He learnt courage from John Paul II

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Cardinal Péter Erdo, Primate of Hungary.

WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: - The last plenary session of the Council European Bishops' Conferences was held in Sankt Petersburg. This was an unprecedented event, Catholic bishops met in Russia...

CARDINAL PÉTER ERDO: - When I was a young priest in Hungary, which was under the communists' rule, I never thought I would go to Russia some day to take part in a meeting of European bishops. And I discovered an active and quickly growing Catholic community in the one of the biggest Russian cities.

- The bishops' meeting was dedicated to such problems as: family, priestly vocations and formation. What were the fruits of your discussions?

- First of all, I want to stress that it was a symbolic meeting in the building of the Seminary in Sankt Petersburg. This was the best place to talk about the significance of priesthood. I am convinced that the former communist countries have much to tell the remaining countries of the continent. It was clear during our discussions that the contents of theological teaching is of great importance, and consequently, the development of theological faculties and teaching in seminaries are important, too. Moreover, we were under the impression that in Russia there are many movements and small religious communities originating from all European countries.
As far as marriage and family are concerned one can notice a crisis of the natural concept of family and family life in the contemporary European culture. It is important that Christians do not only defend these human values but also show them in a convincing and attractive manner. We can do a lot in this field when we co-operate with the Orthodox Churches. All participants of the meeting found it a happy discovery.

- In his message to the bishops gathered in Sankt Petersburg Benedict XVI expressed hope that their meeting would strengthen courage to witness and would make the Catholic Church, in co-operation with other Christian Churches, contribute to the common good of Europe to an even bigger extent, and contribute to define Europe's identity. What should be the contribution of the Catholic Church to the common good of Europe?

- First of all, we mean the transmission of faith. Therefore, we talked about catechisation and religious instruction as well as collaboration between various Christian communities, paying attention to the respect of the identity of each community. Moreover, it is important to the Church that she has relationships with suitable political environments so that the fundamental human values were appreciated in societies since their existence depends on this respect.

- The problem is that the natural law and fundamental values are not considered in the process of European integration...

- It's true. There are various disturbing reports from the European Council, which is often confused with the European Union. The Council works out various recommendations to introduce new 'fundamental rights', which have nothing to do with human rights and traditional fundamental rights. For example, it tries to impose false concepts of equality that do not respect identities of religious communities and the autonomy of the Churches. Another dangerous tendency is to limit the legislative autonomy of particular countries and that's why, the autonomy should be confirmed and it also includes fundamental rights.

- My Russian friends repeat that the local Catholics feel that they are 'not understood' and 'forgotten' by the rest of the Church that mainly thinks about the dialogue with the Patriarchate of Moscow. I would like to know if the Council of European Bishops' Conferences is dealing with helping the Churches in the former Soviet block and if it is collaborating with them.

- Financial help of the Western Churches for the Churches of the East has a long tradition. Today we add cultural and pastoral help. We should not forget about the presence of priests and nuns in Russia, which is also another form of help. I think that the session of the presidents of Bishops' Conferences coming from so many European countries in Sankt Petersburg can bring some comfort to the Catholic community in Russia. And this community is not small at all. In Sankt Petersburg 17% of the pre-war population was Catholic; today again numerous people feel that they have some connection with the Catholic Church. The participants celebrated Mass in St Catherine of Alexandra Church, the oldest parish church in the city; the church was built during the rule of Catherine the Great. The whole church was packed and there were very many young believers. This is a sign of hope that the Catholic community in Russia is dynamic and vivid.

- Your election to be President of the CCEE fell on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. You were 4 years old in 1956...

- I experienced the days of the revolution through the prism of my parents' reaction. When I asked them, 'Why are they shooting?' they answered, 'Because it is a war'. So I asked, 'Who is against us?' 'The Russians', they replied. 'And who is with us?', I continued. 'Nobody', my mother answered and burst into tears. To tell you the truth, we were not alone. When the revolution was suppressed we began receiving help from the West and also from Poland. My father received a coat from Poland. He wore it for 10 years. And he appreciated this gift because he got it from Poles who were not rich and who like Hungarians fought against the communists.

- That tragic past is still vivid...

- 20,000 Hungarians were killed during the uprising in Budapest. We do not know how many people were killed on the other side of the barricade. Therefore, every November we celebrate Mass for all the dead. Only God will judge them. Let me make a digression. Recently George Walker, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and a cousin of President Bush, invited me to the Embassy and showed me the room where Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty had lived for many years. It was very moving. After the visit I wrote to President Bush to thank him for the invitation and first of all for the hospitality that the American government had showed to our Primate in the dramatic years after the revolution, and for the diplomatic asylum for many Hungarians who fled the communists and who found their new homes in the United States.

- However, times are changing. Can you see any signs of reconciliation between Hungarians and Russians?

- When President Jelcyn arrived in Budapest in the 1990s he apologised for everything that had happened in 1956. Unfortunately, nobody reacted to that gesture in public. Then, in 1994, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All-Russia who visited the cathedral in Esztergom, asked for forgiveness. Those gestures made me feel morally obliged to react. Therefore, during the same year I said with the whole Hungarian Church, 'Yes, we forgive you'.

- How did the Hungarian Church celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution?

- We organised a national pilgrimage to Fatima where there is the moving Via Crucis, dedicated to the victims of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. We prepared an ecumenical service and on 22 October Cardinal Angelo Sodano presided over a special service in St Stephen's cathedral. For my part, I celebrated a solemn Mass in the Roman church of St Stephen (Santo Stefano Rotondo), the titular church of Cardinal Mindszenty, on 18 November.

- Since 2004 Hungary and Poland have been in the European Union. Membership in 'our common European home' is a great challenge...

- Being part of 'our common European home' we, Hungarians, can offer a heritage of remembrance and knowledge, heritage of our values, to the rest of the continent. Unfortunately, we too often have the impression that the West is not ready to receive these gifts, which are not material ones. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the West should not forget that people in the communist countries were enslaved and used for over 40 years, and their goods were confiscated. Therefore, one must realise that the West, and particular countries, that freed themselves from communism, have a moral debt towards these nations.

- Almost all your priesthood was under the pontificate of John Paul II. Who was the Polish Pope for you?

- John Paul II was a great and charismatic pope for me. He was a unique shepherd. I would say he could use the media in some natural way. I respected and admired him. I am especially related to him since he consecrated me as bishop. I learnt courage from him, courage to express my convictions without insulting anyone; he taught me not to be ashamed of showing suffering and physical weakness in public. - Being an outstanding theologian you got to know Cardinal Ratzinger. What do you think about Benedict XVI?

- He is the Pope who has a gift of listening. He observes and listens to other people's opinions and then he makes wise and well-thought-out remarks. I could witness that many times.

"Niedziela" 51/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl