Compiled by Fr David O'Driscoll
in co-operation with the Hungarian Roman Catholic Chaplaincy Team, London
Our twentieth century has no shortage of martyrs either. They imitate the Lord who showed his great love by giving up his life for us. The small country of Hungary had its share of saintly men and women in the turbulent decades of the recent past. Among them is the figure of Baron Vilmos Apor, Bishop of Gyõr, who became a martyr in defending his people from the ravages of hostile soldiers. His life was relatively short, only fifty-three years, but it was filled with the struggle for justice and for better social conditions of the people. As a priest, and then as bishop, he played a prominent part in that historical period of his country which characterized the pre-War years. Therefore his life-story, which is presented in this book, gives us an insight also into the history of the Catholic Church in the first half of this century.
One does not become a saint, however, just by being a public person. Bishop Apor's life, crowned by his martyr-death, is exemplary because it imitated his Master. His episcopal motto: Crux firmat mitem, mitigat fortem, sums up his life. His meekness was strengthened and his strength was mitigated by the Cross.
We need living examples of authentic Christian lives. For this reason I am very grateful to Mgr Gyorgy Tutto and the Hungarian R.C. Chaplaincy Team of London for providing us with this brief biography of Bishop Apor. My sincere gratitude is even more directed to Rev. David O'Driscoll who compiled the material and made it presentable to an English-speaking audience. My prayerful wish is that many Christians, Hungarians and others, will profit from reading this story and become more committed to serve the Lord and his Church.
The cause of Bishop Apor's beatification has been introduced and we humbly pray that one day we may find him among the blessed. Meanwhile, in our manifold troubles today, we continue to ask his intercession on our behalf with the same words with which the girls he defended cried out to him 'Uncle Vilmos, Uncle Vilmos, help us!'
+Attila Mikloshazy, S.J.
Bishop of R.C. Hungarians living abroad
2. Documents in the Diocesan Archives of Gyõr.
3. Biographies of Bishop Apor in Hungarian
by Joseph Kozi-Horvath, Munich 1984
by Laszlo Balassy, Budapest 1989
by Erzsebet Szolnoky, Szeged 1990.
4. Cardinal Mindszenty, Memoirs, London & Toronto 1974.
5. The Persecution of Jews in Hungary and the Catholic Church by Dr Andras Zakar, London 1991.
6. Testimonies by eye-witnesses.
He also served his nation well. Tall and distinguished in appearance, Bishop Apor, who was known for his holiness, had played an active role throughout his adult life in the religious, social and political affairs of his country. Firm religious faith, strength of character, and patriotism combined with considerable vision. His story will reveal something of the understanding and courage needed to deal with many of the problems and difficulties then confronting Church and Hungary. Similar problems and dangers are with us today; we may learn from the responses of this concerned pastor.
The young widow Fidelia was a strict and caring mother -- loving all her children equally. Herself a devout Catholic, she considered their religious education a priority, and sought to improve their character and intellect. She used to tell them, 'When you come to a crossroads in life, always choose the more difficult route, for it is obviously the right one.' Adding: 'This has always been the principle of my life, and it has never failed to prove right.'
When the older children left home to study, Vilmos and his little sister Henrietta stayed with their mother. When Vilmos was in his first year at an elementary school he taught his sister to read. She, in her turn, made him repeat his catechism lessons to her. He was a gentle and religious boy, and it is said that once he asked his mother for a chalice and a missal for Christmas.
Vilmos was very close to his brother Gabor who fought in World War I. After the war Gabor chose a diplomatic career, later rising to become Hungary's envoy to the Vatican -- a post he resigned in 1944 in protest against the German occupation of his country.
The young Vilmos Apor was conscientious and hardworking, cheerful and healthy. He served Mass and often went to pray in church so deepening his faith. It was in this way that he prepared himself to go to the Jesuit secondary school at Kalksburg in Austria, following the family tradition.
His school fellows came from different backgrounds, and Vilmos, who did not make close friends very rapidly, got on well with them all. The connections and friendships he made at Kalksburg lasted throughout his life, and it was there he learned to appreciate people of other religions and nationalities.
