Skip to main content

A World Leader's Message to BYU

Hungarian President Katalin Novák speaks at the Kennedy Center about the role of the family in society.

President Katalin Novák stands at the podium during her presentation at the BYU Kennedy Center.
Photo by Lynnette McConkie

When not attending the UN General Assembly or other important world events, Hungarian President Katalin Novák—first female president of Hungary and youngest person to hold office—hopes to “meet the members of the generation who can change our future.” In that spirit, President Novák visited the BYU Kennedy Center on September 26, 2023, to discuss the personal and societal importance of family and faith.

Hungarian Focus on the Family

Novák began her remarks with a caution that the demographic winter facing the Western world is on the brink of becoming a “demographic ice age.” Based on current fertility rates in Europe, not a single country on the continent can fully replace the current generation and maintain a stable population level.

To combat demographic decline, Hungary has instated many measures that support families, such as student loan forgiveness and lower tax rates for families with more children, three-year paid parental leave, and state-funded childcare and housing programs. Novák said, “We don’t just accept that Hungary is going down the slope. We want to do something against that, so we put the demographic issue and families in the focus.”

These initiatives paid off. In just a decade, Hungary saw the number of marriages double, the number of abortions halve, and the fertility rate increase by 30 percent. Novák said, "Having children is saving the world. We speak of climate change, about the challenges we face and how we should protect our planet earth. My main question is, why should we save our planet if not for the future generation?”

Personal Experiences with Career and Family Life

Novák then shared her own story as a careerwoman with three children. After starting her career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hungary, she married her husband and soon faced a crossroads: take a four-year post abroad or begin a family. They chose to prioritize their family and had their first child in 2004. From then on, Novák balanced staying at home and working in her career.

Throughout the lecture, she emphasized the importance of freedom of choice for parents, especially women, in their careers and family lives. Acknowledging the difficult decisions that often accompany the work-home life balance, she said, “It is not worth giving up on childbearing. It is not worth giving up on family life. Don't be afraid of having kids and saying yes to life.”

She later discussed how her role as a mother has honed her negotiation skills and understanding for others’ opinions, which transfers to the way that she deals with political opponents. She expressed her desire to see more Hungarian women engaged in politics, noting that she “was many times the only woman around the table.”

You're Not Alone

Novák wrapped up her lecture with a poignant story about faith. She described a moment after she first took office in 2022, when she was left at Sándor Palace to ponder her new position as president of Hungary. Wanting to share how she felt in that moment, she called her husband, parents, and best friend, but none were available to talk.

Novák said, “I felt like, ‘okay, well, who can I share this experience with?’ And then I realized that I'm not alone. Jesus Christ is there with me. And then from that moment on, in my position as a president, I have always had this feeling of security.”

As a child, Novák was baptized in secret in her grandparents’ home and could not freely practice her faith due to the restrictions of the former communist regime in Hungary. Today, she attends a Bible study group and tries to nurture her relationship with Jesus Christ on a daily basis. She urged the audience to appreciate their freedom of religion, and she reiterated that her relationship with Christ helps her in all of the roles that she takes on.

Novák said, “I'm not alone when it's about protecting our fellow Hungarians who are living in Ukraine, a country hit by a war. I'm not alone when I have to be able to decide which way to go. That is the feeling of security which makes me know that I shouldn't be scared of anything. That would be the message I would like to give over to you: that you shouldn't be scared of anything either, because you're not alone.”

For information about Hungarian courses offered at BYU, check out the undergraduate catalog here.