Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Celebrating Cardinal Mindszenty’s birthday

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 29, 2023 | In Reviews

Today is the birthday of the late, great Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, and an appropriate time to mention that Ignatius Press has issued an impressive new edition of his Memoirs, with an introduction by Daniel Mahoney, a timeline of his struggles with Hungarian totalitarianism, and 70 pages of relevant documents. The book does a valuable service, to ensure that the story of a man who was once the world’s leading symbol of Catholic resistance to Communism does not pass lightly from the public memory.

In his preface to the new book, Joseph Pearce makes a pointed observation: “Throughout history, the majority of those in positions of authority in the Church have been ready to kowtow to the bullying of the world…” That could never be said of Jozsef Mindszenty. He was imprisoned in 1919, as a young priest, for his opposition to the Bela Kun regime. In 1944 he was jailed again—this time as Bishop of Veszprem—by a fascist government that objected to his efforts to protect Jews from the Holocaust. But his most memorable struggle began in 1948, when Hungary’s Communist regime arrested him on charges of treason and (improbably, in light of his earlier arrest) anti-Semitism.

Taken into custody on the day after Christmas, Cardinal Mindszenty (of Estergom-Budapest) was tortured, endlessly interrogated, bombarded with propaganda, and subject to prison conditions in which he lost half his body weight. Eventually his reserves broke down—he would later say that the torture left him “shattered”—and he confessed to a series of absurd charges. His trial was one of the most grotesque “show trials” of the Communist era: a miscarriage of justice so blatant that a UN resolution condemned the proceedings, and Pope Pius XII declared the excommunication of everyone responsible for the farce.

The cardinal languished in prison until 1956, when Hungary opened its door, just a crack, to the prospect of freedom. When Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, slamming that door shut, the cardinal found refuge in the US embassy. He would remain there, a guest of the American government, until 1971.

Sadly, Pope Paul VI, intent on easing tensions between the Church and the Soviet empire, joined with President Nixon to persuade the cardinal that he should leave. Cardinal Mindszenty flatly refused to promise that he would refrain from criticism of the Hungarian regime, as a condition for his release. Pope Paul made the promise anyway, and the cardinal was finally freed. He traveled first to Rome, then to Vienna, where he lived out his life in exile—making frequent trips, at first, to visit other exiled Hungarians and to warn the world about the dangers of totalitarianism.

The cardinal’s warnings grew increasingly vexatious to Pope Paul, who continued to urge the Hungarian prelate to avoid criticism of the Hungarian government. The tensions rose, and in 1974 the Pope—who had promised Mindszenty that he would always retain his title as Primate of Hungary—announced that the cardinal had retired. Cardinal Mindszenty loudly insisted that he had not left his office voluntarily. In one more deplorable act of betrayal, on the anniversary of the cardinal’s show trial, Pope Paul lifted the excommunication of the prosecutors. Cardinal Mindszenty lived out the remaining months of his life in what he described as a complete exile; he died in 1975.

Fortunately the heroic witness of Cardinal Mindszenty has not been forgotten. He remains beloved in Hungary, among the people for whom he suffered. And a cause for his canonization has progressed, with the Vatican announcing in February 2019 that his “heroic virtue” was recognized, so that a miracle will pave the way for his beatification. Coincidentally, on the same day the Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced that a miracle had been approved in the cause of another famous cardinal, John Henry Newman, who was canonized later that year.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: kdrotar16365 - Mar. 29, 2023 2:57 PM ET USA

    Wow. What a witness Cardinal Mindszenty is! The Church can always use more shepherds like him, especially in days like this when totalitarianism is gaining ground again. Fortunately, we do have Cardinal Zen (Hong Kong) and Bishop Álvarez (Nicaragua) in our midst, though sadly, I don't think Bishop Álvarez's condition is known right now.

  • Posted by: chapman18668 - Mar. 29, 2023 12:03 PM ET USA

    The Church says Paul VI is a saint, but I find so many troubling stories about him, including in this story, that I find it hard to believe.