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A Martyr for Our Time

On February 18, 1946, 32 bishops and archbishops from around the world gathered in Rome to receive from Pope Pius XII the red hat—the traditional symbol of elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals. It was the first such ceremony after World War II, and Pope Pius added to the growing international nature of the College of Cardinals by nominating prelates from Brazil, Lebanon, Australia, the United States, Cuba, Mozambique, and China.

The consistory was notable for one other event: As he placed the scarlet hat on one new member’s head, the pope said to him: “Among the 32, you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom whose symbol this red color is.” The words proved prophetic, for within a short time, that cardinal—József Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom, Hungary—endured arrest and horrifying torture, becoming a symbol of Catholic martyrdom for the entire world.

A Shepherd in Two Wars

József Pehm was born in Mindszent, Austria-Hungary (modern Hungary) on March 29, 1892, the son of devout Catholic peasant farmers. He later changed his German-sounding surname to Mindszenty to honor his place of birth. Called to the priesthood, he was ordained in 1915—the middle of World War I.

In the aftermath of the war and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary fell briefly under the control of a Soviet Hungarian Republic led by Béla Kun in 1919.

When the short-lived Communist regime proposed massive takeovers of agriculture and then attempted to seize Catholic schools, Mindszenty spoke out against the state. The Communists responded by arresting the young priest. He was released when Kun fell from power in August 1919, but it was not the last time Mindszenty would inhabit a prison cell.

In 1941, Hungary’s leaders sided with Hitler and sent thousands of young Hungarians to die in Russia for the Nazi cause. That was not enough for the Nazis, who suspected that the Hungarians might try to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. Germany therefore launched Operation Margarethe, the occupation of Hungary, in March 1944. The Nazi terror apparatus descended on the country.

A mere 15 days prior, Fr. Mindszenty had been named Bishop of Veszprém. He was consecrated in the midst of the Nazi seizure of Hungary, and he spent the next months providing spiritual encouragement to his flock and assisting as many Jews as possible to avoid arrest and deportation. His work rescuing Jews and encouraging resistance soon attracted the attention of the Sicherheitsdienst—the Nazi Secret Service—and the Gestapo. He was imprisoned from November 27, 1944 to April 20, 1945, when he was released after the fall of the pro-Nazi regime. By this time, Mindszenty was a national hero to both Catholics and Protestants and was honored especially for his help to the Jews.

In recognition of his abilities and his courage, Pope Pius XII named Mindszenty archbishop of Esztergom on October 2, 1945. With the nomination, Mindszenty became the primate of Hungary and thus the symbol of the Church for the nation. Pius wasted little time in making him a cardinal the next year, using the occasion to predict the coming darkness for Hungary.

The Soviet Red Army had swept into Hungary from the east and captured Budapest after fierce fighting in April 1945. The Soviet occupation lasted for two years, during which free elections were held in November 1945. But the Soviet occupiers refused to allow the new government to form. Instead, the Communists were forced upon the Hungarians, and the newly formed secret police, with the help of the Soviets, began arresting and exterminating all opposition. The last democratic leaders were driven into exile or sent to Siberia in 1948 as the country sank into the iron grip of Communist oppression.

For God and for Hungary

The puppet dictators understood clearly that the Church was a huge obstacle to their program. So they first confiscated most of the Church’s land, especially all agricultural holdings. Then they took over all of the nearly 5,000 Catholic schools and installed ardent Marxists as teachers. Catholics who protested the changes were arrested for being counter-revolutionaries and engaging in conspiracy against the government. Of particular concern, of course, was the leader of Hungarian Catholics, Cardinal Mindszenty.

Mindszenty protested. He visited every city and every village and called on the Hungarians to resist the new laws peacefully, to refute government lies, and to be firm in refusing to surrender Church lands and schools. In November 1948, he issued what proved to be his last pastoral letter. Although banned, it still made its way to the Voice of America radio broadcast. The cardinal declared: “I stand for God, for the Church, and for Hungary. . . . Compared with the sufferings of my people, my own fate is of no importance. I do not accuse my accusers. . . . I pray for those who, in the words of Our Lord, ‘know not what they do.’ I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.”

