Bishop Atilla Mikloshazy attended to pastoral needs of 1.3 million Hungarian natives. Photo by Michael Swan

Bishop Atilla Mikloshazy's life marked by pastoral care, liturgical reform

  • January 9, 2019

From his first job in a labour camp to his last job praying for the Society of Jesus, Bishop Atilla Mikloshazy worked hard at one thing — caring for people.

The Jesuit priest, theologian and bishop from Hungary died at the Jesuit infirmary in Pickering, Ont., on Dec. 28. He was 87. 

Bishop Mikloshazy became bishop to about 1.3 million émigré Hungarians in 1989, when Pope St. John Paul II appointed him titular bishop of Castelminore and put him in charge of pastoral care for Hungarians outside of Hungary. He took the job just as the Soviet empire began to crumble and the Iron Curtain started to part.

He joined the Hungarian Jesuits in 1949, the same year Moscow put the unelected Matyas Rakosi in charge of Stalinization of the country. For Hungary it was the beginning of 40 years of government by fear, dominated by secret police, internal networks of spies and the liberal use of forced labour camps. A teenaged Mikloshazy soon found himself inside one of those camps, where the other prisoners called him “Kis pap” or “little priest” and he worked in the camp infirmary.

His job caring for other prisoners was the beginning of a life-long friendship with Thomas Csathy and his family. The two young men, both born in 1931, met when Csathy suffered an injury working in the mines. Bishop Mikloshazy kept taking his temperature and declaring him unfit to return to hard labour.

Both young men spent two years in the camp. Bishop Mikloshazy was conscripted into the Red Army and later took part in the 1956 revolution that almost broke the Stalinist stranglehold on the country. He escaped to Austria and in 1959, along with 37,000 other Hungarians, found himself a refugee in Canada.

Mikloshazy 02Later a leading expert in liturgy, a young Fr. Atilla Mikloshazy celebrates Mass shortly before the Second Vatican Council. He was assisted by Fr. T. Zuydwijk and Fr. A. Morisette. (Photo courtesy of the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada.)

Bishop Mikloshazy was part of a small corps of young Hungarian Jesuits who were welcomed at the English Canadian Jesuit novitiate in Guelph. He was ordained in 1961 but continued to study in Canada and Italy, earning a PhD in liturgical and systematic theology in 1967. He then embarked on an academic career at Regis College in Toronto. He spent a decade, from 1974 to 1984, as a professor in the faculty of theology at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College, then 15 years teaching at  St. Augustine’s Seminary.

Through these years, especially after Vatican II, he consulted with bishops and bishops’ conferences on liturgical reforms. He was a member of Canada’s Catholic National Liturgical Council and part of the ecumenical Canadian Liturgical Society.  He strongly defended the introduction of the vernacular into Catholic worship, arguing it was perfectly in keeping with Catholic tradition.

“Always an effort has to be made to maintain the traditional liturgy, but adapt it to the cultural surroundings — not selling out the essence,” he told The Catholic Register in 2004. “The difficulty is to distinguish what is essential and what is provisional.”

Along the way, Bishop Mikloshazy ran into his old friend from the labour camp, Thomas Csathy, at St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish.

“When they found each other in Toronto, they kept the friendship going,” Csathy’s widow, Mariana, recalled. “He was a very close friend of ours. We loved him dearly.”

The friendship between the two Hungarian exiles naturally grew to include the entire Csathy family. The tall, smiling priest was there for family dinners and celebrations as the Csathys welcomed children then grandchildren.

“I have one daughter who had a very special child who was born with difficulties, and at the age of two weeks he had to have open heart surgery — a five-hour open heart surgery,” said Csathy. “He survived, but he kept crashing. We didn’t know whether he would survive or not. Atilla was at that time down in Scarborough, at St. Augustine’s. I went and picked him up and he baptized William in the hospital. My daughter has never forgotten. We still cry when we think about it.”

Ten years ago, when Thomas was struck down by the C. difficile bacteria during a stay in hospital, the bishop, despite the bad leg that caused him to limp, came from the Jesuit infirmary to the downtown hospital to say goodbye to his friend.

“He showed up as quickly as he could. He managed to get there, but three to five minutes after my husband had stopped living,” Csathy said. “But he still gave him his last rites. Because, he said, the soul is still around.”

Even before his retirement in 2006, Bishop Mikloshazy set himself a task of educating Catholics about their liturgy. He wrote a couple of books on the subject: 2002’s Benedicamus Domino!: Let us Bless the Lord! The Theological Foundations of the Liturgical Renewal and The Origin and Development of the Christian Liturgy According to Cultural Epochs: Political, Cultural and Ecclesial Backgrounds in 2006. 

He warned Catholics they had to really think about what the Church means when it says the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of Christian life.

“You have to build up the spiritual life — individually and family-wise — and then the peak of it is the Eucharist. But if there’s nothing below, the peak alone cannot stand up.”

The bishop’s funeral was held Jan. 3 with a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Michael’s Cathedral. He is interred at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto.

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