József Cardinal Mindszenty (1892-1975), primate of Hungary, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1948 for his opposition to secularization of Catholic schools and his refusal to recognize the new government. Freed in 1956, he sought refuge at the American embassy after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He left the country in 1971.
József Mindszenty was born on March 29, 1892, in Mindszent in western Hungary. His parents owned a farm and raised wine grapes and other crops. His father had been village magistrate and head of the parish council and of the school committee. During his school years, Mindszenty was active in the Catholic Youth Movement. After his graduation he entered the seminary in Szombathely. He was ordained a priest on June 12, 1915, and became assistant to the pastor of Felsöpàny. During this period his book on spiritual problems, Az Édesanya (The Mother), was published. In 1917 he was asked to teach religion at the state high school in Zalaegerszeg, a major city in western Hungary. He had to teach Latin as well since part of the teaching staff was in the army.
In 1918 World War I came to an end and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. In October King Charles IV withdrew and Count Kàrolyi took command of the revolutionary government in Budapest. In 1919 the Kàrolyi government prepared for elections in the new nation. Mindszenty assumed the leadership in his area of the newly founded Christian Party. He launched a campaign against the socialistic Kàrolyi party in both the towns and the countryside. On February 9, 1919, he was arrested and interned in the episcopal palace. The bishop himself, also hostile to the government, had been placed under house arrest. The supervision was loose, so Mindszenty had the opportunity to go to the offices of the daily newspaper, where he worked out a program for the spring elections.
On March 21, 1919, the Communists took over and proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat. Mindszenty was transferred to jail. He was released on May 15, 1919, but was not allowed to teach or participate in any political activity against the state. On October 1, 1919, after the collapse of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he was assigned to the parish of Zalaegerszeg. In 1927 he was appointed administrator of the Zala region of the diocese. He was responsible for founding new places for priests, establishing schools, and furthering pastoral activity in all areas.
Pope Pius XII appointed him diocesan bishop of Veszprém on March 4, 1944. He was consecrated bishop in Esztergom on March 25, 1944. Six days earlier the German military forces occupied Hungary "in order to prevent it from concluding a separate peace with the Allies."
On October 31, 1944, the Catholic bishops of western Hungary addressed a memorandum to Premier Szálasi, pointing out the perils to Hungary's cultural sites and population if western Hungary were made a battleground resisting the Russian invasion as Hitler and the Hungarian Arrow Cross men were insisting. Mindszenty personally brought the memorandum to Budapest. On November 27 he was arrested and later transferred to the Köhida jail.
Hungary was liberated by the Red Army on April 4, 1945. Mindszenty was able to return to Veszprém. The agrarian reform carried out by the Communists removed the material basis that supported many ecclesiastical institutions. In the meantime, the Church was given subsidies but the Catholic press was restricted.
On September 16, 1945, Pope Pius XII appointed Mindszenty as archbishop of Esztergom and primate of Hungary. In October 1945 the first episcopal conference was held in Budapest. Mindszenty criticized the land reform and the government's anti-Church actions.
The Communists called for a unified school system, pointing out the necessity of reforms. They argued that church schools were anti-democratic and reactionary. Mindszenty suggested the possibility of acting in conjunction with the Protestants on the school question. In April 1948 the minister of religion and education came forth with a proposal for the nationalization of the Catholic schools. Mindszenty asked teachers and parents to stand by their schools. He demanded that secularization of the schools be dropped from the agenda. In the summer of that year the government decided on secularization. Later that summer the government invited the Catholic bishops to negotiate but insisted that the Hungarian Republic be recognized. The Catholic bishops refused such recognition. In an open letter dated December 8 Cardinal Mindszenty pointed out that archbishops and cardinals in other people's democracies were being persecuted, which followed from the nature of materialistic atheism. Therefore, recognition of the present power relationship was impossible.
On December 26 Cardinal Mindszenty was arrested and taken to jail in Budapest. He was charged with treason and conspiracy and tried in February 1949. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In the summer of that year the Catholic college of bishops arrived at an agreement with the government; the Church drew subsidies and obtained the return of several schools.
Following the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Cardinal Mindszenty was freed on October 30. On November 3 he addressed an appeal to the Hungarian people in which he warned Hungarians "not to give way to party struggle and disagreement." "We are for private ownership," he said and assured the Catholics that every trace of violence would be removed. In the meantime, Soviet troops moved into the country and occupied strategically important points. Cardinal Mindszenty sought refuge at the American embassy, where he stayed until September 29, 1971. Then he left the country and, after a visit to Rome, settled in Vienna. He made several trips, including one to the United States. He died on May 6, 1975.
Further Reading on Cardinal József Mindszenty
Cardinal Mindszenty's autobiography, Memoirs (1974), contains texts of his letters, statements, appeals, sermons, speeches, and other selected documents. Cardinal Mindszenty Speaks (1949), an authorized white book, provides a translation of papers selected from those sent from Hungary by Cardinal Mindszenty. Mindszenty, Jozsef Cardinal: " … the world's most orphaned nation" (1962) presents selected writings of Cardinal Mindszenty. Additional information can be found in George Nauman Shuster, In Silence I Speak: the Story of Cardinal Mindszenty Today and of Hungary's "New Order" (1956) and in Stephen K. Swift, The Cardinal's Story: The Life and Work of Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty (1950).
Additional Biography Sources
Cardinal Mindszenty: confessor and martyr of our time, Chicester: Aid to the Church in Need (UK); Chulmleigh: Augustine, 1979.
Mindszenty, József, Memoirs, New York: Macmillan, 1974.