Cardinal Mindszenty’s Memoirs are “deeply informative, moving, and spiritually and politically instructive”

An interview with Daniel J. Mahoney, who wrote the Introduction to a new edition of the “great Catholic anti-totalitarian classic” written by the Hungarian prelate Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (1892-1975).

Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892-1975) giving a speech on November 1, 1956. (Image: Jack Metzger/Wikipedia)

The story of the Catholic Church’s relationship with the secular state in modern times has been dramatic, often complex, and sometimes horrific. There have been periods of wonderful collaboration, but also of terrible and bloody persecution. Some of the worst persecution was at the hands of numerous Communist states in the 20th century. Most of us are familiar with names including Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Fr. Walter Ciszek, and Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.

But not nearly enough are as familiar with the name and story of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty (1892-1975).

A Hungarian prelate in the early-mid 20th century, Mindszenty uncompromisingly and bravely led a push against the atheistic totalitarian government taking hold in Hungary. In doing so, he became a beacon, a national and international symbol of Christian and national resistance to Communism.

His is a tale of drama, intrigue, and profound Christian witness in the face of persecution, imprisonment, and violence. Cardinal Mindszenty’s Memoirs, first published nearly 50 years ago, have recently been published by Ignatius Press.

Daniel J. Mahoney, Professor of Political Science at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote a marvelous and thorough introduction, which appears in this edition. Mahoney recently spoke with Catholic World Report about Cardinal Mindszenty, this new edition of his memoirs, and ways in which the cardinal can be an example for Christians today.

Catholic World Report: How did you come to write the Introduction for this book?

Daniel Mahoney: I have long been an admirer of József Cardinal Mindszenty and his model of fidelity to the faith, as well as his accompanying heroic Christian virtue. His Memoirs were originally published in 1974, the same year in which the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago saw the light of day in English. Like my friend Joseph Pearce, who wrote a briefer “Foreword” to this volume, those two great men and Christians played a significant role in educating me about the nature of Communist totalitarianism and the incompatibility of authentic Christian faith with ideological despotism in all its forms. I bought both books at the age of fourteen (I was an avid reader, then as now, and a rather precocious ‘political animal’ even at a young age!) and devoured both of them within a month or so. I have repeatedly gone back to them, with deepening understanding and appreciation, over the years.

This was at a time when the West’s (and much of the Church’s) intellectual and moral clarity about Communism was waning. Misplaced political theologies such as Marxist-inspired “liberation theology” were on the rise, the Vatican pursued a policy of détente with East European Communist regimes which was sometimes indistinguishable from appeasement, and not a few clerics and bishops even praised Castro and Mao for embodying the “evangelical virtues.” Mindszenty, now in his Western exile, ministered to Hungarians around the world and spoke out nobly and passionately against these terrible confusions.

It pained me that Mindszenty’s Memoirs, at once deeply informative, moving, and spiritually and politically instructive, went out of print after several years. This was not for want of readers. The ideological atmosphere in Western (and Catholic) publishing was not exactly friendly to what Mindszenty represented. Moreover, Mindszenty’s English-language publisher, MacMillan, was being gobbled up by an even bigger New York publisher and had just laid off much of his staff. As a result, a great Catholic anti-totalitarian classic fell through the cracks, so to speak.

But an opportunity arose when February 12, 2019, Pope Francis announced that Mindszenty was to be named “Venerable” for his undeniable “heroic Christian virtue.” It was a particularly glorious day since it was announced at the same time that John Henry Cardinal Newman was soon to be canonized as a saint (as he was indeed on October 13, 2019). Just a few days later I wrote a brief, if well-received, piece for The Catholic Thing attempting to introduce Mindszenty to a new generation. A longer piece on Mindszenty I had written for The Hungarian Review a couple of months later was revised and expanded to become the “Introduction” to the new Ignatius edition of Mindszenty’s Memoirs. I should add that when Joseph Pearce and I approached Mark Brumley and Father Fessio about bringing this remarkable book back into print, they couldn’t have been more receptive or supportive.

CWR: Tell us a little about Cardinal Mindszenty, in brief, for those who may not be familiar.

Mahoney: Cardinal Mindszenty has been aptly described by his best biographer, Margit Balogh, as a “plebian conservative.” Of peasant stock, and from a family of German descent, he stood out among his peers in Catholic school and seminary for his intelligence, discipline, hard work, and unforced piety. As a parish priest he ably served his parishioners (and his local community) and always with a commitment to the enhancement of human dignity. He was jealous guardian of Christian values and virtues and the rights of the Church. Intellectually minded, he delved deeply into the history of both Hungary and the Church, and wrote a Marian-inspired book, The Mother, that is still in print.

