THE MARTYRDOM OF PATIENCE: The Holy See and the Communist Countries (1963-89)

By Cardinal Agostino Casaroli

Ave Maria Centre of Peace, Toronto, 2007

376 pages, $19.95

To order: (800) 663-6279


As the events of the Cold War and the fall of communism fade into the background, it is important for a new generation to realize the scope of the struggle against totalitarianism that ended in 1989. Today’s students, after all, have lived in a world where the U.S.S.R. is as remote as the Roman Empire.

Just as important to remember is that the Cold War was not only political and military, but spiritual, as well. It pitted an atheist ideology against the faith of the people subject to it. In eastern Europe, millions were Catholic, and the Church became a source of strength. While John Paul II’s great leadership and witness are still well-known, other, more discreet parts of the Church’s Soviet strategy (sometimes called Ostpolitik) are less well-known.

In The Martyrdom of Patience, first published in Italian in 2000, that side of the Vatican’s policy comes into focus. It recounts the activities of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli (1914-1998), who served under a series of Popes in diplomatic posts in Yugoslavia, Hungary and Bulgaria, becoming secretary of state in 1979. It was Cardinal Casaroli’s task to open up eastern Europe to the Church. There were two primary tasks.

In countries where most religious institutions such as schools, hospitals and monasteries were closed by the state, it was crucial to “reaffirm a certain [level of] religious assistance within that great majority of Catholics — mothers of families, children, youth, and even farmers and workers — who would not have had the way” of turning to underground Church activities.

Second was “to ensure, as much as possible, that there would not be a lack of legitimate bishops, faithful to the Church and the Holy See and that were recognized by the government,” and not mere instruments of the communist rulers.

Cardinal Casaroli was once caricatured as the “reddest” of cardinals for his supposed softness toward communism. Yet, this book shows how wrong this assessment was, and its publication caused much controversy in Europe, as a more nuanced picture of a dedicated Church diplomat emerged.

Unfortunately, Martyrdom of Patience is marred by numerous mistranslations and awkward phrases. Nevertheless, it is a gripping read of a critical period of Church history.

Ostpolitik serves as a cautionary lesson that the dynamics of history — those moving forces that change the world — sometimes are not visible until later. As the Church confronts persecution in other parts of the world, the example of Cardinal Casaroli and the Vatican’s farsighted policy should not be forgotten.

Gerald J. Russello writes from Brooklyn, New York.