At 51, the Budapest archbishop is the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. Regarded as one of Eastern Europe’s experts in canon law, and a former rector of the Catholic University of Budapest, today Cardinal Erdo represents the hopes of the Church in Hungary in the wake of Communism’s collapse.
Q: You became a priest at a time when courage was needed to take such a step. What do you recall of those years?
Cardinal Erdo: I entered the seminary in 1970. My parents were believers of conviction and they were very happy. My father was a jurist, and was well aware of the problems in store for me, as he couldn’t practice his profession because he was a Catholic.
I had difficulties being accepted in the seminary. After entering, I did my military service and then began my studies in theology. It’s true, there were difficulties, many things could not be done. But with a bit of prudence something could be done.
Q: What couldn’t you do?
Cardinal Erdo: I remember that a fellow seminarian was sentenced to prison for a year because he had taught a religion course in the summer, something which was a crime.
This was the environment, but we knew which formalities had to be respected, what the risks were, and what the possible price might be. Catechesis could not be held in parish houses, but only in the church, where the children were dying of cold. Anyway, although no one might believe me, I think that at the religious and personal level they did not bother us that much.
Q: Fourteen years have passed since 1989. How has Hungary absorbed the changes of this period?
Cardinal Erdo: It has been a complex period, in a certain sense controversial. The economic system and especially the political system have changed. A Western democracy has arrived and with it, parties which perhaps in the beginning did not reflect the social reality. In a certain sense, it has been an artificial change, but which must be seen favorably, as it has brought freedom.
Q: And what has this meant for the Church?
Cardinal Erdo: Religious freedom has come, Catholic schools have reopened, and activities have been launched which before were not allowed. It has been a great challenge, in some aspects too great. Just to give an example: In 1989, in virtue of a 1950 agreement there were eight schools, a fixed number. Today there are 307, but where can we find teachers?
I say this to show that time is needed for the structures to function that have been restored to us: schools, hospitals, or buildings which need much restoration work. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that we have very little means. It is a great challenge, undoubtedly.
Q: What is the situation like, from the ecclesial point of view?
Cardinal Erdo: The secularization that was taking place before the change, unfortunately, continues — under different forms, but it continues.
In the last census, 55% of the population said they were Catholic, out of the 66% who were baptized. Although only 12% practice, this means that the great majority of the people consider themselves, in any event, as part of the Catholic Church.
We must begin with this fact, with humility, also keeping in mind the contradictions. For example, after 1989, 30% of young people followed the teachings of religion. Today this figure has decreased to 20-25%.
Q: What can be done, given the situation?
Cardinal Erdo: I think that at the parish level much can and must be done. … Today our society is in a situation of demographic collapse, and this means that the problems of the elderly are increasingly more acute.
It is not just a problem of institutions, but of everyone, as it affects people very strongly at a human level. This is the reason why parishes, associations and movements can do much, as the first need of our society at present is to establish contact again, closeness between persons.
Q: Is it more difficult to be Church today or yesterday?
Cardinal Erdo: I think it was more difficult then, but less complicated. Today, problems have multiplied, they are more complex and, at times, mistaken decisions are made. This is why we continue to need the Western Churches.