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Holding on in Hungary

Greek Catholics preserve their traditions in the modern world

Wherever he goes in the Hungarian village of Nyírascád, Father György Mező is greeted with the traditional “Dícsőség Jézus Krísztusnak,” or “Glory to Jesus Christ.” Most of the residents are Greek Catholics, and Father Mező has headed the village’s Greek Catholic parish, Protection of the Virgin Mary, for 15 years. Life is not easy in this village in northeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border. The birthrate is down. Couples used to have five or more children, but providing for a family that size has not been possible for the last 50 years or so. Even now, in this post-Communist era of the European Union, forestry, the main occupation of most villagers, is not the industry it once was. Most couples have one child these days. And jobs are scarce too. Many villagers work in nearby cities or, if they are well educated, they go to Budapest.

But as the world changes around them, the villagers of Nyírascád hold on to their traditions, which is why Father Mező is held in such high regard.

“People have preserved the traditional rites, both liturgical and legal,” said Gyula Katona, Nyírascád’s mayor since 1973. He said the village was an exception to most of Hungary, where Communist rule and the enticements of the modern, secular world had combined to dilute the faith. Even under Communist rule, “catechism remained in the schools because the villagers wanted it there.”

“Processions were held each year, at Easter and on the feastday of the church,” he continued. “In other villages they held processions juston the church grounds, but here they paraded through the streets. From GoodFriday to Easter morning, the holy tomb is always guarded by young men, as istraditional. We could do all this because tradition is very strong here.”

Father Mező was my guide on my recent visit to Nyírascád. A convivial man in his 60’s, he, like most Greek Catholic priests, is married. At the rectory, his wife, Erzsébet, had prepared a lunch of vegetable soup, fried fish, potatoes and parsley, cabbage salad, biscuits, rolls, fruit and homemade apple juice. Mrs. Mező runs the rectory when Father Mező is out on his parish visits. A former teacher, she also leads the singing during the daily liturgy.

Among other things, we talked of their upcoming trip to the United States, to visit their daughter in Los Angeles. Father Mező was born in Máriapócs, a town famous for its icon of Mary, but his mother was born in the United States. His paternal grandfather was among the first Greek Catholics in Cleveland, and Father Mező also had an uncle, a Basilian monk, who often went to the United States for retreats. The couple was looking forward to the trip, but still had not received the necessary visas. “Two of my grandfathers helped build America,” Father Mező said with a twinkle. “But I’m still having a hard time getting a visa.”

Across from the rectory is an old schoolhouse, now used to store local artifacts, including an altar made in the 1950’s by the father of the current bishop, Szilárd Keresztes. Despite laws against religious expression during the Communist era, the parish’s liturgies were so popular worshipers spilled outside the church and this additional altar was needed. Father Mező hopes to transform the building into a senior center, but lacks the necessary funds.

After lunch, we visited the parish church, which is more than 200 years old. Protection of the Virgin Mary is a popular feast among Christians of the Byzantine tradition – Catholic and Orthodox – and refers to the Virgin Mary’s protection of the capital city of Byzantium, Constantinople. About 50 years ago, Bishop Keresztes, then a newly ordained priest, celebrated his first Divine Liturgy in the old church, the last before it was enlarged. Among the church’s beauties is its iconostasis that dates to 1788. As we left, Father Mező said, “Whenever visitors come to the church, I ask them to offer a prayer for themselves and others.” So we did.

It was naptime when we arrived at the village’s public nursery school, where we were greeted by its director, Júlia Kabály, with Hungarian sparkling wine and apricot-jelly doughnuts. “Wishing wine and wheat and all the best to your house this year and next,” Mrs. Kabály said, repeating a traditional toast. She has worked at the school for 40 years, joining as soon as she finished high school. “Even under communism, I always spoke my mind,” said the bubbly director.

The school has about 170 students, ages 3 through 6. Here they will prepare for the village primary school, which has about 470 children in eight grades.

Once a week, Father Mező leads a religion class for the children. The classes are not compulsory; the other village churches have their own catechism classes. But his offers another opportunity to ensure that the village’s traditions are passed down to its young.

“I’m happy when he visits,” Mrs. Kabály said. “The children look forward to the lessons. He always brings them something – books, pictures or candy.” The highpoint of the school year is the Christmas pageant, when the students go caroling to each church.

When these students grow up many of them will study, work and live elsewhere. Those who go on to high school attend one of the schools in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city just 20 miles south of Nyírascád. Currently, there are 71 Nyírascád children studying in Debrecen. Many graduates settle there. “There are enough Nyírascád natives in Debrecen to [start] a whole other village,” Mayor Katona said.

Ferenc and Ilona Konyári are village elders – both are in their 80’s – who have seen their children leave the village. Their son lives in Debrecen and their daughter married a man from another village.

Though Mr. Konyári is now frail, Mrs. Konyári grows vegetables, raises chickens and walks to church each Sunday. “They know all the prayers in the prayer book by heart,” Father Mező said.

In a few days, Mrs. Konyári would join the pilgrimage to the famed icon of Mary in Máriapócs. Under Communist rule, Hungarians still made the journey, enduring taunts and harassment along the way. In earlier days, Mrs. Konyári walked the 22 miles to the shrine. Now, she takes a bus. But her faith, and that of many of her fellow villagers, is the same.

“Younger people don’t have the same faith,” said Demeter Kosztin, a widower who oversaw church finances when Father Mező first came to Nyírascád. “My son, who lives near Nyíregyháza, is very religious but also is occupied with things of the world,” Mr. Kosztin continued.

Father Mező and I were finishing our day together in Nyírascád. We had just come from the village cemetery. In the Greek Catholic tradition, there is no eucharistic funeral liturgy. There is a home service, followed by another at the grave. The ceremony is an ancient one, with well-known chants so “lovely, sensitive and colorful,” I am told that even villagers who are not Greek Catholic often request it.

At 76, Mr. Kosztin had seen his fair share of funerals. Marriages too. He used to preside over the village’s wedding receptions, lively affairs that would last through the night. He said he has done his best to pass on to the next generation the traditions he grew up with, teaching his son: “And my son teaches his children all that he learned from his parents.” Mr. Kosztin’s grandchildren are religious too, he said. “But they live another kind of life,” much different from the village life he had known as a child.

“Times change,” Mr. Kosztin said. “It’s normal.”

Jacqueline Ruyak frequently travels to central Europe on assignment for ONE.

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