Just 25 years ago last week, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment for trumped-up crimes against Hungary's Communist regime. After six years in Hungarian prisons and a brief period under house arrest, he lived for 15 years in the U.S. legation in Budapest, where he had taken refuge during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. During all that time and while he was exiled in Vienna after 1971 Mindszenty clung prodly to his titles of Archibishop of Esztergom, an ancient see that includes Budapest, and Primate (first bishop) of the Hungarian hierarchy. Last week Pope Paul did what the Communists could not and removed the stubborn, 81 -year-old hero from office.
The cardinal's firing was accomplished obliquely. The Pope simply announced that the see of Esztergom was vacant and sent a conciliatory letter to Mindszenty, acknowledging "the crown of thorns that has been placed on your head." The Pope declared that "the memory, both vivid and painful, is deeply etched in our mind, of when you underwent a trial and conviction . . . that drew the attention of the whole world."
Added the Pontiff: "We bow before you with profound respect." Though the Pope's respect for the cardinal's courage under torture was undoubtedly genuine, Mindszenty was irate at the ouster, and denied that he had consented to it. "The decision was made by the Holy See alone," he said.
Mindszenty had, in fact, become something of a thorn for the Vatican. Both in Vienna and on visits abroad, he took every opportunity to assail Hungary's Communist government, obdurately remaining a stumbling block in the Vatican's policy of Ostpolitik-an attempt to improve relations with the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and normalize church activities there. Mindszenty's forced retirement was clearly seen as a way of speeding up the policy in Hungary, where the church has won concessions with painful slowness. Simultaneously with the Mindszenty announcement, the Vatican made public four new episcopal appointments in Hungary, including a resident bishop as the new "apostolic administrator" in Esztergom, who will perform the archbishop's duties until a new one is appointed. Even so, that leaves seven of Hungary's eleven dioceses without full-fledged bishops. In Vienna, Mindszenty obviously thought it a bad bargain. Said he: "Hungary and Hungary's Catholic church are not free."