THE HERO OF HUNGARY
by Filip Mazurczak
Today, we mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, a courageous Hungarian prelate who fought against communist tyranny despite great suffering, yet at the end was betrayed by Rome. As today’s Church faces threats around the world from secularists, Islamic fundamentalists and others, it is worth recalling his story to see the dangers of being excessively polite with evil ideologies.
The Hungarians are an ancient, patriotic people united under one state and Christianized during the reign of King St. Stephen I (997-1038). In the subsequent millennium, Hungary had at times been a regional power (before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, Hungary was three times its present size), and at others was subjugated and invaded by Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, Nazis, and Soviets.
While Catholics are Hungary’s largest religious groups, its sizeable Calvinist minority led the fight for Hungarian independence. Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848 anti-Habsburg Hungarian uprising, was a Calvinist; in the Hungarian mindset, Catholicism had long been linked with the Habsburgs. This changed in the twentieth century with Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty.
Born in 1892, Mindszenty was no stranger to political oppression. During Bela Kun’s Bolshevik dictatorship in 1918-1919, Mindszenty was imprisoned for his opposition to communism. During World War II, he was imprisoned again after protesting against the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party’s mistreatment of Jews and refusing to station its troops in his bishop’s palace in Veszprem.
In 1945, Pope Pius XII appointed Bishop Mindszenty archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary, making him a cardinal the following year. While the Stalinist government of Matyas Rakosi (known as the “little Stalin” for being the Soviet dictator’s most brutal and loyal East European ally) imposed communism on Hungary, Mindszenty was Rakosi’s most vocal opponent. He protested against the forced resettlement of Hungary’s ethnic German minority, clamping down on freedom of speech, closing of religious orders and the nationalization and forced secularization of schools. Meanwhile, he worked to revive religious life among Hungarian Catholics, who quickly became attracted to the cardinal’s intelligence and charisma. Mindszenty organized pilgrimages to religious shrines, drawing tens of thousands of Hungarians. He made 1947-1948 a Marian Year when Hungarian Catholics were encouraged to renew their devotion to Mary.
Rakosi, shrewd as he was cruel, realized that he had a formidable opponent. On December 26th 1948 (incidentally the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr) Mindszenty was arrested and for weeks suffered beatings by a rubber truncheon and given drugs in his food to make him confess to ridiculous charges. Shortly thereafter, Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment and accused of being an American spy and fascist (a charge all the more Kafkaesque given his bold opposition to the Arrow Cross). The West was shaken: in Washington, Republican and Democratic senators gave speeches defending Mindszenty, while in Sydney one hundred thousand irate Australians marched expressing their solidarity with the cardinal.
After eight brutal years in prison, the primate released the de-Stalinization campaign of the reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy, installed after the Hungarian people boldly stood up in a national uprising in 1956. Cardinal Mindszenty once again became Hungary’s national conscience, and the prelate praised the insurgents and called for Hungarian independence from Moscow on the radio.