From ONE Magazine

To Be a Priest

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.”

Today’s seminarians are concerned about deteriorating communities, indifference, commercialism and a lack of family and community values. “People are not open enough with each other,” said Gyözö Balogh. “Maybe because they don’t know each other’s values and traditions, they have this fear.”

Gyözö Balogh is one of two Romany (more commonly known as Gypsy) Greek Catholic seminarians and aspires to become the first Romany priest in Hungary. Even as a child, he knew he wanted to be a Greek Catholic priest. “It was strange though when I first talked about it,” he recalled.

Eventually, Gyözö’s family took him seriously and sent him to a Greek Catholic secondary school that opened in 1991.

“Now my friends accept it.”

The academic year for Hungary’s Greek Catholic seminarians begins on 14 September, the feast of the Holy Cross. But the students actually begin their year about a week earlier at Máriapócs, a Greek Catholic village of 2,800 people famed throughout central Europe for its weeping icon of the Virgin Mary.

The seminarians join tens of thousands of pilgrims, led by Bishop Szilárd Keresztes of Hajdúdorog, who heads the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, to commemorate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which is usually celebrated the first Sunday after the actual feast day, 8 September. The seminarians help organize the festivities, patrol access to the grounds and the icon itself, assist pilgrims and, most important, sing in all the liturgies.

In the midst of their summer vacations, they all converge on Máriapócs to help in the annual pilgrimage on the first Sunday after 15 August, the feast of the Dormition, or the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary.

Devotion to Mary is an important part of the spiritual formation of Greek Catholic seminarians, for she plays a prominent role among devout Greek Catholics, lay and clergy.

“Mary is a real, not mystical, figure,” Father Horváth observed. “In a family, when people want something, they go first to the mother and ask her. For us, the head of the family is God, who we know loves us, but it is easier to ask things of his mother.”

An ordinary day at the seminary starts at 6 a.m. with prayer, private meditation and the Divine Liturgy, followed by a quick breakfast.

Seminarians attend classes at the handsome theological institute, located down the street from the seminary. Classes begin promptly at 8:30 a.m. In the 1970’s, the eparchy opened the institute, named for one of the first doctors of the church, St. Athanasius. The only theological institute in the region, it is affiliated with the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Lunch is taken in the seminary refectory at 1 p.m. From 2 to 4 p.m., students study foreign languages (fluency in two is required), attend an occasional seminar, play a sport or relax. After a two-hour study period, there is a 15-minute biblical reflection before dinner at 7 p.m. From 8 to 8:30 p.m., the seminarians gather in the chapel, where the house spiritual director, Father Tamás Kruppa, suggests themes for each student to meditate on the next day.

At 10 p.m., it is silentium magnum: No speaking is permitted until breakfast the next morning. Lights are out at 11 p.m.

Once a month, a day of silent retreat — led by a priest invited by the seminary — breaks the regular schedule. Silence is the rule that day, even during meals. There is also a weeklong retreat, held at Máriapócs early in November, with many liturgies and devotions.

“It’s very good,” said Father Tamás Horváth, the prefect of the seminary, “but it’s hard for the boys to be quiet that long, just as it is for adults.”

Two months into the academic year, seminarians may travel home for a weekend. They may also celebrate Christmas and Easter with their families. The feast of St. John the Baptist, 24 June, marks the end of the academic year, but seminarians are expected to work in their home parish during summer. They also spend a week at Máriapócs, helping the constant flow of pilgrims.

Greek Catholic candidates for the seminary first spend a year with their Latin Catholic peers in a house of studies in Vác, near Budapest. There, they study introductory theology and philosophy, while learning to live away from home. Adjustment to seminary life remains a challenge: First-, second- and third-year students are assigned three or four to a room.

“We have enough rooms,” explained Father Horváth, “but it is important for them to learn to live together, to live with others.”

All of the seminarians I have spoken with felt they were more or less ready for the rigors and demands of seminary life, particularly the studies. More unexpected was the intense spiritual life. Hardest of all, perhaps, was having to get up early every morning.

Of more immediate concern for some, however, was the lack of girlfriends; first- and second-year Greek Catholic seminarians are not permitted to date.

“It’s harder to get married,” said Péter Szkoropádszky, a native of Ukraine, “than to decide to become a priest. It’s hard to find a girl who will accept that decision.”

Only in the seminarian’s sixth and final year in formation — and with the bishop’s approval — may he get engaged. Before his ordination as a priest, the seminarian must complete his academic work, participate in the pastoral life of a parish and marry.

Ironically, two sons of priests, Bence Polgári and Tamás Kocsis, took longer to enter the seminary than their colleagues.

“I didn’t want just to follow in my father’s footsteps,” Bence Polgári said. “I wanted to decide on my own and wanted to make sure I could do well. For this reason, I spent many sleepless nights.”

Tamás Kocsis faced much the same. “My family didn’t expect me to become a priest, but I didn’t want other people to think I was doing it simply because my father was a priest. But my old friends are happy for me and support my decision.”

Péter Szkoropádszky was four when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church resurfaced; the Communists had forced the church underground, persecuting bishops, priests, sisters and members of the laity.

“There was a liturgy at the cemetery,” he recalled, “and I went with my parents and saw this huge community. I knew I wanted to be a priest, but it was odd to talk about it in elementary school so I didn’t till I was in a Greek Catholic secondary school.”

Dr. Timea Horváth, the wife of the seminary prefect, practices internal medicine at a local hospital. Unlike many women, Dr. Horváth had no qualms about marrying a priest. While her future husband was studying in Rome, she often visited her future in-laws at their parish. These visits confirmed for her that marriage to a priest was much like marriage to anyone else. Today, the Horváths have a 2-year-old son and look forward to having more children.

While most Hungarian families have one or two children, Greek Catholic families typically have two or three. Families of Greek Catholic priests have even more children.

“Our hope for the future,” said Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, “is that we have many young people … who want to become priests, and that they are seriously preparing for life.

“These young people will be the future church. They are looking for religious life, even if they are doubters or critics and do not accept everything about that life.

”Today,“ he said, “we have to accept that the church is criticized, sometimes with reason, but despite this we have to show people the beauties of our Christian values.”

Writer Jacqueline Ruyak has contributed to these pages for more than a decade.