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Bridge over troubled waters: Papal trip tests limits of being a 'pontifex'


...An illuminated St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, is seen at night March 3, 2016. (CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- On paper, Pope Francis' apostolic visit to Hungary and Slovakia was pretty standard as papal trips go: outdoor Masses, meeting with dignitaries, visiting poor and marginalized populations and of course, answering questions from journalists aboard the papal flight.

Nevertheless, issues such as vaccine skepticism, migration, same-sex "marriage," and denying Communion to Catholics who publicly support abortion attracted worldwide attention to what was believed to be a low-key trip.

The Catholic Church has not been spared the effects of the increased polarization on the issues plaguing the world, a reality Pope Francis showed he was keenly aware of in his first two speeches in Budapest.

During his meeting with Hungary's Ecumenical Council of Churches, the pope used the country's famed Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which links the eastern and western sides of Budapest along the Danube River, as a metaphor for how the church should maneuver in an increasingly divided world.

"The bridge does not fuse those two parts together, but rather holds them together. That is how it should be with us, too," the pope told the ecumenical gathering Sept. 12.

"A bridge unites. In this sense, it reminds us of the concept, so fundamental in Scripture, of covenant. The God of the covenant asks us not to yield to separatism or partisan interests. He does not want us to ally ourselves with some at the expense of others. Rather, he wants individuals and communities to be bridges of fellowship with all," he added.

He doubled down on the metaphor when speaking to the country's bishops, urging the church in Hungary to "be a builder of bridges and an advocate of dialogue."

The word "pontifex" means pontiff, but it also means "bridge-builder" and, throughout his visit, Pope Francis tried to put his words into practice in the hopes of showing that differences of opinions on hot-button issues do not preclude dialogue and engagement.

Among the many issues that put his skills to the test was his meeting with the Hungarian leadership, including Viktor Orbán, the country's outspoken prime minister who stands at odds with the pope's views on immigration.

However, while media reports leading up to the meeting envisioned a contentious tête-à-tête on immigration, the pope deflated those expectations and said the discussions revolved around common ground issues.

Specifically, the pope praised Hungary's environmental policies as well as government subsidies to encourage families to have more children.

Speaking to journalists aboard the papal flight back to Rome Sept. 15, the pope also said he spoke mainly with Hungarian President János Áder, while Orbán and Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén occasionally "added some specifics."

"On migration, nothing, no. We didn't talk about it," he said. "It was a good climate. And it lasted quite a bit, I think 35-40 minutes."

In a Sept. 13 interview with Hungary's Kossuth Radio, Semjén said the pope "was delighted that the number of abortions dropped, while the number of marriages increased in Hungary."

He also said the pope was told that Hungary was "under attack from Brussels," the administrative center of the European Union, because of the country's family policies, which some believe are discriminatory against migrants and same-sex couples.

"His Holiness said that 'family is a father, a mother, a child, period,'" Semjén said.

Wading into another contentious issue for Catholics, that of same-sex "marriage," Pope Francis attempted once again to try to steer the conversation from a "pro or con" objective to a common ground perspective.

The pope said the Catholic Church could not expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples because "marriage is a sacrament" and "the church does not have the power to change the sacraments as the Lord instituted them."

While marriage as a sacrament is exclusive to a man and woman, couples -- both heterosexual and homosexual -- who cannot be married in the church and wish to live together have recourse to civil unions that protect their rights, he said.

Nevertheless, the pope also said the absolute certainty of the church's stance does not give it or its members free license to condemn people who are in same-sex relationships.

"They are our brothers and sisters; we have to accompany them," the pope said. "Many, many people of homosexual orientation approach the sacrament of penance and approach to ask for advice from priests, and the church helps them to move forward in their lives."

But, he added, "not with the sacrament of marriage."

Pope Francis also tried to bring some perspective into the highly divisive issue of COVID-19 vaccinations.

While expressing consternation about arguments opposed to it due to humanity's "history of friendship with vaccines," the pope tried to understand why there are doubts, positing that the uncertainty of the pandemic, the broad selection of vaccines and even "the reputation of some vaccines that are not suitable or are a little more than distilled water" as the cause of skepticism.

Nevertheless, the pope said so-called vaccine "deniers" should not be met with hostility over their views. Instead, he emphasized the need "to clarify; clarify and talk serenely about this."

While divisive issues continue to shake both the unity of the world and of the universal church, Pope Francis' visits to Hungary and Slovakia aimed to show that a bridge is only as good as the chain that holds it together.

"The bridge has yet another lesson to teach us," the pope told members of the ecumenical council. "It is supported by great chains made up of many rings. We are those rings, and each of us is essential to the chain."

"We can no longer live apart, without making an effort to know one another, prey to suspicion and conflict," he said.

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