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To Be a Priest

Hungary’s Greek Catholic seminarians generate good news

by Jacqueline Ruyak with photographs by Tivadar Domaniczky

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When I first visited northeastern Hungary, Father Tamás Horváth, then 28, said that to him being a priest meant announcing the good news in all kinds of circumstances.

“The good news, the holy Gospel, is always the same: that God loves us and that we have to love each other. That is how we can live happily and normally.”

I thought immediately of Father Theodore Krepp, pastor of St. Mary Protector Byzantine Catholic Church in Kingston, Pennsylvania.

I had come to know “Father Ted” while working on another assignment for this magazine. With his quick intelligence, warmth and buoyant personality, Father Ted exemplified in word and deed what Father Horváth had described.

The Pennsylvania priest enlivened the traditions of the church because he himself was on intimate terms with them. And he was a tireless and tactful supporter of ways to promote greater understanding of the church among others.

When I heard he had died this past September, at 51, I was stunned. It made me think again about Father Horváth and how, in Hungary, Greek Catholic priests are formed.

A 20th-century central European backwater, northeastern Hungary is the center of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, whose 290,000 members observe the rites and traditions of the Byzantine Christian East while maintaining full communion with the Church of Rome. Most of the church’s 171 parishes are concentrated in villages in the northeast and are served by some 200 active priests, nearly all of whom are married with families.

Before World War II, about 25 percent of Hungary’s Greek Catholic priests belonged to religious communities and, therefore, observed celibacy. But in September 1950, Hungary’s Communist government expelled Greek and Latin (Roman) Catholic religious and closed all monasteries and religious houses. (Exceptions were made, however, for four communities that operated schools attended by the elite.)

While the number of men and women entering religious life in the nation’s large Latin Catholic Church has increased considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union, religious vocations in the Greek Catholic Church have been modest.

Most men pursuing priestly vocations want to serve as parish priests, who, in the Greek Catholic tradition, are permitted to marry. And though the number of Greek Catholic men entering the seminary is now less than half what it was in the 1970’s — reflecting Hungary’s declining birthrate — only 20 percent are sons of priests. This suggests a broader appeal of the priesthood among Hungarian Greek Catholic males.

Much has changed in the formation of Hungary’s Greek Catholic priests since 1962, when Father Horváth’s father, also a priest, graduated from the seminary, which was established in 1950 in the city of Nyíregyháza (population 117,000).

During the Communist period, politicians took obligatory tours of schools, giving pep talks on happiness and the benefits afforded by the regime, but they were, Father Horváth said, a farce. “Even the politicians were embarrassed for themselves.”

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Tags: Eastern Churches Monastery Seminarians Hungarian Greek Catholic