Today, many “progressive” Catholics, including the present Roman Pontiff, deride national attachments and disparage borders and “walls.” Mindszenty, in contrast, was a passionate Hungarian patriot, but also a critic of racialist nationalism. As he tells us in his Memoirs, he carefully studied the writings of Communist and Nazi ideologists to better understand their lies and deceptions and their attacks on the human person as such. He opposed left-wing revolutionaries in 1919, and as a result was arrested for the first time. In the 1930s, he denounced the Arrow Cross movement, Hungarian National Socialists, for their racialism, anti-Semitism, and deep-seated commitment to hatred and violence. He thought the Bolsheviks no better and warned Catholics against collaboration, or even cooperation, with them. As he writes in a memorable and moving passage in his Memoirs (p. 124 in the new Ignatius edition):

Both Nazism and Bolshevism insisted that they had to penetrate our country in order to replace a faulty past by a happy new world. The Communists, in keeping with their doctrine, announced that the past had to be uncompromisingly liquidated. It was in response to that prospect that I had said in my installation address {as Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary}: “I wish to be the conscience of my people. As the appointed guardian, I knock upon the doors of your souls. Contrary to the errors that are now springing up, I proclaim to my people and my nation the eternal truths. I want to resurrect the sanctified tradition of our people. Individuals, perhaps, can live without it, but never the whole nation.”

That is what Mindszenty would remain: a guardian of the eternal verities.

As Bishop of Veszprém after March 3, 1944, Mindszenty joined the other Hungarian bishops in opposing the placing of Hungary’s Jews in ghettoes, a move [by the Nazis] at odds with decency, human dignity, and the natural moral law. He joined them in later opposing the deportation of the Jews to Nazi camps, including baptized Jews, and had nothing but contempt for the Arrow Cross government imposed on Hungary by the Nazis. On November 27, 1944, Bishop Mindszenty was arrested by the Hungarian Nazis.

After Pope Pius XII appointed Mindszenty Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary on September 16, 1945, Mindszenty increasingly spoke for both the Church and the nation as the Communists crushed the opposition through their famous “salami tactics” (one slice after another, destroying one party or group at a time), destroyed private property and any remnants of a market economy, nationalized Catholics schools, and eventually outlawed monasteries and religious orders. Standing more or less alone, Mindszenty fought back by declaring a Marian Year and holding large rallies to harness the power of prayer and to bring together those who remained faithful to Christianity and the dignity of the human person.

He was arrested by ÁVO, the dreaded Hungarian secret police on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1948 as Hungary descended into full-scale totalitarian despotism. He was then subjected to torture, sleepless nights, and endless interrogation and indoctrination. His personality “shattered” under the cumulative pressure of these assaults. His show trial, culminating in a coerced confession, shocked the entire civilized world. Rallies were held in Dublin, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere. Pope Pius XII spoke out emphatically about this brutal assault on the rights of the Church and the rights of man. Mindszenty would remain for many decades to come a symbol of indomitable opposition by a principled Churchman to the scourge of totalitarianism.

Liberated briefly by Freedom Fighters during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he would speak with dignity, gravitas, and moderation, to the Church, the nation, and the world on November 3, 1956. But as Soviet troops poured into Budapest on November 4, 1956, Mindszenty took refuge in the American legation in Budapest where he would remain for fifteen years. There he would minister to the needs of Catholics from several countries and would remain adamantly opposed to the “peace priests” and other collaborators with the Communist regime. He was appalled by the high rate of abortion in Kádár’s Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s (later he would speak out against abortion in the West). Most importantly, he would write the treasure, the vitally important Christian and moral witness, that are his Memoirs.

After heading to the West in the fall of 1971, at the urging of both President Nixon and Pope Paul VI, he was undoubtedly the leading Catholic anti-totalitarian voice in the world. But hoping to improve relations with the Communist dictatorship in Budapest (which was intent on silencing Mindszenty once and for all), Pope Paul VI relieved the great “dry martyr” and moral witness of his Episcopal See on December 26t, 1974, the 25th anniversary of his arrest by the Communist dictatorship. This was not Pope Paul VI’s finest hour. Mindszenty had arrived at what he calls at the end of the Memoirs, “complete and total exile.”

CWR: Why do you think it is that, so far, Cardinal Mindszenty’s story is not nearly as well-known as other figures such as Cardinal Wojtyla, Cardinal Stepinac, and Fr. Ciszek, and others?

Mahoney: At one time, Mindszenty was more famous than all of them combined. Numerous schools in the United States were named after him and he was on the cover of Time magazine (then an important source of news and analysis). He was the symbol par excellence of Catholic Christian opposition to inhuman totalitarianism. He was among the most famous men in the world from 1949 to 1956 and was one of the most prominent Churchmen in the world during his four years of Western exile, 1971 to 1975. His Memoirs are still deeply esteemed by people of certain generations.

CWR: How can Cardinal Mindszenty’s example help us today? We’re not in such a dramatic situation as he was, so what can he have to teach us?