After six years at Kalksburg he was sent to another school run by the Jesuits at Kalocsa, Hungary. His desire to become a priest had begun at Kalksburg, and the new regime, the example of his teachers and the encouragement of his spiritual director, all served to increase this. At the end of his time at Kalocsa he asked his mother for permission to go straight to a seminary after his final exams. She was touched by this, but before agreeing asked the opinion of his teachers. They not only said that
the boy was well suited to becoming a priest, but thought he had a very special vocation and that no obstacle should be put in his way to respond to God's call. His mother gave her consent at Christmas 1909.
Vilmos applied to the seminary in the diocese of Gyõr, and the bishop, Count Gyorgy Szechenyi, was delighted to admit him. However, Apor did not stay in the seminary at Gyõr for long, for he was sent to study at Innsbruck. There he spent two years at the old theological institute, the Nikolaihaus, and then moved to the new Canisianum, which still functions today. Special attention was paid to the development of his spiritual life there, for the Canisianum was not only a house of residence for the seminarians, but was also a spiritual centre. Vilmos spent five happy years in the international atmosphere of the institute, where his horizons broadened and his love of God and the Church increased further. More lasting friendships developed between him and his fellow students at Innsbruck and in later life they followed each other's priestly careers with great attention.
Baron Vilmos Apor was ordained priest on 24 August 1915 by Sigmund Waitz, whom he had known at Innsbruck and who was then an auxiliary bishop of Brixen. Vilmos wrote with great happiness: 'My God, how could I prove worthy of your great kindness and love?' He celebrated his first Mass amongst his close family on 25 August. His mother and his sisters Henrietta and Gizella had arrived for his ordination from the battlefield in Carinthia, where they were nursing the wounded, but his brother Gabor was unable to leave the battle front and could not attend the celebration.
The bishop of Gyõr wrote to Father Apor on the day of his ordination in the somewhat grandiloquent style common at that time: 'You have finished your studies and, in the name of God and filled with the Holy Ghost, you have become a priest. I wish to give you an assignment in the Lord's vineyard, but before doing so, I admonish you in the words of St Paul: "In every respect you should set an example in doing good works, in teaching righteousness and dignity." ' The letter continues: 'Trust and respect your superiors; do not forget that your superior, the parish priest, will have to report not only on how you do your work but also on your whole behaviour. It is not only his right but also his duty to follow your daily routine carefully. He must know where you pass your time outside the presbytery. His well-intentioned advice can be both useful and for your own good.'
'Respect the old, seek the company of your fellow priests. Treat ignorant people with toleration, be merciful to the poor, full of pity towards those who suffer, and be kind to sinners. Remain always God's servant, ready to work for him and to make sacrifices. Learn from the Most Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus to love, endure, suffer and forgive.'
'I assign you to the post of assistant priest to Gyula, hoping that you will become the obedient, respectful, and useful co-worker of your parish priest, both in church and school, and that in all your ecclesiastical activities you will do your duty with zeal and devotion.'
Fr Vilmos Apor's diary reports on the beginning of his life as a priest in full detail. 'Mass at 6 a.m. in the chapel of the hospital. I will celebrate Mass there every day. It is very pleasant saying Mass in this chapel, tended carefully by the nuns and where everything is clean, lovely and most inspiring.'
'After Mass, I had to give the Last Sacrament to a girl dying of tuberculosis. I was afraid when I started to hear her confession and, indeed, I behaved rather awkwardly. May our Lord give eternal life to this poor sick girl whom I tried to assist.'
On 7 September 1915: 'The parish priest of neighbouring Gyoma came for a visit. He is absolutely right in stating that priests should only interfere in politics where religious matters are concerned. He only supports politicians whom he thinks best suited to promote the interests of the Church, regardless of what party they belong to.'
Fr Apor preached his first sermon on 8 September 1915. Every new priestly duty meant another emotional experience. 'I heard confessions in the Wenckheim orphanage,' he records. 'What a joy to get an insight into innocent children's souls. Lord, give me such a humble, childlike disposition.'
Elsewhere he writes: 'The other day we buried a 20-year- old soldier with full military honours. His poor mother cried bitterly, but his father was even more to be pitied as he stood motionless beside the coffin, on the edge of the grave, agonising grief written on his face. How many such tragedies are taking place all over Europe these days! It makes you realize what war is all about.' While the war was raging all over Europe the young priest's diary reflected problems, worries, new tasks and responsibilities.
