From the perspective of the Church, one of the most significant moments of the democratic transformation was the abolishment, on 30 June 1989, of the State Office of Church Affairs without any legal successor. Accepted in January of the following year, the IV Law of 1990, “On the freedom of thought, religion and the Churches … “ completed the liberation of the Churches and guaranteed their free functioning.
The beginning of Szilárd Keresztes’ service as bishop seemed to coincide with the recovery of the Church’s freedom. New ways opened even for the Greek Catholic Church that had been unimaginable and forbidden paths for decades. Earlier, education, the social sphere, instruction of youth, culture, the world of the media, health services, the criminal justice system, and the military had all been prohibited areas. With the collapse of communism the obstacles disappeared, and all these areas became open for pastoral work. Another important change was that the prejudices that had led to significant discriminatory disadvantages toward Greek Catholics during the decades before World War II disappeared almost entirely from Hungarian society. Indeed, since the beauty and uniqueness of the Byzantine Rite appeals to many of our compatriots, who are searching for their own paths, there exists a general sympathy in society toward the Greek Catholics today.
The rapid social changes required ecclesiastical leaders who were willing to take the initiative and make quick decisions. Soon, it became apparent that the democratic transformation was the environment in which Bishop Szilárd Keresztes could best apply his talents. The institutions were founded and a string of construction projects began. These soon constituted the most characteristic aspects the bishop’s service. Based on the initiative of the bishop, the first religious elementary school opened its doors in September 1990 in Hajdúdorog. The improvement of the infrastructure of the educational institutions of Hajdúdorog became an essential task of the following years. The St Basil Educational Center today operates an elementary school, a high school, a trade school, a student dormitory, and a nursery school. The St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Nursery School opened in Nyíregyháza in 1996 and moved into a new building in 2004. The elementary school began to function in September 1998 in an outmoded building, which had been returned as compensation for previously nationalized properties. A new school building should be completed in the near future. The new home of the St. Athanasius Greek Catholic Theological College was built with considerable sacrifice over several years and was consecrated in 2004. Bishop Szilárd Keresztes established an elementary school and a nursery school in the Miskolc Exarchate and in Rakacaszend. The nursery in Miskolc has been operating a branch nursery school in Felsőzsolca since 2004. In the interest of providing for the pastoral needs of the students in middle and higher education, the following have been established: a university and high school pastorates in Debrecen, university and high school pastorates in Miskolc, as well as dormitories for university and high school students, college and high school pastorates, as well as a dormitory for college girls, in Nyíregyháza, and a university dormitory in Szeged. New parishes have been founded in the District of Diaspora in Győr, Esztergom, Veszprém, Dunaujváros, Gödöllő, Vác, Pesterzsébet, Szigetszentmiklós and Szolnok.
The development of the pilgrimage site in Máriapócs received considerable emphasis in the program of Bishop Szilárd Keresztes. The first steps, which involved the renewal of the shrine basilica, can be connected to the historic visit of Pope John Paul II. The visit of the Holy Father gave new momentum to the development of the Greek Catholic Church in Hungary and to Máriapócs. A home for pilgrims visiting the Weeping Icon of the Theotokos was opened in 1999 and regularly provides a home for spiritual retreat. Bishop Szilárd Keresztes joined an application for European Union funds and with several years of preparatory work undertook the interior renewal of the shrine basilica and the reconstruction of its surroundings, which could only be completed by his successor.
The taking on of pastoral duties in new areas such as health care services, military service and the criminal justice system made the creation of new and appropriate institutions necessary. Hospital pastorates were established in Debrecen, Miskolc and Nyíregyháza. Greek Catholic clergy also serve in the Catholic Camp Bishopric, and jail pastorates operate in Miskolc and Nyíregyháza. In several Greek Catholic communities institutions for assisting the aged and helping mothers in crisis have been organized.
The religious orders that had been disbanded in 1950 were permitted to begin working again by the law on religious liberties. The Basilian Fathers and Sisters returned to Máriapócs. Due to the obstructionist tactics of the Budapest town government and the social services office that was located there, the entire monastery building was only returned to the fathers after considerable delay. Today, it has been virtually entirely renewed and provides a home for the fathers, who have assumed responsibility for leading the parish of Kispest. The Basilian Sisters operate homes for the aged in their houses in Máriapócs and in Sátoraljaújhely. Both of these traditional institutions, which have played a significant role in the history of Greek Catholicism, must face the reality of declining interest in the monastic calling in the modern world. This has become a general problem for the entire Church. The Community of Dámócz, which had been established by the eparchial bishop and named after the Resurrection, desired to follow the new path of Eastern monasticism in Hungary. The members prepared for their living by their rule in the Monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium. László Atanáz Orosz took monastic vows in 1996, and he was followed by Péter Fülöp Kocsis in 1998. Until their appointment as bishops, the Monastery of Dámócz played an important role in the Greek Catholic Church.