On December 26, 1948—St. Stephen’s Day—the cardinal’s residence was surrounded by Hungarian State Security, and Mindszenty was arrested in front of his aged mother and loyal aides. As he was taken away, he implored them not to believe any claim that he had resigned or confessed. He was swept away to the prison of the secret police on Andrassy Street, the same building that had been used as a torture center by the Gestapo during the war. Stripped of his breviary, rosary, and religious habit, he spent the next 16 days being tortured, interrogated, and badgered into signing a confession.

In February 1949, Mindszenty’s sham trial began in a Hungarian court. At the trial, he was dressed in clown clothes, mocked by his jailers, and charged with 40 crimes, including treason, conspiracy against the Communist government, and being an enemy of the people.

There was little surprise when the trial ended with Mindszenty’s conviction. Although these crimes were usually punished by hanging, he was instead sentenced to life imprisonment because the Communists did not want to create a martyr for the Hungarian people. Still, the conviction elicited worldwide condemnation. Both Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman added their voices to the international outrage, and in protest of the ridiculous “trial,” nine Hungarian diplomats in the United States resigned in shame.

The World Watches

Seven years of imprisonment ensued. In September 1949, he was transferred to Conti Prison in Budapest where he was held in solitary confinement for four years. As Mindszenty recalled later, his cell was “small and crumbling. There was a straw mat to sleep on, a table, a stool, a small bucket for one’s needs and another for water . . . I received no mail, read no newspapers and no books except my breviary and my Bible . . . Each day I said my rosary six times. Much of the time I prayed for strength . . .” (Time Magazine, “The Mindszenty Story,” Dec. 17, 1956.)

Mindszenty’s health finally failed, and the prison doctor threatened that if he were not transferred to a better situation, he would die as the world watched. The government relented. On July 16, 1955, Mindszenty was taken to Castle Puspokszentlaszlo in southern Hungary, the traditional summer residence of the bishops of Pecs. Mindszenty saw sunshine, trees, and flowers for the first time since 1949. He recovered some of his strength over the next few months and was transferred to Felsopeteny Castle in the north.

Meanwhile, events outside of the prison were overtaking Hungary. In October 1956, a spontaneous revolution against the Hungarian Communists and their Soviet masters erupted after student uprisings in Budapest prompted nationwide protests. The Hungarian government fell, the prisons were emptied, and a new government promised to hold free elections.

Among the prisoners granted freedom was Cardinal Mindszenty. He returned to Budapest and his old house on Uri Street. Over the following days, he spoke on the radio calling for moderation in dealing with the fallen Communists and exhorting Hungarians not to exact revenge.

The happiness was short-lived. On November 4, 1956, the Soviet government unleashed the Red Army on Hungary. The doomed Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy broadcast an emergency appeal to the West for help, and then advised Mindszenty to take refuge in the U.S. embassy. Mindszenty rolled up his cassock under a long overcoat and made his way on foot to the embassy. From that sanctuary, he watched as the new puppet regime of hardliner János Kádár arrested tens of thousands of Hungarians; many were deported to the Soviet Union, where they died in Siberian labor camps. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country while they still could.

The new regime promised Mindszenty safe passage to Austria, but he declined. The mere presence of this national hero was a symbol of hope to the Hungarian Catholics—and a great embarrassment to the Hungarian government.

Advocate in Exile

By the late 1960s, the global situation had changed. Both Vatican and American diplomacy had adopted a different approach to the Soviet Union. For the Vatican, the cardinal was perceived increasingly as a hindrance to the new strategy of Ostpolitik and the efforts to develop a rapprochement with the Soviet bloc that could lead to an easing of relations and the creation of new dioceses in Hungary. As the American government expressed unwillingness to have him remain in the embassy, Mindszenty received instruction from Paul VI to leave Hungary. He departed his native land on September 29, 1971 and settled in Vienna, Austria. Over the next few years, he traveled the world to speak of the plight of Hungarian Catholics. On December 18, 1973, he was retired officially as archbishop of Esztergom by Pope Paul to permit further normalization of relations between the Vatican and Hungary. The archbishop’s vacated see was not filled during his lifetime. He died in Vienna at the age of 83 on May 6, 1975, and was buried there. In 1991 the freely elected government of Hungary repatriated his remains. He is now buried in the basilica at Esztergom.

Mindszenty’s courage was never forgotten, and he remained a symbol for Hungarians—and all Christians—that they and the Church would one day be free.

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