On 27 March 1916, Apor opened an office for the protection of women. His diary records: 'Young girls are very keen to co-operate, but more of the married women are just looking for their missing relatives. We would like them to understand that they should come to us with all their problems.'
For 16 August 1916, the diary says: 'We heard this morning that Italy declared war on Austria. This is not surprising. . . What is much more alarming is that at lunchtime rumours spread that Romania was declaring war against us. We have seen train loads of troops moving in the direction of Kolozsvar [now Cluj] in Transylvania lately, but cannot believe that we ever might get involved in a conflict with Romania.'
By 31 August Romanian troops had occupied several Transylvanian towns and villages, including Altorja, the site of the Apor family home. Thousands of refugees streamed into Gyula. 'The unfortunate people are crammed into open cattle trucks,' he recorded, 'they are hungry and in rags. Several dead children have been unloaded at railway stations along the route.'
On 22 November 1916, Apor recorded the death of the Emperor-King Franz-Joseph. 'He died last night... We cannot imagine that he is no more and that Hungary does not have its old king... The idea of Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King in one person was deeply entrenched in our minds. History will appreciate the sixty-eight years of his reign and the almost fifty years during which he was also King of Hungary... The new King will reign in Hungary as Charles IV... '
In matters of church politics the young priest had no experience and refrained from voicing an opinion. 'Some days ago,' he records in his diary, 'there was a discussion at Bishop Szechenyi's concerning Bishop Prohaszka's latest sermon, in which he proposed that Church endowments and entailed private estates larger than 10,000 acres should be permanently leased by the state to soldiers and officers, i.e. to the widows of those who died in the war... It is understandable that Bishop Szechenyi finds Prohaszka's view that land belongs to the nation, the people are the nation: therefore, the land is the people's, to be a dangerous path to follow because it leads to Communism.'
On 4 January 1917, Bishop Szechenyi sent Fr Vilmos Apor to act as chaplain on one of the hospital trains. His assignment first took him to Transylvania, then to the Italian front, and finally to Austria and Eastern Hungary. The suffering and misery he witnessed during those two months made a great impression on the young priest.
The entry in his diary for 12 May 1917 records that his time as an assistant priest at Gyula was at an end. A professor had died in the seminary and Apor was appointed to the teaching staff there. He was not very keen on becoming a professor, and he wrote: 'My bishop knows how attached I am to pastoral work and how little ambition I have to become a teacher. Therefore, he kindly made me prefect and I will only have to teach dogma for a few hours a week.'
The Romanian occupation ended on 30 March 1920. The war had brought about many changes; people had become cynical and disillusioned; there was antagonism towards religion, and the number of churchgoers had declined drastically. Apor saw and deplored all this and decided to act. He launched a monthly paper: The Catholic Church Correspondent of Gyula. In an article in the first edition, he outlined his thinking:
'The priest's task is to be a good shepherd who knows his flock and to be known by them. We are not here to deal with a few; we have to look after everyone. We should not only look after those who listen to us in church, but also those who are kept away from God's house because of illness, poverty, lack of shoes or decent clothes, because of their occupation or of any other circumstance. We have to have a word for everyone, open our hearts to all, lead everyone to salvation, save everyone from evil, strengthen everyone's goodwill in the name of Jesus Christ. We want to help, support, give courage to all of you... to be all things to all men.' Apor preached by example more than by words.
He had excellent relations with leaders of church organizations, rural, urban and state authorities, all of whom wanted to rebuild the country after the devastating years of war. One of the most prominent new organizations was the Social Missionary Society whose sisters and their lay co-workers were drawn from all classes of society. They ran nurseries and orphanages, schools and soup kitchens, organized hospital and prison visits, and founded girls' and mothers' unions. In 1927 Gyula had 500 active members of this society working under the leadership of the omnipresent parish priest.
In the early Thirties another new order, the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, was using new methods to help the needy. Their founder outlined their programme: 'Only through close and harmonious co-operation between church, state and society can we hope to solve one of the most difficult social problems -- that of restoring human dignity to the deprived and unemployed. The sisters have to love the poor like mothers love their hungry children. They have to clean their dwellings, wash and mend their clothes, provide for their physical needs and try to bring peace and joy to everyone.'
