A statue of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary is seen in a garden outside St. Ladislaus Church in New Brunswick, N.J. CNS photo/James McEvoy

Cardinal’s suffering and heroism went hand in hand

By  Peter Csillag, Catholic Register Special
  • December 21, 2023

When Pope Francis in 2019 declared the late Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty venerable, a step on the path to recognized sainthood, it marked long overdue recognition of the near-forgotten 20th-century shepherd’s Christian virtue. Earlier this year, Ignatius Press republished the Cardinal’s out-of-print Memoirs. This would be a worthy addition to reading lists over the holidays or in the coming new year.

The overdue republication provides a firsthand historical account of what real suffering looks like and what real heroism entails. It’s timely for our historically illiterate contemporary era, when too many even among the faithful, often encouraged by internet carnival barkers, are eager to use labels such as “communist” and “victim” in any discussion.

Never losing sight of his duty as a shepherd of his flock, the Cardinal stood firm against all violations of human dignity. While he is best known for enduring the show trial of 1949 and subsequently imposed prison sentence, he stood with equal strength against other evils. He faced earlier arrests under both the first communist regime in 1919 and arrest again under the fascist Arrow Cross regime that he vigorously opposed. As the young Bishop of Veszprém, he publicly with other bishops spoke against the mistreatment of Jews under the Nazi puppet regime in Hungary. Later he stood courageously against the attack on Catholic schools and education by the then-ascendant postwar communists. 

Despite enduring brutal serial beatings night after night in imprisonment, Cardinal Mindszenty never lost sight of even his most savage oppressors being made in the image of God and deserving of dignity. That lesson of Genesis 1:27 is the first forgotten casualty in all human mistreatment. In enduring his predetermined show trial, his Memoirs outline the principles he held to throughout his public witness: defending the Church and her influence with all his strength; to cause harm to no individual through his words and conduct; to avoid confrontations with other clergy to ensure the people’s confidence in their Church and priests would not be shaken. 

 When imprisoned but not broken by beatings or starvation, the regime persisted in trying to break the Cardinal’s faith by interrupting his prayers and offering meat to eat during Friday obligation among other tactics. He politely declined and never broke the faith. Outside the prison walls, the State propaganda machine tried to tarnish his reputation. In this, too, the regime largely failed. 

Unlike his weak immediate successors, Cardinal Mindszenty never acquiesced to the regime’s overtures for compromise, preferring to stay behind bars. In the appendices of his Memoirs, he includes a summation of the sad tale of Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow. The former head of the Russian Orthodox Church at first resisted the new Soviet regime, but eventually under pressure gave his unqualified support, setting in motion that Church’s continued subservience to the Russian regime, an obedience that continues today. Cardinal Mindszenty was resolute not to send Catholicism down such a path.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he was finally freed after several years behind bars. Freedom was short-lived as Russian tanks rolled in to support the Soviet-subordinate government and crush the uprising. Cardinal Mindszenty found refuge in the American embassy where he was granted asylum and lived for 15  years until a combination of diplomatic machinations and his deteriorating health forced him into exile.

Cardinal Mindszenty’s memoirs end on a somber note. Even in this sorrow at the end of his life, he did not break from his faith in the Church. As he wrote to Pope St. Paul VI in a 1971 letter, “I am convinced that even the greatest personal sacrifice shrinks to insignificance when the cause of God and the Church is at stake.” 

He was faithful to the end. 

It was not until 2012 that the Chief Prosecutor’s Office in Hungary announced a complete legal, moral and political rehabilitation of the late Cardinal, finally dismissing the communist regime’s bogus charges. This justice came at the intervention of his successor Cardinal Péter Erdő, today Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest.

Two thousand years after our Lord said, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it,” Cardinal Mindszenty did his part to ensure the gates of Hell did not prevail, and that the faith can endure to this day. 

Venerable Cardinal, pray for us all.

(Peter Csillag is a director of a public affairs consulting firm. He is a past advisor to elected officials at the provincial and federal levels.)

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