József Mindszenty

József Cardinal Mindszenty (March 29 1892May 6 1975) was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Pius XII February 18, 1946. The Hungarian Cardinal headed the Church during the often brutal stalinist persecution. His show trial generated world-wide condemnations including a resolution by the United Nations in his favour. He became known as a steadfast supporter of Church freedom and opponent of Communism in Hungary.

Mindszenty was born József Pehm on March 29 1892, in Csehimindszent, Austria-Hungary. He became a priest on June 12, 1915. In 1917 the first of his books, Motherhood, was published. He was arrested under the socialist Mihály Károlyi government on February 9 1919, until the end of the communist Béla Kun government on July 31.

He adopted his new name – part of his home village's name – in 1941. He also joined the Independent Smallholders' Party in this period, in opposition to the Fascist Arrow Cross Party.

On March 25 1944, he was consecrated bishop of Veszprém, which is a distinguished post because the town traditionally belonged to the queens of Hungary.

He was arrested on November 26 1944, for his opposition to the Arrow Cross government, and charged with treason. In April 1945, he was released from prison.

Church leader and opposition to communism

On September 15 1945 he was appointed Primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Esztergom (the seat of the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary). On February 18 1946 he was elevated to Cardinal by Pope Pius XII. His titular church in Rome was Santo Stefano Rotondo. In 1948 religious orders were banned, and on December 26 1948, Mindszenty was arrested again by the Communists and accused of treason, conspiracy, and offences against the current laws. Shortly before his arrest he wrote a note to the effect that he had not been involved in any conspiracy, and any confession he would make would be the result of duress. While he was in prison, he was relentlessly tortured in order to coerce a confession for "crimes against the state."

On February 3 1949, his trial began. On February 8 Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason against the Hungarian government. The Communists released what they called a "Yellow Book," a listing of confessions extorted from Mindszenty by torture. At his trial he declared the note he had written about statements made under duress to be null and void. On February 12 1949, Pope Pius XII announced the excommunication of all persons involved in the trial and conviction of Mindszenty. In Acerrimo Moerore, he publicly condemned the mistreatment and jailing of the Cardinal. On October 30 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Mindszenty was released from prison and he returned to Budapest the next day. On November 2 he praised the insurgents. The following day he made a radio broadcast in favour of recent anti-communist developments. The self-declared "worker-peasant government" of János Kádár later used his speech as a "proof" of dominant clerical-imperialist influence in the October 1956 events, to show that the uprising was counter-revolutionary in nature.

Confinement at the US embassy

When the Soviets invaded Hungary again on November 4, Mindszenty sought Imre Nagy's advice, and was granted political asylum at the US embassy in Budapest. Mindszenty lived for 15 years in the US embassy. He never left the embassy area until September 28, 1971, when the communist Hungarian government let him leave the country. New documents revealed since 2000 show the Vatican was even more interested in his confinement than the Hungarian government.

Mindszenty often voiced ultra-conservative views and might have led the opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but he attended neither that council nor the 1958 or 1963 papal conclaves. In 2004 it was revealed that seven of the nine Hungarian bishops who travelled to the October 1962 opening session of the Council were tied to the Communist state security agency.

György Aczél, the communist party official who held supreme control over all cultural and religious matters in Hungary, felt increasingly uncomfortable about the hermit's situation in late 1960s when Mindszenty fell seriously ill and popular rumor spread about the high priest's impending "martyrdom". Yet, Aczél failed to convince János Kádár that freeing the stubborn Mindszenty would create valuable confusion in the Vatican and allow better state grip on the remaining clergy.


Mindszenty's presence also inconvenienced the US government, because the Budapest embassy was already overcrowded, his quarters took valuable floor space and a permit for expansion could not be obtained from the Hungarian authorities unless the primate was expelled.

Eventually Pope Paul VI offered a compromise declaring Mindszenty a "victim of history" (instead of communism) and annulled the excommunication imposed on his political opponents. Beginning in October 23 1971, Mindszenty lived in Vienna, Austria, as he took offence at Rome's advice that he should resign from the primacy of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church in exchange for a Vatican-backed uncensored publication of his memoirs. Although most bishops retire at or near age 75, Mindszenty continuously denied rumors of his resignation and he was not canonically required to step down at the time.

In December 1973, at the age of 82, Mindszenty was stripped of his titles by the Pope, who declared the Hungarian cardinal's seat officially vacated, but refused to fill the seat while Mindszenty was still alive. In early 1976 the Pope created bishop László Lékai to be the primate of Hungary, ending a long struggle with the communist government. Lékai turned out to be quite cordial towards the Kádár government. Mindszenty died on May 6, 1975, at the age of 83, in exile in Vienna. In 1991, his remains were repatriated to Esztergom by the newly democratically elected government and buried in the basilica there.

In a visit to the United States Cardinial Mindszenty was greeted primarily by Embassador Stephen Farkas, in Cleveland, Ohio. In his visit Mindszenty thanked the United States for supporting his efforts against communism.


Mindszenty is widely admired in modern-day Hungary, and no one denies his courage in opposing the Nazi and Nyilas gangs, or his resolve in confinement, which is often compared to that of Lajos Kossuth in exile. However, Mindszenty is seen as the archetypal figure of "clerical reaction" by many of his critics. He continued to use the feudal title of prince-primate (hercegprímás) even after the use of nobility, peerage and royalty titulature were entirely outlawed by the 1946 parliament (under Soviet influence). His aristocratic attitudes and continued claims for compensation against nationalization of vast range of pre-World War II church-owned farmlands alienated large groups of the Hungarian society, which was composed of a majority of agricultural workers at the time.

He did not believe in a separation of church and state and fought fiercely against secularization of church-run primary and secondary schools.


A commemorative statue of Cardinal Mindszenty stands in at St. Ladislaus Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S. on Somerset Street. His beatification and eventual canonization has been on the agenda of Hungarian Catholic church ever since communism fell in 1989. The new pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI is seen by many analysts as an outstanding opportunity, since the pope is equally traditional in his views on church and secular matters and has commented favourably on Mindszenty's calling. He is also remembered in Chile, with a memorial in the same park (Parque Bustamante) in which a monument to the martyrs of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution stands.

In Film

Mindszenty's life and battle against the Soviet dommination of Hungary and Communism were the subject of the 1950 film Guilty of Treason which was, in part, based on his personal papers and starred Charles Bickford as the Cardinal.


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