Catholicism was apparent, beginning with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco’s opening Mass on Sept. 5. At this ceremony, an endless stream of cassocks swept along the pavement of Heroes Square. Dancers in traditional Hungarian garments performed on the stage—but only before, not during, Mass. The Mass honored the most beautiful elements of national tradition, but without any of the funny business that too frequently mars large-scale liturgies. On the altar stood a stunning cruciform reliquary. From afar it looked a bit wiry, but on inspection the reason was clear: Extraordinary metalwork had wrapped precious relics of every Hungarian saint into a cross fit for public veneration.
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