The pilgrimage for youth in Máriapócs have become an important part of the pastoral work among youth. The same is also true of the Christian Gathering in Zemplén, or KÖZ, the Walking Pilgrimage for Youth, and the Greek Fire Camps, which regularly attract several hundred young people. The annual Carnival Ball has become a much anticipated event for many Greek Catholics, as well as the Harvest Ball for Youth. For those desiring to immerse themselves in prayer, there is a meeting for the praying faithul; while the St. Damján Camp awaits children with disabilities. The institution for higher education of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, the St. Athanasius Theoligial College not only underwent infrastructural development during the years after the collapse of communism but also experienced important changes touching on the foundations of its educational structure. The Apostolic Constitution Sapientia christiana (1992), the document outlining the Holy See’s plan for the forming of priests, is being implemented step by step. The years of seminary have expanded to six, and the theological college and seminary have organizationally separated from each other. While the institutions were still united in one, it was led by István Pregun. After he was appointed to head the secretariat of the Chancery Office in 1992, György Fodor and later László Orosz became its leaders. After the separation was carried out in 1995, Miklós Oláh took over the leadership of the seminary. He was replaced by István Ivancsó in 2001. György Fodor became rector of the college in 1995 and István Pregun in 1999, who directed the institution until his death in December 2006. In January 2007, Bishop Szilárd Keresztes appointed János Soltész as the new head. In the period after the end of communism the main function of the college remained the formation of the clergy but in it became possible to accept secular students and the initiation of new programs for learning. Already in 1990 a correspondence program was started for the training of teachers of religion, and one year later, together with György Bessenyei Teachers’ College, this same instruction was made available to regular students. In 1994 negotiations began with Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and as a result, on 26 May 2006, the college became an affiliated institution. Since the school year 1995-1996, university level instruction has been taking place at the institution. Beginning with the school year 2006-2007, the college, taking another step forward, became an aggregated institution of Pontifical Oriental Institute. This allows for the organization of so-called “license courses,” which can be fitted into the system of doctoral programs of the Hungarian university system. Therefore, in accordance with the agreement between the St. Athanasius Theological College and the Faculty of Theology of the Péter Pázmány University, the students completing the requirements of the license program in Nyíregyháza can be admitted into the doctoral program of the Catholic university. In addition to meeting the requirements of the Church, the Theological College is also compatible with the state regulations. This is confirmed by the results of the accreditation visitations every five years, the implementation of the Bologna system, and the acceptance by the state of the new instructional programs. In addition to taking students from the eparchy beyond the borders of Hungary, the college is building up its international connections by organizing scholarly conferences and regularly publishing in foreign languages.
After the collapse of communism new opportunities opened in the Greek Catholic Church for pastoral work among the gypsies, work which has traditions extending back decades. The parish priest Miklós Sója had been active since the early 1940s in the village of Hodász in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County in providing pastoral care for gypsies living under impoverished conditions. He did not just lead them to faith but he also taught them skills necessary for their improvement. In the beginning he started teaching them on the banks and later in the adobe chapel built by the gypsies. He learned their language and translated the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into it. As a result of forty years of loyal service, he was able to turn a viable parishes over to his successors. The years after the collapse of communism made possible the construction for the gypsies of a new religious nursery school, a home for the aged. Separate Greek Catholic gypsy parishes were formed in Hodász and later in Kántorjánosi. The successes of the pastoral work of Szilárd Keresztes and his associates among the gypsies have received the recognition of both the appropriate offices of the Holy See and the Hungarian organizations dedicated to Roma social matters.
With the end of the censorship that was typical of the Communist system, a media center was established by the Chancery Office for the coordination of its appearance in the written and electronic media. In 1990, the Greek Catholic Magazine started up again, and by reaching every parish in the country, it served as a connecting link for all Greek Catholics. Greek Catholic programs and the broadcasting of the Liturgy have become regular on national television and radio, as well as on the stations of local media.
During the twenty years of service by eparchial bishop Szilárd Keresztes the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church has provided a home for a number of very significant events and programs.
Although the pilgrimage in November 1989 of János Szemedi, Bishop of Munkács and his clergy to Máriapócs did not receive much attention at the time, it perhaps ought to be considered among the most important events of recent times. The bishop and priests, who had operated for decades illegally, could for the first time visit the Weeping Icon openly as clergymen. The often suffering Greek Catholics of Sub-Carpathia received effective help in rebuilding their Church from the Hungarian Greek Catholics. Beginning with the school year 1990-1991, a part of their seminarists could prepare for their priesthood in the Nyíregyháza seminary. The Romanian and Slovakian eparchies also availed themselves of the same opportunity.
The first visit of Pope John Paul II to Hungary was a very significant event of the years of the new beginning. The pope, who had played an important part in the collapse of the tyrannical systems of Eastern Europe, made a pastoral visit to Hungary during the summer of 1991. During his stay, on 18 August, he celebrated the Saint Liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite in Máriapócs in which a large number of faithful from Sub- Carpathia and Romania, who had just recently liberated themselves from persecution, participated together with their bishops and clergy. From that time, Máriapócs recovered its international character. The Greek and Latin Rite Hungarians, Ruthenians, Romanians, gypsies, Slovaks, and Germans, for centuries had considered the pilgrimage site of the Sacred Shrine of Theotokos in Máriapócs as their common spiritual home. Once again, after four decades of restriction, the groups of pilgrims could set out from all directions.
