Tomorrow, August 20, is the feast of Saint Stephen of Hungary. I have a special place in my heart for Hungary. For seven years it was my base for traveling to our Church in both Slovakia and Transcarpathia in Ukraine, and I came to know something of our Church there as well. In addition, Michael and Marianna Glover, a British-Greek couple, served as my hosts before and after going to Ukraine. Having lived in Kiev, they gave me invaluable advice on my first trip, and they provided me with comfortable digs in which to rest after the long jet trip or after a tough two week adventure to the north. Budapest came to represent sanctuary, and Saint Stephen’s basilica, which dominates the city skyline, stands at the city’s heart.
St Stephen Basilica soars above the Budapest skyline
Szent István, as the Hungarians call him, was the first Christian king of the Magyar people. He was baptized as a Christian when he was a child, and took the throne after a fierce struggle against pagan opposition led by his own uncle. He married his wife, St. Gisela of Bavaria, in 997. Crowned at the start of the second Christian millennium, on either Christmas Day 1000 or New Year’s of 1001, Stephen was confirmed in his royal role by the pope, and since then Hungary has been known as the ApostolicKingdom. He established a diocesan structure for the Latin Church while endowing the Byzantine rite monasteries of the Greek Church.
St Nicholas Monastery in Mukachevo, which was called Munkacs for 1,000 years of Hungarian rule
During his reign, Hungarian rule was established over the Byzantine-RuthenianChurch’s home territories in central Europe. But Hungary’s orientation was to the West, not the East, and Latin became the official language of all government business until 1844.
Due to the untimely deaths of his children, including his son Saint Imre/ Emeric, and the lack of Christian relatives, he had no direct heir. So St. Stephen entrusted the Hungarian state to the Mother of God, naming her as the perpetual Queen of Hungary by raising his crown in his right hand to her icon while on his deathbed.
His forthright defense of the Church and work on her behalf would probably have earned him sainthood in the medieval mind, but in addition there were miracles of healing at his tomb. The right hand with which he invoked Our Lady’s protection has remained incorrupt to our time. This hand remains in the Basilica of Saint Stephen in the heart of Budapest.
In the year 2000, the canonization of Stephen was recognized by the Orthodox Church, and there were ecumenical observances in celebration. The Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church to which I belong has an eparchy and exarchate and is a strong, flourishing Church today. The eparchy was founded in 1912, so it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Hungary, like much of Europe, is in a demographic crisis. It has one of the lowest birth rates, and one of the highest suicide rates. The Kingdom lost two-thirds of its territory after the defeat of Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the Allies divided its lands into Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia with a small portion going to Austria after voting by the residents to do so. The French were determined to prevent the Hapsburg dynasty from returning, and in their vindictive short-shortsightedness, they and the British guaranteed that the prophecy of the Vatican’s Secretary of State would come true: that Russia would rule Europe from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic. Indeed, those were the boundaries of the Iron Curtain by 1948. Hungary labored under right-wing rule that ended in a vicious fascist state, then communism. When the Hungarians rose up in 1956 against the Soviets, the British and French were worried about the Suez Canal, and the Americans left the Hungarians to hang. Hungary eventually developed “goulash communism” with economic progress but limited freedom. Today it is a democratic republic, with a constitution which both mentions God and the protection of human life in its preamble. Church attendance is poor, but the Greek Catholic parishes remain strong.
Today the Byzantine Catholic Church’s faithful average three children per family in a country where it is now rare for a couple to even have one child. Priest’s families number four children or more. At this rate, the Byzantine Catholics will dominate northern Hungary:-)
Saint Stephen, pray for your homeland, its Catholic Churches, and that it obtain a brighter future.