“I stand for God, Church and Homeland”
József Cardinal Mindszenty
Every Archbishop of Esztergom is also the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, and in former times would hold the title of “Prince Primate”, the highest public office after that of the head of state. In 1945 the Holy See’s appointee as Archbishop of Esztergom was József Mindszenty (1892–1975), who had not only spoken out against Nazi and Arrow Cross terror and against racial persecution, but who had also confronted the occupying forces and their Hungarian followers as they pursued a violent campaign to spread the communist ideology. His charismatic personality and unrelenting opposition to dictatorships of all kinds gave hope to millions of Hungarians.
The Prince Primate proclaimed 1947 as the Year of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thus dedicating it to Hungary’s patron saint, who throughout that year was celebrated in events attended by more than 3.5 million people. This generated alarm among Communist Party leaders, who resolved to break the spirit of millions of believers and remove Mindszenty from public life. In this their first moves were to nationalise ecclesiastical schools and disband monastic orders. Finally they had József Mindszenty arrested in 1948, on the day after Christmas Day (!). An unprecedented campaign to discredit him was launched and he was subjected to a number of forms of torture. A show trial based on trumped up charges was overseen in person by Communist Party secretary general Mátyás Rákosi, and – as the regime did not dare to have him executed – the Cardinal was sentenced to life imprisonment.
He was freed by revolutionaries during the 1956 Revolution and War of Independence. On the morning of the subsequent Soviet invasion he sought refuge at the US Embassy in Budapest. He was to spend fifteen years there, being allowed to leave his country in 1971. Yielding to communist pressure, in 1974 Pope Paul VI declared the Archbishopric of Esztergom as a vacant see. This was an unprecedented decision, which deeply wounded Hungarian believers.
Mindszenty died in Vienna the following year. In 1991 his ashes were interred in the Basilica of Esztergom, which by then was in a free and independent country.