Just as the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church celebrated the double jubilee in 1946, so also, 1996 meant the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the first Weeping at Máriapócs and the 350th anniversary of the Union of Ungvár. To all this can be added for the same year an important holiday for Hungarians, the 1100th anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians in Hungary. The jubilee year was celebrated by Hungarian Greek Catholics with distinguished events. In April, a highly successful exhibition of Greek Catholic religious art was opened in the András Jósa Museum in Nyíregyháza by Archbishop Francesco Marchisano, the Secretary of the office of the Holy See directing the preservation of ecclesiastical art and historical heritage. At the central celebration in Máriapócs, the Holy Father was represented by Cardinal Etchegeray. At the same time Máriapócs was the site of an international gathering of church choirs, while the representatives of the Hungarian speaking Greek Catholic parishes met in Hajdúdorog. In September, the First Congress of the Directors of Sacred Shrines and Leaders of Pilgrimages came together in Máriapócs. In October, a pilgrimage of the eparchy set out for Rome in order to celebrate the Union of Ungvár, while in November those wishing to pay their respects to Theotokos went to Vienna and visited the First Icon of Pócs, which is kept in the St. Stephans Dom. The St. Athasasius Greek Catholic Theological Collage held a conference on the events surrounding the First Weeping.
A pilgrimage from the eparchy to Rome took place during the Holy Year 2000. In the Basilica of Santa Maggiore and as a part of the common pilgrimage of the Eastern Churches in the Holy Year, bishop Szilárd Keresztes and the choir of the Hajdúdorog high school sang one ikos in Hungarian as a part of the Akathistos hymn.
During the anniversary year of the third Weeping of Máriapócs the icon was restored. As a conclusion of the jubilee year and as part of a Saint Liturgy celebrated with the leadership of Cardinal Péter Erdő, the icon received a new golden crown, which was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI on the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterwards the icon went on a two-week tour, during which it could be received with prayers by the faithful in the churches of the larger parishes. In this same year the Sacred Shrine in Máriapócs was designated a “National Sacred Shrine” by the Hungarian Catholic Council of Bishops.
In July 2007, Bishop Szilárd Keresztes completed his seventy-fifth year. In accordance with the regulations of canon law, he submitted his resignation, which Pope Benedict XVI accepted on 10 November and appointed the resigning bishop as Apostolic administrator until the appointment of his successor. The chief pastor had led as eparchial bishop the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church during two decades that had no equal in the history of our Church. These two decades were declared by the resigning bishop himself as an, “outstandingly beautiful” era. The memorial album published in celebration of his seventieth birthday was entitled, Ecclesiam aedificans – the Church Builder, and properly reflects the essence of his activities as bishop. He led the Greek Catholic Church with confidence, great endurance, and a strong hand onto new pathways and the newly opening opportunities. He could be a bold initiator but he also had a fine eye for the possible pitfalls and difficulties. During his two decades as eparchial bishop twenty-eight new parishes and organizational parishes were formed. Twenty-two new churches and chapels were built. In his liturgical arrangements and practices he defended Hungarian Greek Catholic traditions. As the President of the Financial Committee of the Hungarian Conference of Catholic Bishops, he used his enormous experience in order to benefit the entire Roman Catholic Church. Great successes and significant accomplishments are connected to his name. At the same time he consistently avoided celebrating himself and his style of living was characterized by exemplary moderation.
Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, in preparing to end his service as eparchial bishop, wanted to settle one more issue. Although, beginning with the early years of the 1990s, his name had regularly appeared on the lists of ecclesiastical informants made public for manipulative purposes, the diocesan bishop had avoided clarifying the issue. At the beginning of 2007 the Historical Archive of the State Security Forces opened the files in which the informant reports of the eparchial bishop appeared. Based on the documents that could be freely investigated, a study revealed for the public certain aspects of the work of Bishop Szilárd Keresztes as an informant. At this point he found it necessary to assemble his clergy and share his thoughts. The meeting proved to be emotionally draining for both the bishop confronting his past and his clergy as well as for the priests who were present. It was entirely obvious to everyone that the communist system that had gripped the churches and their leaders with an iron fist for four decades was still able to “squeeze” and make its destructive and debasing power felt nearly twenty years after its collapse. The majority of the priests in attendance had at most experienced communism as children and had begun their career as priests after the fall of communism. Above all, it is important for them to understand that the words and experiences of the bishop were not, and are not, in reality about the past but much more about the present and the future. They are about those situations in life that now and in the future will cause us fear and disappointment, the situations in which we must give testimony to our ability to stand our place and testify to our faith in Providence. If instead of understanding this, we choose to give summary judgment on the past and its actors, then we will be setting out on the wrong path.