Tens of thousands of Hungarians flocked to Budapest’s main square for Pope Francis’s final Mass, gathering on the banks of the Danube as the pontiff wrapped up a weekend visit to the heart of Europe with pleas for a peaceful end to Russia’s war next door.
The Mass on Kossuth Lajos Square, with the Hungarian parliament and Budapest’s famed Chain Bridge as a backdrop, provided the visual highlight of Francis’s three-day visit that has been dominated by the Vatican’s concern for the plight of neighbouring Ukraine.
Citing local organisers, the Vatican said some 50,000 people participated at the Mass, more than 30,000 of them in the square on a brilliantly sunny spring morning.
After the Mass, Francis has a final event in Budapest before returning to Rome – a speech on European culture at the Pazmany Peter Catholic University.
The 86-year-old has tried to forge a diplomatic balancing act in his pleas to end the war, expressing solidarity with Ukraine while keeping the door open to dialogue with Moscow.
Francis kissed the cross of Metropolitan Hilarion in a sign of respect for the Russian Orthodox Church during what the Vatican said was a “cordial” 20-minute meeting at the Vatican’s embassy in Budapest.
Hilarion, who developed good relations with the Vatican as Kirill’s long-time foreign minister, said he briefed Francis on his work now as the Moscow Patriarchate’s representative in Budapest.
Francis’s visit to Hungary, his second in as many years, brought him as close as he has been to the Ukrainian front but also to the heart of Europe, where Mr Orban’s avowedly right-wing Christian government has cast itself as a bulwark against a secularising Western world.
The site for his final Mass could not have been more appropriate for that message: The sprawling square is named after one of Hungary’s most famous statesmen who served as its first prime minister after the 1848-1849 revolution against Habsburg rule.
It is separated from the left bank of the Danube river only by Hungary’s neo-Gothic parliament, the country’s largest building and home of its National Assembly.
Nearby is the Chain Bridge, one of several bridges spanning the river and linking the Pest and Buda sides of the city.