The morning of December 28th, thousands of Hungarian families were impatiently waiting to meet the young people they would be hosting for the next five days. Will they manage to arrive? Will they be delayed by the snowstorm blanketing part of central Europe? Will customs formalities at the border take an incredibly long time? How will we deal with the language problem? In addition to these fears, the international situation was not very reassuring.
As a result of months of work, hundreds and hundreds of preparation meetings, not just in Budapest but in many places in the surrounding area, 180 parishes of different denominations were able to prepare a welcome. Some were an hour away from the capital, close to the Slovakian border. Many schools were also made available. And thanks to appeals on Hungarian radio and television, thousands of places were also found in families that usually do not go to church.
Three thousand young adults from throughout Europe arrived on December 26th to organize the welcome on the 28th. A news program on French television emphasized the astonishing sense of service still alive in the young. Thanks in large part to those who came early, it was possible to welcome the 70,000 participants in the meeting and to pray with them.
While most of the other nations received their first welcome in schools throughout the city, the Poles arrived at the Exhibition Centre itself before being sent to their host parishes. They were the most numerous nationality present. Many people wonder why so many thousands of young Poles participate in the meeting year after year. It does not seem to be a simple flash in the pan: throughout the autumn months, two hundred preparation points in Poland not only distributed information about the meeting and the journey, but also offered times of prayer and of reflection together. “In Wroclaw in December, before I left for Budapest, each day there was a prayer using Taizé songs in one of the churches in the city,” said Alicia, a political science student.
But 4,000 Romanians also came, and just as many Italians. The Ukrainians, the German-speakers, the Croatians and the French were almost as numerous. Never before were so many people from the Balkans present, which increased the welcome presence of Orthodox Christians. To reach Budapest, some of the 300 Portuguese had to leave home on Christmas Day.
Doubts and Surprises
The often tense relations between Romania and Hungary awakened doubts about the welcome of the Romanians. Doubts on both sides of the border. This was one of the most joyful surprises of this “pilgrimage of trust.” For the Romanians: “We never imagined we would be welcomed this way in Hungary!” For the Hungarians: “We never realized we could become so attached to Romanians!” One of the host families had already had the experience in 1991 during the first meeting in Budapest. They had written on their registration form: “We can welcome four persons, but no Romanians please.” On the day of the meeting, four Romanians showed up at their door. To understand what happened in the days together, all you had to do was look at their registration form this year: “Four persons, Romanians please!”
A young Hungarian architect wrote: “I had planned to welcome four persons in my flat. In the end I welcomed six, and four others for the meal on January 1st. The trust I showed them was given back to me a hundredfold. It is amazing to see how everything worked out in the end. Many others would say the same thing. I was not full of despair beforehand, but those days spent together certainly reinforced my hope, and perhaps the ability to look toward the future with confidence. And I know this is due to the goodness and the simplicity of those I met.”
Many people’s experience was similar and echo what the first Christians already knew: offering hospitality is, as for the disciples of Emmaus, discovering the face of God. The word “miracle” was on many people’s lips. “We communicated without speaking the same language.” A young man from Budapest said with a smile, “At Babel, God mixed up the languages because people were working against him. In Budapest, our common desire to live out the Gospel brought us together and made it possible for us to communicate.”
“In the Beginning, Chaos…”
The oldest Catholic weekly newspaper in Hungary published this article by a member of a parish that welcomed 700 young people: “At first, everything was a bit chaotic. On December 28th, everyone arrived practically at the same time. It took time to welcome them and it was not easy. Our little church and parish house resembled a waiting room at a railway station in a war film! The welcome team worked well and our guests deserved an award for their patience and understanding. Thousands of persons in our capital discovered that offering their time and temporarily leaving the peace and quiet of their homes is not just an act of kindness, but also the experience that it is good to do this. In each parish, families opened their homes to strangers for a few days and discovered that we are rich. We are linked to one another more than we realize. On January 1st, our church was so full that the priests could hardly make their way to the altar. Those days carried an important message: the Christian faith is universal. Hungarian, Romanians, Italians, Japanese, Lithuanians, French: we are all members of the same family. We discovered that each of us has unique treasures, but also that these treasures can be shared. And that the act of sharing them does not compromise them but helps them to grow. In this way they are even more precious and belong to us more.”
Kofi Annan’s Message
This discovery corresponds well to the message that the United Nations’ Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan, addressed to the participants: “At a time when some are trying to divide the human family, it is comforting to know that so many of you—from different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures—are united in a common desire to meet and to share.”
The 3000 Ukrainians had this same experience during the meeting, and in an even more surprising manner during the trip home: “I was struck by how united the Ukrainians were in Budapest,” wrote one of those in charge of a group. “The barriers that usually separate us fell down. We came from different churches and different regions, but we understood one another and we felt united. On the way home, in the Carpathian mountains, we saw this when a snowstorm made it impossible to continue. Groups from every region and every church came together to help one another. Aware of our serious problem of divisions, we are grateful for the gift we received in Budapest.”
