ROME – Pope Francis on Tuesday flatly rejected the use of the cross as a political tool, an apparent blow to nationalist forces in Europe and beyond that which has used the images of Christianity for personal gain.
“Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status,” Francis said in eastern Slovakia during a four-day visit to the country and Hungary, his first trip since I had bowel surgery in July.
The remarks came two days after Francis stopped in Budapest, where he met Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made Hungary’s Christian roots and identity a hallmark of his political messages and 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,” Francis said, adding that a Christian “does not see anyone as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or sister.”
Francis has a track record of speaking more freely and critically about a country after leaving it. In 2017, he spoke in support of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar after leaving the country for neighboring Bangladesh.
On Sunday, he called on bishops in Hungary to embrace diversity. And after celebrating a Mass there, with Mr. Orban in the front row, he said that strong Christian roots allowed a nation to reach out “against all.”
But the pope’s remarks in Slovakia on Tuesday were more blunt. He seemed to extend his critique to politicians and activists who use Christian references and symbols to gain a foothold in so-called cultural wars.
“How often do we long for a Christianity of winners,” he asked, “a triumphant Christianity that is important and influential that receives honor and glory?”
Francis spoke to about 30,000 faithful in Presov in eastern Slovakia, where he led a Byzantine ritual known as a divine liturgy used by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches.
He then added to his message of inclusion by traveling to meet with the country’s Roma, who have long experienced discrimination and poverty, in the run-down and segregated settlements of Kosice.
In his worship service on Tuesday, Francis spoke at length about Christian identity, lamenting that the cross and the crucifixion had too often become just ornaments that diluted their true meaning.
What is the value, he asked, of hanging a crucifix from a rearview mirror or one’s neck if a person does not have a meaningful relationship with Jesus? “What good is it,” he said, “unless we stop to look at the crucified Jesus and open our hearts to him?”
In recent years, some politicians in Europe have used religious symbols as part of campaign messages centered on identity politics.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the populist Liga party, often campaigned with rosary beads in his hand. At a rally with right-wing extremist leaders from France, Germany and the Netherlands, he also invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary over Italy.
Some conservative cardinals in the Vatican – many of whom are very critical of Francis – spoke passionately about Mr Salvini and have also expressed sympathy for Mr Orban.
In interviews before the pope’s visit on Sunday, several Hungarian priests and other Catholics in Budapest reiterated Mr Orban’s emphasis on Hungary as a Christian country. They said the prime minister had been unfairly criticized for resisting waves of predominantly Muslim migration, which he has compared to an invasion.
On Sunday, Mr Orban and Francis met for a 40-minute courtesy meeting, and the prime minister urged the pope “not to let Christian Hungary perish.”
Francis spent only seven hours in Hungary, despite appeals 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 allowed there to be a tacit message to Mr Orban in the discrepancy between the time spent in Hungary and the time spent in Slovakia, led by a progressive president who, like Francis, is critical of nationalism.