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Beszélgetés Novák Katalin köztársasági elnökkel  az Új Ember katolikus hetilapban

The future belongs to the Man of Peace – Interview with President of Hungary Katalin Novák in the Catholic Weekly Új Ember (New Man)

Pope Francis, accepting the invitation of state and church authorities, will pay an apostolic visit to Hungary from 28 April to 30 April. On this occasion, we visited President of Hungary Katalin Novák in her office, asking her about family, faith, education, the protection of Divine Creation, and the upcoming visit of the Holy Father.

– Madam President, you have met the Holy Father several times. What impression did he make on you?
– The fact that the Holy Father is visiting Hungary again is important not just for the practising Hungarian Catholic and Christian community in the Carpathian Basin, but for every Hungarian, and personally for me as well. Many have prayed for his health to allow his visit. I had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis several times, we also had longer, private conversations, which I cherish as a fond memory. Traditional family values, the outstanding importance of protecting human life, the difficulty of ending a war were themes discussed as were the profession of our faith or the role of women leaders in public life. He even gave me a book – he picked it from his bookcase – in which he describes what he emphasized to me in person as well: that it is very important for communities to have women leaders as well.
I speak from personal experience when I say that Pope Francis turns to others with genuine attention and sincere interest.
– This is the third time that Pope Francis will visit us, if we also include his visit to Csíksomlyó, a visit he himself remembers as a celebration with Hungarians. How do you see the decision of the Holy Father to visit Hungary?
– We, Hungarians are a small nation in the world. The 52nd Eucharistic Congress one and a half years ago that I attended as well was an international event, but it was also about the strength of Hungarian communities and about the strong faith, the hope in the future which is so palpable in Hungary. In 2021, the Holy Father departed Hungary and – as he later explained in an interview given to your newspaper –made up his mind already onboard the plane to return to us. This was a clear confirmation that the few hours that he had spent with us were decisive for him. As we have also been enriched by his presence. And his decision to visit us again indicates that he values the Hungarians.
– Within the framework dictated by protocol – and also beyond that – how are you preparing for the Pope’s visit?
– My personal experience of Pope Francis - and this has been confirmed by others who know him well - is that he interprets protocol relatively freely, and likes to make spontaneous decisions. I am acting similarly within the framework dictated by the office of president. In the Vatican, for example, we cancelled the help of the interpreter in the last minute, to be able to have a private conversation in Spanish. It was a lot more personal in that way.
From Pope Francis’ intentions I have understood that during his visit, he would like to meet as many Hungarians, as many living communities as possible.
For me as a Reformed Christian, one of the important messages of his visit to the Eucharistic Congress was his emphasis on the importance of the cooperation of churches, that is to say, interchurch cooperation. This also manifested itself in his meeting with the leaders of the Churches of Hungary at the Museum of Fine Arts.
As for my personal preparations for the Pope’s visit: beyond what is obvious under the circumstances, I am trying to improve my Spanish so that we could have a conversation in private. Therefore, in the recent months, I have been focusing more on improving my language skills. Spanish is my fourth foreign language and I need to practise to be able to use it properly.
– In late February last year, we were shocked to see Russia invading Ukraine. During the Advent period, you paid a visit to Kiev at the invitation of President Zelensky. How did you see the war from the perspective of Ukraine? And on your way home, when you stopped in Transcarpathia, how did you encourage the Hungarian community there?
– What is happening in Ukraine is tragic. It's tragic that a country can be attacked by another at any moment even today. Most people did not expect that a war would break out, nor that it would last this long and would have such serious consequences. The task is set: the victims must be reassured of our support, the aggression must be firmly condemned, and the path to peace must be sought. One of my reasons for travelling to Kiev was to assure the Ukrainians of our sympathy.
Nevertheless, the problems of the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. The rights of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia have been seriously violated in the recent past, which is unacceptable. Hungarians must be able to prosper in their homeland, in their own communities, by using their mother tongue freely.
– Saint Martin, born in the territory of today’s Hungary – in the Province of Pannonia that once was a part of the Roman Empire - is a saint very dear to Pope Francis. Saint Martin is the saint of neighbourly love and helpfulness. The Holy Father often gifts a plaque depicting Saint Martin to his guests arriving to him on an official visit. How do you remember the outbreak of the war when Hungarian society moved as one to help the refugees arriving in our country in great numbers?
– It is with gratefulness and pride that I remember the immediate and evident cooperation with which we Hungarians responded to the horrors of the war. It took less than a day and those living next to the border all moved as one and offered the refugees whatever they were in need of. Our helpful presence has been ongoing all throughout the fourteen months since the outbreak of the war, not just in Hungary, but also in Transcarpathia and in inner Ukraine.
I would like to say a huge thank you to the church communities and organisations which have gone to great lengths this time again.
Differences in denomination did not matter, nor whether it was a church or civil society organisation, a state agency or a private initiative. The only thing that mattered was what each of them could give. They helped those who were forced to flee their country because of the war, and also those who stayed behind under difficult circumstances. 
