A video from Rome Reports briefly mentions the news that Pope Francis recently met with the Hungarian bishops as part of their annual ad limina visit, where bishops from each region of the world meet with the pope to discuss current events.
Among the topics discussed were “the reception of immigrants,” a potentially major source of tension among the bishops and the anti-immigrant party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (That being said, in 2015 the bishops actually disagreed with papal opinion, so perhaps church and state are not separated here.)
One of most fascinating topics, whether in Hungary or out, is how countries realigned after the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late-80s and early-90s. A militantly atheistic society, taking anti-theism to an extreme, these Eastern European countries – Hungary, as well as Russia, Poland, Ukraine, among others – have become one of the most religious countries in Europe, compared to the secularized West.
Take, for example, the 2001 census in Hungary. 71 percent of the population identified as Christian – 50 percent identified as Catholic, followed by Calvinist. Approximately 15 percent at that time identified as “no religion.” The 2011 census reported similarly, though those identifying as Christian decreased by twenty-percent (“religion not stated” increased about 10 percent, while atheism/no religion was only a slim increase). No matter the actual percentage, it’s clear that Hungary in particular, and Eastern Europe in general, owe much of their culture to Western Christianity.
But like Hungary itself, the Hungarian Catholic Church has always been on the margins of both the East and the West, trying to identify themselves between Catholic Europe and Orthodox Russia. The Hungarians themselves, religion or not, are finally starting to get a hold on what it means to be “Hungarian.” The Church is following likewise.
Throughout its history, the Hungarian Catholic Church has been almost sidelined compared to other churches in the region. There has been no pope from Hungary (the closest was Pope John Paul II from neighboring Poland), and the first time a pope had ever visited the country was in 1991, after the communist government fell. Orthodox Russia and the Greek Orthodox Church seem to be mammoths compared to the Hungarian Catholics.
Still, where there’s ostracizing, there’s a chance of finding a unique identity.
In 1945, when the atheistic Soviet Union invaded Hungary, communism, which ran on the belief of anti-religion and anti-faith other than the state, took complete and utter control. Soon, the Hungarian Working People’s Party (MDP) was the only authority of the country (besides the Kremlin, of course), and anything that MDP say was gospel.
One of the first and most prominent victims of the Hungarian communists was Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, who was arrested as being a pro-fascist sympathizer (false) and for simply being a high-ranking and influential cleric (true). According to the maniacal leader at the time, Mindszenty was “a reactionary force in our country, supporting the
monarchy and later the fascist dictatorship of Admiral Horthy.” He was imprisoned after a false confession for eight years, until the Uprising in 1956. However, when the Uprising fell two weeks later, he sought asylum at the American Embassy in Budapest, where he stayed until 1971 as part of a compromise between the warming communist government and then-Pope Paul VI.
There will be a future article specifically about Mindszenty, but he gives a sample to the wider context of the Hungarian Catholic Church in the twentieth century. “The Catholic Church has weathered many a storm. It does not go into hiding when storms are rising: it always stands in the forefront,” Mindszenty wrote in his memoirs.
It was true for the Hungarian Catholics, as well as the Hungarians themselves and larger Eastern Europe. Ancient theologian Tertullian once said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” If there were a place to look for the faithful, look no further than the Christians behind the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.