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There are cities in the world where a native inhabitant who is sensitive to cultural history can easily impress guests by speaking a little about that complex and surprising reality that is narrated by the stones of artistic monuments, places dense with the memory of a cruel or glorious past, a reality that is revealed in small details by human actions and the local cuisine. Going around a small residence of an ecclesiastical primate in Budapest with foreign friends, a building that was only returned to the Church in 1991 at the time of John Paul II’s first visit to Hungary, we cannot but direct their attention to the beautiful church ‘of Matthias’, which was originally Gothic but which for an interim period of almost 150 years of Turkish presence and domination was used as a mosque and was then reconstructed at the outset in the Baroque style only to be renovated again in the Gothic manner: ‘you see those Baroque and neo-Classical facades of the buildings –inside them Gothic niches are conserved. Some element of identity managed to survive’. How moving it is to visit and to see the ruins or pieces of statues or sarcophagi from the Roman epoch, from the metropolis of ancient Pannonia, a city that was called Aquincum and which is to be found amidst the houses of the city of Budapest or under our feet, in some corner or other. That Aquincum that bears in its name the traces of a name that is even more ancient than the city itself, a Celtic name that also refers to the thermal waters that feed the baths of the city, which were used by the Turks as well and in part built by them. Aquincum, which left to us the cultivation of the vine as an inheritance from ancient Rome, specifically here amongst us in this city. Budapest is a capital city made up of three previous cities but was it born in a legal sense only during the middle of the nineteenth century when the Hungarian nation after revolting, and then being suppressed, was reconciled with the court of Vienna, thereby giving rise to the dual monarchy of the Habsburgs. This empire was full of cultural beauty, an eternal example of creative co-existence and irresolvable contrasts between nations and ethnic groups, not only a ‘prison of peoples’, as it was designated after the end of the First World War, but also and despite everything the object of great nostalgia in almost every country that came after it, especially during the years of Communism when our grandparents still talked about the deep peace and the amusing episodes of the long epoch of Franz Joseph.



Walks in the city of Buda, whose medieval town statutes were some of the most beautiful and classic of this kind of local law. They were drawn up in pure German, then the language of the city. Looking at the Danube from the walls of Buda, from the point where there is the monument to commemorate Prince Eugene of Savoy, who is venerated as the real liberator of the city from the Turks, we notice that the last Pasha of Buda, Abdurrahman, is also commemorated by another monument from another point in the same walls of the city as the noble and valiant commander who fought with courage until his last breath in order to defend what he had to defend. Looking at the Danube, therefore, one cannot fail to see the hill of St. Gerard with the beautiful statue of that holy monk and later saint who came from Venice, and who after the death of the first Christian king, St. Stephen, was thrown from the hill into the Danube by Hungarian pagans in revolt who wanted to kill all priests and foreigners. St. Gerard the martyr, the patron saint of Budapest.



And on the other bank of the Danube there is a grey point where in the last days of the sad year of 1944 a large number of Hungarian Jews were killed in the water together with the Catholic nun Sára Salkaházi who had tried to hide them in her convent. And on the crest of the hill of St. Gerard there is one of the symbols of the city, the colossal stature of liberty, planned in 1944 as a funeral monument by the son of the then Head of State, the regent Miklós Horthy, an unlucky son and one perhaps killed by the Germans who were then officially the allies of the Hungarians but by then had become suspicious. This was a project for a monument that was still on a modest scale in the studio of the sculptor and which was found there by the Soviets who willingly believed that it was a statue to celebrate the liberators of the country. It was thus placed on the most visible place in the city, surrounded by various connected statues that surrounded the colossus and were dressed as Soviet military men in order to pay tribute to the liberators, liberators who after withdrawing from the country after a full forty-five years left behind them a certain emptiness that also become visible when the associated statues of the monument were removed, leaving the central statue a widow who thus began to symbolise freedom as such, an abstract and very high ideal.



On the bank of the east of the Danube, instead, begins the commercial centre of the city of Pest which today forms a part of the capital with the Basilica of St. Stephen, the co-cathedral of our archdiocese which is near to the beautiful principal Lutheran church and the largest synagogue in the whole of Europe, next to which was born Theodor Herzl, the father of the Sionist movement.



But going back to the river, which for that matter formed the frontier between the Roman Empire and the Carolingian Empire, it is indeed near to the water that are to be found the very beautiful Orthodox Baroque churches, testaments to the intense naval commerce previously managed by Serb and Greek merchants along the Danube until Vienna. And all these historical and cultural levels, to cite only the most important, have their deepest traces in the people, indeed in anybody who has roots here in the basin of the Carpathians. Identity! A much sought – for object after the fall of the Berlin Wall because identity and tradition anyway provide some moral indications, some forms of inspiration for the crystallisation of the contents and rules of an organic society that should return and occupy the void that was left after the collapse of the authoritarian structure of the party and the state. A richness that springs from the profundity of human souls, but which has brought and brought again dangers involving contrasts and confrontations of a cruel character between different nationalisms and different ethnic groups.



Histories like ours can be told in every European city or region from Istanbul to Venice and from Lisbon to Hamburg. Integration? Or rather the spontaneous or forced assimilation of a minority or various minorities? Of ethnic groups that stayed behind in countries as minorities and feel that that land has always been their homeland, finding themselves in a psychological condition that is radically different from immigrants. Multiculturality seems to be a fact but if we turn it into an ideal we may also end up with an extreme formalism that quite apart from any contents that there may be can appear as social subjectivism, something that prevents the identification of shared values or at least that minimum that makes life in society bearable. Is it still possible or once again possible to obtain a modest common denominator on the basis of some ‘natural law’ that is recognisable to the human intellect, as the protagonists of the Enlightenment and the fathers of the most ancient constitutions believed? Who will be the arbiter in this process that is to establish the rules of the game? In small countries this will certainly be neither the public power not the whole society of the country but rather some famous ‘international contest’ that these peoples have been used to observing for a thousand years with the greatest sensitivity because on the games of this context depend those shades that mean either disappearance or survival.



And yet with our Christian faith we can have courageous trust in the capacity for knowledge of man, in his capacity for healthy reason, reason which, according to the Fides et Ratio of John Paul II, when illuminated by faith manages to give us optimism because the Creator wanted to provide us with every capacity that is necessary for our lives – not only our individual lives but also our lives as a community.