– In his Easter message titled For the City and For the World, the Holy Father discussed the need to end the war in Ukraine and wars all around the world as soon as possible as a key priority. Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organisations, returning from the security conference in Munich, explained in his interview to the Jesuit newspaper titled America Magazine: in the war in Ukraine, the precondition for a just peace is for the Russian troops to withdraw from the occupied territories. How do you see the path to peace?
– It shows the wisdom and courage of the Holy Father that he made it clear also in his Easter message: he condemns Russian aggression, he stands up for invaded Ukraine, he is willing to act as a mediator, and at the same time, he does not forget and does not abandon the Russian people. I believe this is a wise, Christian attitude, that we must take as our guide as well. Because the Russian people, the Russian culture, Russia itself existed yesterday, exists today and will exist tomorrow.
We must find a way to engage in genuine dialogue for peace, in cooperation with – firstly - the warring parties, but secondly also with the other powers that support them. First and foremost, this requires a firm intention, a strong determination to end the war. For me, one more thing also stands clear: this war cannot end with Russia achieving the goals it has set for itself, although it did not actually set out a specific aim for this war.
It is not possible for Russia to not have to withdraw from Ukrainian territories.
At the same time, it would be good if more and more people realised that if we go on like this, if more and more countries take an increasing part in the war, it will not lead to an easing of the conflict and will not serve peace. Rather, it is fuelling the war and may lead to its escalation. This is the greatest threat we are facing right now. A war does not necessarily stop at state borders, it can spread from one moment to the next, even in our direction. This must be avoided at all costs.
And we cannot forget about the power of prayer. The importance of prayer cannot be overstated. We can all contribute to peace, but for this we must have faith in God being the only power able to silence the guns and make the decision makers see reason. For this, we really need to trust in the power of prayer, and not just expect that people would come up with a solution. At the same time, as political leaders, we must work towards peace as soon as possible with all our tools at hand.
– What does faith in God mean to you? How does it strengthen your life, your mission and how do you live it in your daily life?
– I rediscovered faith as an adult. This is also why I understand that we each have our own story with the Lord, and therefore nobody can pass an opinion, let alone a judgement , on others concerning this. We each live our own relationship with God. There are people in whose lives faith is perhaps not present yet, or they may be searching for it, ignoring the issue, perhaps denying its relevance, this is up to each and every one of us. I would not even like to split our community into believers and non-believers.
Because the point is that we should be able to talk about our faith, or our searching for it, in a way that brings us closer to each other and to the Lord God.
Together with our children, our family are the members of the Reformed Church congregation of Hold street in Budapest. Our membership in this community is very helpful in living our faith in our daily lives, and Jesus Christ is therefore a part of our family life as well. In the congregation, it feels good to pray and think together with others, and I am deeply grateful for this. The Bible is also a daily resource for me. I read it with the help of the reading guide of the Reformed Church in the morning.
– Has it happened that the Lord God addressed you through the Bible in entirely unexpected situations?
– Yes, for example when I visited Iraq last year. I did not travel only to Bagdad, but also to the Kurdish regions, to Erbíl, in fact even to small towns in the countryside, to see how we Hungarians have helped the Christians living there. That is a dangerous region, the local people live under the threat of the Islamic State, so many tried to dissuade me from going there. The reading ordered for the day from the Book of Jonah was this: „Get up, go, go to Nineveh.” And when a couple of hours later I arrived and stood there on the Nineveh Plateau, I knew that everything would be all right, that I was safe, and I was not afraid.
This is also how I would like to perform my mission as president in the forthcoming four years, never forgetting where true guidance comes from.
– Taking a look at your career reveals that the family has a special place in your service. In your personal life, why did you decide to get married and live your life faithfully by your own free choice?
– It is thanks to my faith in God, and thanks to my husband and our three children that I have a perspective beyond the present moment. I am not looking to make decisions that are popular or may make me popular in the short term. I hope to make decisions whose effects will prove salutary in the long term. For my faith also teaches me that our perspective should be eternity. These days, we are reading the Book of Chronicles. It is no easy reading. As you move through the genealogical tables, you are confronted with the fact that behind a single name there is a whole life, a rich history.
It does matter what legacy you leave behind by the service you perform during your earthly life.
If we have children, of course we also think about what kind of a world we pass on to them, what we leave behind as our legacy, what we teach them. All this helps me to at least dare to hope that in the long run, my decisions will stand the test. 
– In a marriage, in a family, in a job, there are joyful as well as challenging times. When experiencing the latter, what can you hold on to, what gives you strength?
– Basically, it is love. We have huge reserves of it that we can always return to, also when we happen to be facing more challenging tasks. It will be twenty-one years now that my husband and I have been married. We continue to understand and appreciate the strength of this long-standing covenant of love. By now we realise what it means that we have stood side by side since the beginning, and we know we could never get what we can give each other from anyone else. Just the other day, we were talking about how no one else could be the mother and the father of our children. The three of them could only be of the two of us. We have also fought our struggles together. For me, one of the wonders of marriage has always been that we have a vision, that we build our lives together as a community, and that our relationship is not a fleeting thing, but that we are committed to doing it together all through to the end.
