Anti-Communist Hero Cardinal Mindszenty’s ‘Memoirs’ Republished in the US
The testimony of the former prince-primate of Hungary, declared a ‘Venerable’ of the Church in 2019, remains a model of resistance and defense of the Catholic faith in the face of 20th-century atheistic persecution.
He embodies the face of resistance to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century in Hungary: Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892-1975), leader of the country’s Catholic Church between 1945 and 1973, whose spiritual and intellectual legacy has recently been brought to life with the republication of his Memoirs in English by Ignatius Press.
This spiritual figure, relatively forgotten in the West during recent decades, was often compared during his life to other Cold War heroes such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Already arrested twice in 1919 for his successive opposition to the socialist government of Mihály Károlyi and the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Cardinal Mindszenty (who was ordained a bishop in ’44 and created a cardinal in ’46) subsequently became a fierce opponent of the national fascist movement, the Arrow Cross Party, throughout World War II. This opposition earned him several months in prison during its brief rise to power from October 1944 to April 1945.
But the most difficult chapter of his life undoubtedly remains the eight years he spent in the jails of the Hungarian People’s Republic, part of the Soviet Union’s post-World War II communist bloc, between 1948 and 1956.
After being subjected to various kinds of physical and psychological torture, the Church leader who was considered by communist authorities as the embodiment of the “clerical reaction” was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason at the end of a show trial. The trial’s proceedings were detailed and analyzed in a recent publication by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2021.
During the famous 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the cardinal was released and found refuge in the American embassy in Budapest, where he spent the next 15 years, until 1971. He died in exile in Vienna, in 1975.
In his memoirs, Cardinal Mindszenty — whose process of canonization was opened in 1994 — revisits these decisive events in the history of the Western world and the Church through the lens of his own life, from his early childhood in Mindszent in western Hungary to the twilight of his earthly pilgrimage that he had to complete in exile from his native land, which remained under Soviet rule until 1989. In fact, his exceptional destiny is inseparable from the painful history of 20th-century Hungary, and the figure of this heroic Churchman remains deeply inscribed in the identity of his people and the Catholic Church.
Zealous Guardian of Christian Values
Cardinal Mindszenty’s unifying image was recently invoked by Pope Francis in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, on the occasion of his April 28-30 apostolic journey, to praise the resistance in faith of the Hungarian people in the face of decades of atheistic persecution, quoting the now-proverbial phrase of the cardinal: “If there are a million praying Hungarians, I am not afraid of tomorrow!”
“Mindszenty stands out in the darkest of times as a fierce defender of liberty and human dignity and a jealous guardian of Christian values and virtues and the rights of the Church,” Daniel Mahoney, professor of politics at Assumption College in Massachusetts, told the Register, stressing that the cardinal was also a passionate patriot without ever getting close to the racialist and nationalist movements that were widespread at the time, gathered behind the Arrow Cross Party.
Mahoney, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of the Memoirs, published almost a half-century after the first edition in 1974, and whose own intellectual path was significantly influenced by the Hungarian primate, views him as an “anti-totalitarian titan” and as the “guardian of ‘eternal truths.’”
“Mindszenty defended truth, liberty and what he called ‘the sanctified tradition’ of his people against every form of ideological mendacity,” he said.
Lessons for Today’s Church
Enumerating the many virtues that the cardinal — who was named a “Venerable” of the Church in 2019 — displayed throughout his life, the American scholar also points to his unyielding refusal to “liquidate” the criminal past of communism, a temptation to which he says Catholic leaders gave in too easily — until the accession of election of Pope John Paul II in 1978.
Indeed, Mahoney recalled, it was partly under pressure from Pope Paul VI that Cardinal Mindszenty left Hungary, accepting what he himself described in his memoirs as a “complete and total exile.”
To facilitate the Hungarian primate’s exit from the country and to pacify relations between his government and the Holy See, Paul VI also lifted the excommunication previously issued by Pius XII against all those involved in his arrest and conviction. He also agreed to consider the archbishop of Esztergom as a mere “victim of history” —wording that, according to critics, could be interpreted as exonerating the ruling communist leadership of any direct responsibility for the crimes committed against Cardinal Mindszenty and many other clerics.
In fact, this conciliatory diplomatic approach of the Vatican towards the countries under Soviet domination, widely known as Ostpolitik, was already controversial in the Catholic world at the time, as it appeared to prioritize placating the governing authorities ahead of striving to defend the interests of local Churches that were suffering under communist dictatorships.
From this perspective, Cardinal Mindszenty is, in Mahoney’s view, a “reminder to contemporary Christians not to compromise with the ideological subversion of truth, liberty and human dignity.”
The timeliness of these republished memoirs, he believes, also lies in the fact that some of the mistakes made by Vatican diplomats in the late 1960s and 1970s have been repeated in recent years. He lamented, for instance, that “influential Churchmen in positions of the highest responsibility express sympathy for ideological regimes from Havana to Beijing that enslave their peoples and that actively persecute our co-religionists.”
Said Mahoney, “Mindszenty’s stalwart character, his unstinting courage, and his indefatigable opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms, serves as a permanent reproach to blindness and cowardice.”