Prayer Together and Workshops
To help them to get around in Budapest, the participants received a map on which were marked the names of the parishes and the main meeting-places. Trams, train stations and the underground were filled to overflowing. The visible joy of the young people made passers-by stop and wonder.
For the times of prayer that brought together this immense crowd at midday and in the evening, two halls of the Exposition Centre were set up. They were not large enough. Hall A was certainly the largest ever used for a Taizé European meeting. The decoration was tasteful and discreet. Orange fabric, some icons, a Christ inspired by the crown of Saint Stephen, so precious for the history of Hungary. Icons of John the Baptist and Mary, those two witnesses to God’s Incarnation, expressed the hope that was at the heart of the Budapest meeting.
The first evening, few people sang, exhausted as they were by the journey. Things had already changed on December 29th when the prayer was shown live on national television. On the 30th and 31st practically everyone sang, even in Swedish and Polish. “There is so much beauty in this prayer,” wrote Father Peter Varnai, youth chaplain for the diocese of Budapest, “that it is impossible to imagine a bleak future.”
A brief meditation by Brother Roger was translated each evening into some twenty different languages. It completed the letter Love and say it with your life, used by the participants for the times of sharing in the morning. The Bible introductions that followed the midday prayers were also drawn from this letter: “Opening up roads of trust,” “Dare to give your life,” “The desire for God restores our soul to life.”
The prayer around the icon of the cross that ended the evening prayer is always a moving moment. A number of Church leaders—Catholics, Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox—prayed together with the brothers, then the young people kept coming up to the cross until the halls were closed for the night.
How Can We Transmit the Hope of the Gospel Today?
After the evening prayer, that question was asked in the press room to the Archbishop of Eger, president of the Hungarian bishops’ conference. And the sincerity of his reply was striking: “Do you have an answer to that question? I don’t. But my sole objective for the time that remains to me here on earth is to try and find an answer.” Cardinal Paskai, the archbishop of Budapest, and other bishops came each evening to speak with the journalists present. A beautiful way of considering the young and the meeting was shown by Bishop Balas (see below) and by the Lutheran bishop Béla Harmati: “If the young have such a spiritual thirst, then there is a future for Europe.”
On December 29th and 30th, workshops were offered. The final day was devoted to meetings by country on the topic: how can we continue at home after this meeting? Several workshops were held in the Exposition Centre, but others took place in places rich in symbolism and which expressed the warm welcome from Hungary and the attentiveness to the meeting on the part of national leaders (the President of the Republic took part in one of the prayers). The workshop on Europe took place in the Hungarian Parliament and was led by the head of the Supreme Court. And another workshop was held at the Supreme Court.
Near Hall A, young French people listened to someone read the list of themes that would enable each person to choose a group for the afternoon: Seeking God in prayer; The Holy Spirit : breath of life, witness to truth, comforter; Building the European family: Europe seen from Budapest, Moscow; How to react in the face of suffering? Violence affects the young: how can we react? A universal communion in Christ : discover all the dimensions of the Church; Is forgiveness possible? God’s call invites us to give ourselves; Living the simplicity of the Beatitudes; Making cities places to live for all; What can I do for an economy of solidarity? Budapest, a bridge between East and West: discovering a place of memory in Hungary; Concert of Orthodox liturgical chants by a youth choir from Novi Sad.
There was also a space for silence and personal prayer.
What do all these themes have in common? Perhaps this: the call to put a creative Christianity into practice and the desire to prepare the young not to flee the challenges of our societies but rather to go towards them and to be present there. For example, those young people from Transylvania who, with a priest, have taken charge of 300 street children and who are living examples that “a few people with very little can do a lot.”
The View of a Hungarian Bishop
One of the outstanding figures of the Hungarian Church, looked up to by the young, known for his candour that created problems for him during the Communist period (he was only named bishop after the fall of the Berlin Wall), Bishop Balas Béla, of Kaposvar, is the chairman of the Youth Commission of the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference:
“We always have to encourage the young. A hundred came to the meeting from my diocese of Kaposvar. I prepared them personally not just for a powerful spiritual experience but also for possible difficulties. In such a crowd, many things can happen. I would like them to have the humor and the realism in their behavior towards people and towards society, which are never perfect. It was the Bolshevik error not to realize this; they didn’t take original sin seriously. You have to know how to deal with difficulties and problems.
“We were born torn apart philosophically at the end of the Middle Ages, then torn apart religiously in the sixteenth century, then came political, military and ethnic divisions. The cause of this tearing apart was on the one hand a great diversity of intellectual viewpoints, but I think it was due mainly to a cooling down of the heart. That is what Taizé heals. The Taizé meetings are a remedy for the evils from which the world suffers.
“There are no intellectual debates there, but at Taizé the young people are in touch with the world of beauty, with music, silence, prayer and friendship, and that is what reconciles the world.”