Mahoney: I would suggest that we are living through a new time of troubles, quite dangerous in its own way. Many prominent Catholics wish to “kneel before the world” as Jacques Maritain already put it in 1966. They want to accommodate, and dialogue with, what the late Pope Benedict XVI, called “the dictatorship of relativism.” They confuse Christianity with softness, utopianism, and humanitarianism. There is no sin, and thus no real need for repentance. There is no evil but “unjust social structures.” The notion of sin is disappearing and, with it, realism about the evil that haunts hearts and the world. Many in the younger generations know nothing about totalitarianism or what Joseph Pearce so suggestively calls “secular fundamentalist tyranny.” The Venerable Mindszenty’s moral witness and heroic Christian virtue are a powerful antidote to all of these errors and intellectual and spiritual pathologies.

CWR: What are you hoping readers will take away from this book?

Mahoney: Some understanding of the tragedies of the twentieth century, and some openness to human greatness in its Christian form. And we must recover a deeper appreciation of the sempiternal battle between good and evil that is part of our earthly lot.

And we must not repeat the errors of the 1960s and 1970s when the Vatican thought it could make its peace with implacable and inhuman regimes and ideologies. Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong is being treated by the Curia much as Mindszenty was treated by the pseudo-sophisticates of his time in the 1970s. Does Rome learn anything?

In contrast, Pope John Paul II prayed intently at Mindszenty’s tomb in 1988, paying tribute to another bishop, priest, and soul, who refused to live by lies. The picture of that is quite moving

CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Mahoney: I encourage everyone to read this gift of a book with true intellectual and spiritual receptivity. The Memoirs are the sort of book that can change lives and correct misunderstandings and confusions about religion, politics, and the soul. That is most welcome, indeed.

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About Paul Senz 121 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.


  1. Keep the memory of this indomitable follower of Christ alive. How to do this? Buy a copy of this book and send it to your bishop. It would serve as a training manual for any bishop who wants to be a faithful follower of Christ.

    • Thinking of marvelous people from Hungary is. Very good before his holiness gets ready to visit there and I get ready to follow his travels Mrs S

  2. Didn’t John Paul II make the pilgrimage to Cardinal Mindzenty’s tomb in August, 1991? It had been moved in solemn procession from Mariaxell in Australia, to its new location in the cathedral in Esztergom, where he had served as cardinal archbishop, a few months previously in May.

  3. I have an article that my grandma gave me years ago that she cut out of a magazine. It is written by Cardinal Mindszenty and I have treasured it and have used it for Mother’s Day in our Parish.


    The most important person on
    earth is a mother. She cannot claim
    the honor of having built Notre
    Dame Cathedral. She need not. She
    has built something more magnificent
    than any cathedral – a dwelling
    for an immortal soul, the tiny
    perfection of her baby’s body…
    The angels have not been blessed
    with such a grace. They cannot
    bring new saints to Heaven. Only
    a human mother can. Mothers are
    closer to God the Creator than any
    other creature. God joins forces
    with mothers in performing this act
    of creation…What on God’s good
    earth is more glorious than this:
    to be a mother?

    ~~Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty

    • Thank you so much for posting this, it made my day, week actually, so beautiful. Thank you also CWR for another wonderful interview.

      • There is a Mindszdeny Foundation. I would suggest that readers of this interview might consider joining it. Among other things, the Foundation distributes cards with the “Mother” quotation.

  4. A strong endorsement for the wonderful work of Prof Mahoney. In the interview, the Professor’s statement about Pope Paul VI, : “This was not Pope Paul VI’s finest hour” is quite the understatement. I personally recall that Mindszenty was a household name in many Catholic homes in the USA long before the 1970s. As a school boy with English and Irish roots, in the early 60s I still recall the stories my father would tell about him, and my boyhood friend’s parents who all revered him. As a teenager, I was regularly reminded of him in the late 1960s while driving past the Denver memorial to the Hungarian Revolt. As a young man, I read Mindszenty’s memoirs in 1974 as a capstone to my boyhood memories of him. But beyond the reverence for Mindszenty himself, there was a deep bond in the hearts of the loyal Catholic laity between the papacy and Mindszenty, that kept us buoyed throughout the turbulent 60s; those who were most loyal to Pope Paul also revered Mindszenty. Thus, Paul’s actions toward Mindszenty in 1971 (on the day after Christmas no less) nearly shattered our faith, and I still view it–50 years later–as a Judas-level betrayal. Because of this alone, Paul VI should have never been beatified, and the fact that it took till 2019 to declare Mindszenty venerable is itself a great scandal. But I remain hopeful that the labors of Prof Mahoney will encourage further efforts to make Mindszenty endure as an eternal standard bearer of Christian courage when facing communism and secularism.

  5. I remember a biography of Mindzentsy being read to me in the late 1950s. I recall the cardinal in prison lying on the floor of his cell with two other prisoners trying to celebrate Mass. One prisoner had obtained a tiny amount of wine and another brought bread. In secret the Holy Mass was celebrated in silence and whispers. This memory has stayed with me all my life. God bless his memory.

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