Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Life and "Crimes" of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty

by Alice Rethinger Watson


Short life of Cardinal Mindszenty, one of the foremost opponents of communism in Eastern Europe.

Larger Work

Catholic Heritage



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., November/December 1998

A half century has passed since the Dec. 26, 1948, arrest of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty in Esztergom, Hungary. It's been almost 50 years since he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jozsef Pehm was born in Mindszent, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary) on March 29, 1892, to peasant farmers. The cardinal later changed his German-sounding surname to Mindszenty, after his place of birth.

Ordained in 1915 and consecrated bishop of Vesprem in 1944, he was appointed archbishop of Esztergom, the primate of Hungary, the following year. In 1946 Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal.

At the time of his being taken into custody two years later, arrest was nothing new to Cardinal Mindszenty. In 1919, he had been jailed for condemning a state takeover of Catholic schools and urging people not to give in to the new regime which would, under the guise of benevolence, obliterate the Church. In 1944, he had spent four months in prison for resisting authority, inciting the people to violence and opposing Nazism.

Convinced that the cardinal was "the center of the counter-revolutionary forces in Hungary," the communist authorities wanted him. The immediate issue was an order that Hungary's 4,813 Catholic schools be nationalized. The cardinal had driven from village to village urging people to ignore the communist lies and refuse to give up their schools and their land. The police had responded by seizing his sound truck and portable generator. At his order, church bells tolled.

Although the publication of his last pastoral letter was banned, one copy made it to The Voice of America radio broadcast, and the communists shouted "subversive activity." The November 1948 letter ended:

"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."

Explaining that neither he nor the Church had provoked the enmity of the Hungarian government, he wrote in an open letter in December, "Communism is an atheistic ideology: hence by its very nature it is opposed to the spirit of the Church."

On the day of his arrest, police cars surrounded his residence. An account of the event notes that his mother and some of his faithful aides were with him when the boisterous police came for him. As the officers approached, he scribbled a note telling his fellow priests to be skeptical if they heard that he had "resigned" or "confessed," because it would be merely a sign of "human frailty."

He donned his poorest bishop's robe and his simplest bishop's ring. In his pocket was a picture of Jesus crowned with thorns. The giver had inscribed it, "devictus vincit" — "defeated, He is victorious." That picture would give him comfort in his dark hours. With time for only a quick good-bye to his aged mother, he was whisked away at night.

A long list of charges had been carefully concocted — lies made to seem logical. His accusers twisted his words, took them out of context and used forgery to produce documents of confession that they said he had signed.

Every night he was beaten. At daybreak, dressed in clown clothes, he was taken for questioning. For a time he was strong — some say obstinate — and he would not "cooperate." He ate little because he knew the food contained mind-altering drugs, and if in exhaustion he began to doze, he was prodded awake.

In February 1949, body and mind broken, Cardinal Mindszenty underwent what he later called a "show trial." The truth was never sought. He was accused of more than 40 "crimes," the most notable of which were foreign-currency abuses (yes. he had sought American intervention for his people and for the Church's monetary holdings), sabotage of Hungarian land reform (yes, he had tried to help his people keep their land and their churches), and conspiracy with the Hapsburgs (yes, he had spoken against the Communist People's Party).

"I am guilty on principle and in detail of most of the accusations made," the cardinal said shakily. He disowned the disavowal he had written earlier. When asked why he wrote it, he answered feebly, "I didn't see certain things as I see them now."

This was not the voice of the strong man who had been arrested. It was obvious he had undergone unspeakable torture.

The prosecutor's summation stated that Cardinal Mindszenty had confessed to inciting "the American imperialists to declare war on our country." He was falsely found guilty of treason.

Although that crime called for hanging, instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The government didn't want him seen as a martyr or hero of freedom.

The verdict and sentence were heard around the free world. It wasn't just the Hungarians — who saw him as "their priest" — who were horrified, but people in Western Europe and the United States as well.

Pope Pius XII called Cardinal Mindszenty's arrest a "serious outrage which inflicts a deep wound . . . on every upholder of the dignity and liberty of man." He defended the cardinal's right to oppose the government when it contradicted "divine and human rights." The Vatican called for Catholics everywhere to fight against a "pathological" system that flagrantly abuses human rights.

New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman roared, "If this be treason, to deny allegiance to atheistic communist government — then thank God Cardinal Mindszenty confessed to treason." President Harry Truman called the incident "infamous." and former prime minister Winston Churchill condemned it. Nine Hungarian diplomats in the United States resigned, ashamed.

After the sentencing, Cardinal Mindszenty was shuffled from prison to prison until the Hungarian uprising in 1956, when he was freed briefly. After the communists regained control, he lived in voluntary house arrest in the U.S. embassy in Budapest until 1971, dismissing requests from the Vatican that he leave his homeland.

The aging cardinal eventually became a tragic and pathetic figure, a thorn in the side of the Hungarian government. In an effort to be rid of him, it offered him safe passage to Austria. He declined.

But as Pope Paul VI worked to ease relations between the countries behind the Iron Curtain and the West, the cardinal became a problem for the Vatican. With his formidable presence, he was a hindrance to the establishment of four new dioceses in Hungary.

Finally, at the Pope's bidding, he reluctantly moved to the Vatican, where he stayed for two months before taking up residence in Vienna in 1971. In his final years, the cardinal traveled extensively to publicize the plight of Hungarian Catholics.

Cardinal Mindszenty died in Vienna in 1975 and was buried there. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, his body was brought back to his homeland and reburied in Esztergom.

Alice Rethinger Watson writes from Fremont, Ohio.

© Catholic Heritage, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.

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