ROME – Pope Francis categorically rejected on Tuesday the use of the cross as a political tool, an apparent attack on nationalist forces in Europe and beyond who have used imagery of Christianity for personal gain.
“Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, let alone a political symbol, a sign of religious and social status,” Francis said in eastern Slovakia during a four-day visit to this country. and to Hungary, his first trip since undergoing bowel surgery in July.
The remarks were made two days after Francis stopped in Budapest, where he met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made the nation’s Christian roots and identity the hallmark of his message and policies. policies, including anti-immigrant and nationalist measures.
“The cross is not a flag to be waved, but the pure source of a new way of life,” said Francis, adding that a Christian “does not regard anyone as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or a sister”.
On Sunday, he urged the bishops of Hungary to embrace diversity. And after celebrating Mass there, with Orban in the front row, he said strong Christian roots enabled a nation to reach out “to all.”
But the pope’s words in Slovakia on Tuesday were more direct. He appeared to extend his criticism to politicians and activists who use Christian references and symbols to gain traction in so-called culture wars.
“How many times do we desire a Christianity of conquerors,” he asked, “a triumphalist Christianity that is important and influential, that receives glory and honor?
He then added to his message of inclusion by traveling to meet the country’s Roma, who have long been victims of discrimination and poverty, in the dilapidated and isolated neighborhoods of Kosice.
In his homily on Tuesday, Francis spoke at length about Christian identity, lamenting that the cross and crucifix have too often become mere ornaments, diluting their true meaning.
In recent years, some European politicians have used religious symbols as part of campaign messages focusing on identity politics.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist League party, has often campaigned with a rosary in his hand. During a rally with far-right leaders from France, Germany and the Netherlands, he also invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary over Italy.
Some conservative Vatican cardinals – many of whom are very critical of Francis – have spoken enthusiastically about Salvini and also expressed sympathy for Orban.
In interviews ahead of the pope’s visit on Sunday, several Hungarian priests and other Catholics in Budapest echoed Orban’s emphasis on Hungary as a Christian country. They said the prime minister had been unfairly criticized for opposing waves of predominantly Muslim migration, which he compared to an invasion.
On Sunday, Orban and Francis gathered for a courtesy meeting that lasted 40 minutes, and the prime minister urged the pontiff “not to let Christian Hungary perish”.
Francis only spent seven hours in Hungary, despite calls from his bishops to stay longer.
The Vatican said the Pope’s visit to Budapest was of a purely spiritual nature, to celebrate the closing mass of a week-long Catholic congress. But others close to the Pope admitted that there could be an unspoken message to Orban in the gap between time spent in Hungary and time spent in Slovakia, which is led by a progressive president who, like Francis, is critical. with regard to nationalism.