Pope's visit to Central Europe will test his health and diplomacy

Photo: AP Books covers show Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II at a fair the St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, 10 September 2021.

Pope Francis is making his first foreign trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in July, a four-day visit to Central Europe that will not only test his health but also provide one of the most awkward moments of his papacy — a meeting with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, the sort of populist, right-wing leader Francis typically scorns, AP reported. Francis is only spending seven hours in Budapest on Sunday before moving on to a three-day, hop-scotch tour of neighboring Slovakia.

The lopsided itinerary suggests that Francis wanted to avoid giving Orban the bragging rights, political boost and photo opportunities that come with hosting a pope for a proper state visit. Trip organizers have insisted Francis isn’t snubbing Hungary, noting that the Hungarian church and state only invited him to close out an international conference on the Eucharist on Sunday. Vatican officials have said he will, of course, meet with the prime minister along with the Hungarian president in a scheduled meeting.

Botond Feledy, policy expert for the Institute of Social Reflection, a Hungarian Jesuit organization, said it was clear Francis and Orban disagree on some fundamental issues — migration topping the list — but said the aim is not to escalate differences or conflicts. “It is quite clear that the 30 minutes that Pope Francis has in his program to meet with the head of state, the head of government and the bishop is a very, very short time,” Feledy said in an interview. “This shows that he is not really coming for a political visit, but to give a Mass at the congress after having a protocol greeting with the Hungarian politicians.”

The start of the closed-door meeting will not be filmed live — one of the few moments of interest that the pope will be off-camera during the trip. It's a visit that is being closely watched given it marks Francis' first big and prolonged public outing since he underwent scheduled surgery in July for what the Vatican said was a severe narrowing of his large intestine.

Francis, 84, had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon removed and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering. He has recently resumed holding public and private audiences and says he is now living a “totally normal life." But he is still on medication and cannot stand for long periods of time.

Francis is due to deliver 12 speeches over four days, kicking off with a 6 a.m. flight to Budapest on Sunday and ending the day in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, after nine separate events.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said no extra health care measures were being taken for the trip, “just the usual caution.” Francis’ personal doctor and nurses would be traveling with him in the Vatican delegation, as usual, he said.

After the brief stop in Budapest, Francis heads to Slovakia where the highlight of the trip will be his visit Tuesday with members of the country’s Roma minority, who were persecuted during World War II and continue to face racism, discrimination and abject poverty today.

The “pope of the peripheries” has long sought to visit the most marginal during his foreign trips, insisting on stops at slums, prisons or drug rehabilitation centers. His visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Slovakia’s second city, Kosice, is in keeping with that: Parts of the settlement don’t have running water, gas or electricity.

Francis will also meet with Slovakia’s Jewish community and hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor before he finishes up the visit with a Mass on Wednesday in Sastin, the site of an annual pilgrimage each 15 September to venerate the patron of Slovakia, Our Lady of Sorrows.

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