Political science professor Dr. Bracy Bersnak was invited to participate in the Pro Minoritate Foundation and the Hungarian Youth Council’s Summer University this past year, where he defended Christian values in Europe and the Western world. He generously shared his experience in the Winter 2019 issue of Christendom College’s magazine, Instaurare.
In the summer of 1989, as the iron curtain was beginning to come down, a small group of friends came up with the idea of having a summer university to strengthen ties between the young people of Hungary, Romania, and Britain. Thirty years later, the program is organized by the Pro Minoritate Foundation and the Hungarian Youth Council and accommodates 80,000 people. During the daytime, panels discuss urgent questions facing Hungarians and all Europeans: the role of Christianity in society, political relations between the Visegrad-4 nations and western Europe, economic development, and the state of European culture. By night, attendees enjoy classic Hungarian food and drink plus traditional dance and pop music concerts.
I was invited to participate in the summer university by Ádám Szesztay, who was then the head of the Strategic Planning Department of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. Ádám and some colleagues came to visit Christendom College while on a visit to Washington, DC, in the spring of 2018. We became fast friends.
My panel was on defending Christian values in Europe and the Western world. The other participants were Hajnalka Juhász, ministerial commissioner for Hungary’s foreign aid; political scientist Miklós Bakk of the Transylvanian Hungarian University; Philip Blond, head of the British conservative think tank Res Publica; and BBC journalist David Campanale, who originally conceived the idea for the summer camp. We were united in the belief that secular liberalism threatens Europe because it cannot understand itself without reference to Christianity.
Ádám and Fr. Paveł Cebula, OFM.Conv. took me to visit the most important Hungarian shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Csíksomlyó, which is in Romania. Each year at Pentecost, 300,000 people show up to honor the Mother of Christ. Earlier this year, Pope Francis visited the shrine and celebrated Mass there. In nearby Blaj, a center of Romanian Greek-Catholic life, Francis beatified seven Romanian Greek-Catholic bishops who were martyred by the Communists. His visit gave great encouragement to a community that continues to suffer. The Communist regime confiscated the property of the Greek- Catholic Church in Romania and handed it over to the Orthodox Church. Though the post-Communist Romanian constitution provided for the return of property to the Greek-Catholic Church, the land has yet to be returned.
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I attended a Mass concelebrated by Fr. Paveł and the local bishop for the beatification of Count János Esterházy. The Esterházys are an ancient noble family from Hungary most famous to Americans for being patrons of the composer Franz Josef Haydn. János Esterházy represented the Hungarian minority in interwar Slovakia and was the only member of the Slovakian parliament to vote against the deportation of the Jews to death campus during the Holocaust. After the war, the Soviet Union and Communist Czechoslovakia both convicted him on false charges, but the Czechoslovakians sentenced him to death while the Soviets only sent him to Siberia. By the time he was extradited from the Soviet Union back to Czechoslovakia, his health had deteriorated so badly that the death sentence was commuted to life in prison. If he was not already a saint, Esterházy became one during his imprisonment, radiating holiness to fellow prisoners and sneaking them fragments of the Blessed Sacrament after he was visited by a priest. He died in prison in 1957 at age 55.
Ádám and Fr. Paveł are involved in an educational foundation organization that promotes cultural relations between Hungary and Poland. The two countries have long been united by a common culture and history. They had the same kings at various points in the middle ages; they were both oppressed by the Soviet Union; they joined NATO on the same day; and they are both members of the Visegrad-4 group of central European nations that tries to counterbalance the liberalism of western European states in the European Union. Orbán is the face of resistance to western European liberalism, but because Hungary has only 10 million citizens, he freely acknowledges that he could not achieve what he has within the EU without the firm support of Poland, which has 38 million. I met many young members of the Polish Law and Justice party who traveled to Romania to meet their counterparts in the Hungarian Fidesz and Christian Democratic parties. They are all trying to preserve their heritages against the multicultural liberalism of the EU.
Orbán was an early participant in the summer university, and for several years now he has made an important speech on the final day of the camp. Last year he called for a pan-European effort of populist parties to campaign against European liberals in the 2019 European elections. This year he articulated his philosophy of what he likes to call illiberal Christian democracy. The vision is controversial, as Orbán acknowledges, because of its use of the word “illiberal,” but if one examines the text of his speech it could have been taken from the encyclicals of Pope St. John Paul II. He rejects progressive liberalism—which he identifies with radical individualism and rootless cosmopolitanism—in favor of family, local community, national heritage, and Christianity. I got to meet many members of the government and Mr. Orbán himself after his speech.
The Orbán government has also been controversial because of its refusal to open its borders to Muslim refugees from Syria. Orbán recognizes that Europe’s demographic, migration, and religious problems are all interconnected. If Hungarians have more children, they will be able to resist the temptation to import labor from non-Christian, non-Western countries, and not have to struggle to integrate Muslims the way France has. Public officials in Hungary routinely use their powerful influence to encourage young married couples to have children. The government has, in the words of Orbán, taken a bazooka to the problem of declining fertility by offering every financial incentive it can think of to remove economic impediments to families having more children. Newlyweds are eligible for subsidies they can use for a down payment on a home. Hungarian women who have four or more children are exempted from income tax for life. Another subsidy helps families obtain seven passenger vehicles. Hungary’s birthrate bottomed out at 1.23 but has risen to 1.47 as a result of these pro-family policies and a growing economy.
Studies show that only 8-12% of Hungarians attend weekly religious services, but the prime minister, president, and speaker of parliament are all practicing Christians. Orbán recently said that Hungary has constructed a Christian democratic state. The constitution credits St. Stephen for founding the Hungarian state and integrating the Hungarian people into Christian Europe. His crown is a relic at least twice over, since it was most recently worn by Bl. Karl I of Austria, who reigned as King Karl (Károlyi in Hungarian) IV of Hungary before the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire. The Holy Crown resides in the Hungarian Parliament building and the constitution calls it a symbol of the continuity of the Hungarian state and nation.
Many of the people I met remarked that they loved the name Christendom College. For my part, it was inspiring to meet people working to “restore all things in Christ” in Europe.