In 1922 Pope Pius XI's encyclical Ubi arcano, which dealt with relations between Church and State, and which called on lay people to help the Church's programme of evangelization, launched the Catholic Action movement world-wide. In 1934 a very successful Catholic rally initiated the movement among the population on the Great Hungarian Plain. That squabbles among the religious denominations, frequent in many other parts of the country, were totally absent in Gyula was due to Fr Vilmos Apor's modest, friendly, but firm approach to individuals and problems. He respected the clergy of the other Churches, always accepted invitations to their cultural meetings and became a member of the Protestant Literary Circle. He preached peace and understanding to families of mixed religions, yet stood by his own religious principles. As to charitable services to the poor, he allowed no religious, social or racial discrimination to influence their work. He was, ex-officio, a member of the town and county councils and attended their meetings regularly, but only expressed his views when they dealt with religious matters.
In the local newspaper, Bekes, articles by Apor appeared on the more important holidays which were read with great interest by many, regardless of denomination. In the 1930 Easter Sunday issue he wrote: 'Christ had to die to proclaim victory over death by his resurrection. To demonstrate his final victory, he had first to fail. Many great ideas must likewise be buried to be gloriously brought back to life. Truth cannot die, only lies are doomed to death. Falsehood can only have an ephemeral life; it is always shortlived and its presence illusory.' He went on to reveal something of his patriotic vision: `However, the old Greater Hungary has never been a lie; it remains a thousand-year-old concept of a state which had to weather the attacks of the Tartars and Turks, and from West and East... This concept of the State is still alive, and will remain so as long as the abilities of the Hungarian race, with its intellectual and moral qualities, survive. In this way our country will keep its vocation to feed the hungry masses squeezed between West and East, and pass on to the East the Western cultural assets marked by our national characteristics. It will avert, through its brave determination, the dark waves of barbarism destroying moral standards and civilization. So, let us get rid of despondency and not be fainthearted.'
'The history of mankind has... always been a fight between the light of Christ and the darkness of evil. This may be applied more particularly to our present era. The light of Christ has not weakened; it seems to have dispersed the fog of the last century. However, very dark clouds gather in our sky casting frightening shadows. From the East the mysterious phantom of Bolshevism, and from the West the tyranny of accumulated wealth, are threatening humanity; from the right extreme nationalism, from the left internationalism, manifest themselves. Man is replaced by machines, hoarded stocks of gold are destroying economic life, industrial and agricultural over-production fails to prevent famine among the masses, and millions of human hands are condemned to stay idle. There is gloom and blindness everywhere. People no longer understand one another, as in the time of the Tower of Babel.'
The pastor wanted to come closer to the faithful, especially to the poorest. Large new housing estates were developing around Gyula, and there were no priests or churches in or near them. So, for fourteen years, Fr Vilmos Apor organized religious meetings during the Christmas and Easter seasons in different homes in these areas -- with all the neighbours invited. After the prayers he asked the people about their problems and took note of the requests of the poor, all of which he carefully recorded. Sometimes it was almost midnight, when, accompanied by the choir master, he walked the long way home.
To provide for the material and spiritual needs of the estates had been his main concern for a long time. His favourite suburb was Mariafalva, because the parents there were very hardworking, especially during the summer months, and something had to be done for the small children. On the twentieth anniversary of Fr Vilmos Apor's ordination in 1935, a day nursery was established which the Social Missionary Society had been planning for a long time. More than a hundred children spent the days there in suitable rooms where they were looked after and fed well. Apor visited the place frequently for he was fond of children and retained the cheerful and simple character of his own childhood. County officials, banks and organizations supported Fr Apor's social work.
Baron Fr Vilmos Apor wanted to involve a growing number of people in social work. This was shown particularly when he organized country holidays for children from Budapest and when, in 1931, he opened a public kitchen and started a campaign for reducing poverty. He did not seek so much the financial support of the rich, but rather to revive and perpetuate their spirit of unselfish help and charity. He wished that the better educated should play the role of leaders, since he believed a basic need was to educate people and to raise their cultural standing, and then to introduce them to modern means of production. He wrote in his diary, 'The intention is to raise the nation's intellectual standards and to teach the people to be guided by their inner selves.'