I have the gift of a husband who thinks similarly about all of this. Marriage is not about saying yes to each other once. We have to say this yes each day, sometimes even several times.
– We are talking on Poetry Day. On your social media page, you recommended your followers to read certain poems. One of them is The Three Sorrows of the Prince by the Premonstratensian poet László Mécs. This is a poem about motherhood. How has your motherhood enriched your personality and your life?
– One of my favourite lines in this poem is: „her heart went before me as my envoy”. László Mécs says this about his mother. I can feel the poem from both the child's and the mother's perspective. Perhaps mostly from the child’s. I know that only my parents can see me in the way nobody else can in the world. And it would be so good if – as the poet puts it – we could see each other with those eyes. This is a miracle I still experience as a child, and now as a mother as well.
On the other hand, it is good to experience that the results of the last decade, which put families on the centre stage, are palpable. This is shown by the increase in childbearing, that more people dare to say yes to life and they say that yes more bravely. Many things try you and influence your personal decisions. Couples can feel the encouragement, the support.
We also work in alliance with the Catholic Church to protect families and human life. It is no different internationally.
Together with the Apostolic Holy See, Hungary can stand up for traditional family values in numerous situations. The last time I spoke out for this topic was at the UN in March. Following my speech, the representative of the Holy See came up to me and thanked me for the fact that we are advocating this position.
– You visited and paid tribute to Piarist Father István Jelenits on his ninetieth birthday. Later, in your Christmas interview to TV2, you mentioned the professor as an example to others, and stressed: Hungary must recognise its teachers financially and morally. What can lay the foundation for this?
– My grandfather was a school principal in a small town, Ágasegyháza, and my grandmother was an elementary school teacher. Their influence on the community has lasted to the present day. A school principal or a teacher can leave a mark on the life of a community that will be decisive through generations after them. This is also why it is important to reward teachers properly. The education of our children takes place firstly in the family and secondly in communities outside the family, above all at school. What happens to our children during the day is decisive for their future. And that depends on the teachers first and foremost. Teachers help children, but not just to increase their knowledge, but also to grow spiritually. This is why it is key that our children are taught by good teachers, and when seeing their example, many decide in favour of the teaching profession.
This profession should be chosen by those who truly feel a calling. Practising teachers should not be forced to give up their original vocation. The teaching profession must be made attractive, so that even those who abandoned it should return. 
– You were already the President of Hungary when you and your husband decided to complete the Blue Trail. What encouraged you to do so?
– We would like to show how beautiful this country is. If we allowed people to act as dictated by common sense, they would protect their environment. Sooner or later everyone discovers that by protecting the environment, they are acting in their own best interest. At the end of the day, nobody wins by wastefulness, overproduction, the pollution of the environment. We must take care of what has been entrusted to us!
The intention to do so is there in young children already, all we need to do is to let it develop. It was our common decision with my husband to complete the National Blue Trail. We often go hiking alone, but also in a group: just recently, for example, we invited others to join us if they felt like it. Many did come. After hiking for seven or eight hours, the difference between the President of Hungary and the other hikers evaporates. It was a pleasure to experience how people opened up, told me their stories, we talked.
– One of the most beautiful tasks of the President of Hungary, set out in the Constitution, is to express and represent the unity of the nation. What is your experience of this task in Hungary, especially as Hungarians abroad are also part of the Hungarian nation?
–My responsibility first is to look for the unity of our nation, and point out what unites us rather than what makes us different. This can be our common language, culture, Jewish-Christian roots, our folklore traditions and we could go on and on.
It would be good to recognise not only in our past, but also in our present and future, what this togetherness really means.
This is expressed by our National Anthem or the way we are cheering on the Hungarian team together at a sporting event.
It is also my responsibility to make our fellow Hungarians beyond our borders experience the same. I believe that one of the greatest achievements of the last decade is that we are taking responsibility for each other as members of a single nation. Hungarians abroad – be they in the Carpathian Basin or in the diaspora – must feel, understand and know that they are remembered and counted on, and that they can also count on us.
– The arrival of Pope Francis is just around the corner. How do you see what the Holy Father's visit can give us, how can it strengthen us?
Hope has faded. I trust that through the message of peace, Pope Francis will bring this hope back to us. The Bible teaches us that the future belongs to the Man of Peace.
Pope Francis is a Man of Peace, and so are we, Hungarians.
Pope Francis asks believers to pray for him. I know that many are praying for us, for the leaders of the country and for my personal mission as well. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. It gives me a lot of strength day after day. 

Author: István Kuzmányi
The print version of the interview appeared in the April 30, 2023 issue of the Catholic weekly Új Ember (New Man)