Mindszenty, József

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Cardinal-archbishop of Esztergom, primate of Hungary; b. March 29, 1892, Mindszent, Hungary; d. May 6, 1975, Vienna, Austria. For a major part of his long and distinguished career in the church, Cardinal Mindszenty personified the struggle for religious freedom under the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. From the time of his 1949 show trial and imprisonment by the Communist rulers of Hungary, through his release during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and his long self-imposed imprisonment in the American legation in Budapest, to his eventual exile from Hungary, his personal fate symbolized the condition of church-state relations in the twentieth century.

The political convulsions which afflicted Hungary during his lifetime inevitably drew Cardinal Mindszenty into public affairs. His village of Mindszent, where his family owned a small farm, had changed little under centuries of Habsburg rule, but his studies for the priesthood opened the wider world of classical learning. By the time of his ordination, June 12, 1915, World War I had begun to dissolve many traditional social and political relationships as well as to impose extraordinary demands on his services as a curate, teacher, newspaper editor, and community advisor. The loss of the war and the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy left a political vacuum in Hungary. The activities of the young priest on behalf of the newly formed Christian Party brought him into disfavor with both Count Károlyi's moderate leftist government and its successor, Béla Kun's short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. The shift to the rightist policies of Admiral Horthy's regency allowed 25 years of dedicated parish work in Zalaegerszeg with politics overshadowed by concern for the community and the schools.

His elevation to the episcopate in March 1944 as bishop of Veszprém brought Mindszenty to a position of national leadership while the country was again suffering the ravages of a world war, which Hungary had entered as an ally of Nazi Germany. When the Hungarian government imitated the Nazi persecution of Jews, the Hungarian bishops vigorously protested the violation of innate human rights. Recognizing that the war was hopelessly lost, the government negotiated an armistice in October 1944, but German forces installed a puppet regime in Hungary to continue the fighting. Bishop Mindszenty presented a memorandum, signed by all the bishops of western Hungary, urging the new premier, Ferenc Szálasi, to end the senseless destruction. Because of this memorandum, the Szálasi regime arrested Bishop Mindszenty. He remained a prisoner until the complete German withdrawal from Hungary in April 1945.

The end of the war left Hungary devastated and disillusioned. Bishop Mindszenty, who became archbishop of Esztergom in September and a cardinal in February 1946, organized relief efforts to overcome the food shortages, to treat the widespread illnesses, and to provide for refugees. His determination to uphold the traditional constitutional authority of the archbishop of Esztergom led Cardinal Mindszenty to issue increasingly outspoken warnings about the threats facing the newly established democratic regime. As the Hungarian Communists consolidated their power by gradually eliminating other parties, the church became the last focal point of resistance and the prime target of hostile propaganda. Cardinal Mindszenty's protest of the nationalization of Catholic schools in 1948 led to his ultimate conflict with the regime. He was arrested on December 26 and placed on trial in February 1949. The public trial of the primate of Hungary demonstrated that no one could resist the will of the regime. After forced confessions from the cardinal and a mass of fabricated evidence against him, the court found Cardinal Mindszenty guilty of treason and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The harassment of the church also included the arrest of other bishops, the cessation of religious instruction, and the dissolution of religious orders.

The 1956 Revolution in Hungary freed Cardinal Mindszenty on October 30. When the populace enthusiastically welcomed his return to Budapest the next day, the government of Imre Nagy hastily declared the previous legal actions void. In a radio address, Nov. 3, Cardinal Mindszenty justified the revolution as a fight for freedom. He advocated neutrality, democratic elections under international control, private ownership, and religious freedom, but he carefully avoided lending support to Nagy's government or any other political faction. Less than eight hours after his speech, Soviet troops occupied Budapest and crushed the revolution. When the Soviet troops arrived, Cardinal Mindszenty sought refuge nearby in the U.S. legation. He received asylum and remained for 15 years in spite of the protests of the Hungarian government and papal entreaties to accept a post in the Roman Curia. The Hungarian Primate believed his persistence called attention to the oppression of Hungarian Catholics, but it also obstructed Vatican efforts to reach an accommodation with the Communist regime. At the urging of Pope Paul VI, he left Hungary in September 1971 and took up residence at the Hungarian seminary in Vienna. Fifteen months before his death he unwillingly relinquished his position as archbishop of Esztergom, while sternly proclaiming his disagreement with the Vatican pursuit of improved churchstate relations in Hungary, which allowed the appointment of new bishops. Citing examples of continued restrictions on the Hungarian church, he announced characteristically, "In these grave circumstances Cardinal Mindszenty cannot abdicate."

Bibliography: b. kovrig, The Hungarian People's Republic (Baltimore 1970). j. mindszenty, Memoirs (New York 1974). g.n. shuster, In Silence I Speak (New York 1956). f. a. vali, Rift and Revolt in Hungary (Cambridge, Mass., 1961).

[r. j. gibbons]