Hungarian Catholic priest calls anti-immigration campaign “poisonous”

József Urbán is one of a very small handful of Roman Catholic clergy in Hungary who is willing to think outside the simplistic political and cultural parameters that define and curtail Christianity in much of Hungarian society. Born in 1964, Fr. Urbán is a Piarist priest and director of the order’s secondary school in Budapest. Historically, the Piarists (or, in long form, the Order of Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools) have focused their outreach on providing children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with free education.

Fr. Urbán wrote a scathing blog post about the Orbán government’s openly xenophobic anti-immigration campaign, which includes both a billboard advertising blitz, as well as a questionnaire, in which citizens are asked a series of heavily suggestive questions, all of which play on populist fears of the “other,” the nameless, faceless strangers at the gate. In 2014, immigrants comprised only 2% of Hungary’s total population and only 14,000 people from countries outside the European Union were issued Hungarian work permits. The proportion of immigrants may be higher now, following a spike in refugee claimants and immigrants in the first half of 2015. Here’s some of what Fr. Urbán had to say, in my English translation:

“The immigration questionnaire speaks to the worst in me. I am faced with my own limitations when I read it. It brings out the worst from within me. Every question suggests an unequivocal answer. It calls forth my fears and my discriminatory instincts…The questionnaire tells me: ‘This is who you are.’ But it also suggests: ‘This all that you are. You can’t be anything more than this.’ But I would like not to be this. How can I be someone else? That question, that option is not available. This questionnaire is not just stupid. It is something more; it’s paralyzing, poisonous and embittering. It floods me with my own bitterness.”

Fr. Urbán then imagines a dialogue with Jesus, based on Christ’s teaching to his disciplines, in which he told them not to be afraid.

“I am scared of strangers. I am scared of immigrants. I am scared of Muslims. It’s hard for me to be Christian in these circumstances and its difficult for me to live the Gospel message. I don’t know how to be poor. I don’t dare give what is mine and from who I am. I can’t be welcoming. I am frightened, that if they come here from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, we’ll be lost. I want to go on the defensive. I am preparing for battle. I feel under attack. I would like to fight back. I’m afraid.”

József Urbán. Photo: Tamás Thaler / Magyar Kurir.

József Urbán. Photo: Tamás Thaler / Magyar Kurir.

In this imagined dialogue, Fr. Urbán sees Christ’s response to his words sounding something like this:

“Do you care to see me in them? How about starting off with getting to know them? Do you know who these people are?  Are you familiar with their situation? Do you know Islam? If you would study a bit, you might regain your confidence and something good might come of all this. Did you ever consider that they could learn from you as well? You have something to give them: not just from your possessions, but from the good that is within you. (…) Are you interested in encountering me, through your encounters with them?”

Following this dialogue, Fr. Urbán brings himself and readers of his blog to the following conclusion about the immigrants and refugees who make their way from their homes in Syria, Afghanistan and the south Balkans to the hoped for safety and relative stability of Hungary:

“Those who go on this journey are not faceless beings. They are human beings. They are Jesus’s brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And this is why it is important for me to encounter them.”

The Catholic Church in Hungary could use many more Fr. Urbáns. Perhaps if this degree of honest reflection, self-reflection and openness to change and dialogue were more common, I would not feel the need, even as a Catholic, to boycott the Hungarian Catholic church, both in Hungary and in the diaspora. Perhaps if one Piarist priest’s perspectives, as expressed in his blog, were more common, the Church might actually help push the envelope in a society that could use many more people who question, challenge and swim against the tide.

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