Pope Francis urged Hungary to “extend its arms towards everyone”, in a veiled critique of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-migrant policies.
The pontiff made his comments as he opened a four-day visit to Central Europe, his first big international outing since undergoing intestinal surgery in July.
Francis, 84, appeared in good form during his short visit to Budapest, presiding over a lengthy Mass for a crowd that organisers said reached 100,000 people.
The pope stood and waved to crowds during a ride in his open-sided popemobile and used a golf cart to avoid walking long distances indoors, confessing at one point that he had to sit because “I’m not 15 anymore”.
But otherwise he kept up the typical gruelling pace of a papal trip despite his ongoing recovery.
Francis spent seven hours in Budapest before moving on Sunday afternoon to a four-day tour of neighbouring Slovakia.
The asymmetric itinerary suggested that Francis wanted to avoid giving Mr Orban – the type of populist nationalist Francis frequently criticises – the political boost that comes with hosting a pope for a proper state visit ahead of elections next spring.
Francis did meet with Mr Orban, whose refugee policies clash with the pope’s call for welcome and integration for those seeking better lives in Europe.
While migration was not on the stated agenda, Mr Orban wrote on Facebook: “I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.”
Mr Orban has frequently depicted his government as a defender of Christian civilisation in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries.
Francis has expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees and criticised what he called “national populism” advanced by governments like Hungary’s.
He has urged governments to welcome and integrate as many migrants as they can.
The Vatican said the meeting was held in a “cordial atmosphere” and lasted longer than expected – 40 minutes.
“Among the various topics discussed were the role of the church in the country, the commitment to the protection of the environment, the protection and promotion of the family,” a Vatican statement said.
Vatican and Hungarian officials have insisted Francis was not snubbing Hungary by staying for such a short time, noting that the Hungarian church and state only invited him to close out an international conference on the Eucharist on Sunday.
It was at the end of that Mass that Francis urged Hungarians to remain steadfast in their religious roots, but not in a defensive way that closed them off from the rest of the world and the needs of others.
“Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots,” he said.
“Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms toward everyone.”
He said Hungarians should stay firm in their roots while “opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time”.
“My wish is that you be like that: rounded and open, rooted and considerate,” he said.
Later in the morning, Francis apologised to a gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders that he had to deliver his speech sitting down.
In his remarks to them, he warned against a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, saying it was a “fuse which must not be allowed to burn”.
The Argentine pope called for Christians, Jews and people of other faiths to commit themselves to promoting greater fraternity “so that outbursts of hatred that would destroy that fraternity will never prevail”.
Hungary’s large Jewish population was devastated during the closing months of the Second World War, with more than 550,000 Jewish deaths.
The country’s government under Mr Orban has been accused of trafficking in veiled anti-Semitic stereotypes, largely aimed at Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who the government frequently accuses of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.