In 1936 he got in touch with the youth movement, KALOT (Catholic Agrarian Young Men's National Council) the aims of which were to organize and educate the youth in the surrounding countryside. His enthusiasm for new ideas, and his obvious reliability, won him the respect of the movement, and he proved to be a valuable support for it. Gyula became a centre where the movement developed very rapidly. He assigned his assistant priests to help the work of the association, but he was ready to keep the solution of the more difficult problems for himself.
Apor was on good, but not intimate, terms with almost everyone. Despite a short temper, he managed to behave with patience, and this, together with his arduous apostolic work and purity of heart made his priests very fond of him. He acted as a good father and did his best to divide the work among his helpers fairly, taking into account their individual personalities and abilities. He left his curates free to get on with their work, letting them decide their own priorities and readily accepting their opinions and even their criticisms. He was never jealous of their popularity. His well-developed sense of humour was never unkind and his jokes were never the cause of offence.
Six weeks after the Anschluss, the 34th Eucharistic Congress was held in Budapest. The German government considered it an international demonstration against National Socialism and prevented some 30,000 Austrian and German lay people and priests from attending.
In the time of Count Pal Teleki's premiership the danger threatening Hungary was clearly seen, and anti-German feeling was developing in the country led by some intellectuals. Within the framework of the prime minister's office, a department called National Political Service was formed, headed by a well-known Catholic sociologist, Dr Bela Kovrig. In opposition to the propaganda in the official German and Austrian national press, the department tried to provide unbiased background information, and efforts were made to convey this, either verbally or written, together with foreign press reports, to trustworthy anti-Nazis and church leaders. Bela Kovrig, negotiating on behalf of the prime minister, succeeded in winning over to the National Political Service those who, regardless of denomination, were against Germany's expansionist plans. The Catholic bishops were well aware of these developments. From the beginning Father Vilmos Apor took a close interest in these activities, as papers found after his death have shown.
The outbreak of the war in 1939 was a great shock for Apor who could still remember World War I and the suffering it had caused. Sensing the threatening danger well before this, he said in a sermon preached in 1937: 'In war the unexpected sometimes happens -- victory is possible.' But he pointed out that it was also possible it could be a Pyrrhic victory which would exhaust the resources of the continent, and this would be followed by the complete disintegration of Europe which would then cease to be the cultural centre of mankind.
`Filled with anxiety at the prospect of war,' he continued, 'we have to look towards Cathedra Petri (the Chair of Peter). The Pope represents a power higher than that of the world. May God grant that his voice will not be "a voice crying in the wilderness", but meet with understanding and touch the hearts of leaders and rulers of nations. Then not destruction, but just and peaceful economic and political development will be offered to mankind. Let those who decide the fate of peoples listen to the apostolic voice; otherwise their glory will prove to be nothing but ashes. The war may be won, but peace could be hopelessly lost for all mankind.'
His name had already featured on the government's lists -- recommending him first as an auxiliary bishop in 1936, and then, in 1939, as bishop of Veszprem, but the Holy See had chosen another. When the See of Gyõr became vacant, Apor's name was only third on the list of candidates, but this time Pius XII decided in his favour. His appointment was probably due to the recommendation of the Papal Nuncio, Angelo Rotta.
On 25 February 1941, at a special session of the town council, Apor was unanimously elected an honorary citizen of Gyula, where he had worked for a quarter of a century. In a speech at that time, the Dean of the Reformed Church said, 'Love compels me to speak, because we all sincerely love Bishop Apor, regardless of denominational differences. My conscience compels me to speak because it was the Bishop's example which, during a 25-year period, created and maintained a golden age of denominational peace in this divided and restless world.' Fr Vilmos Apor celebrated his last Mass as parish priest among those he loved best... the poor of the settlement of Mariatelep.
The Prince Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Seredi, and fellow Bishops Czapik and Glattfelder, came for his consecration which took place in the parish church in Gyula. His brother Gabor paid for the vestments, and the new Bishop himself paid off the debts of the St Stephen's children's home in Gyula out of his own money.
The wartime ceremony of consecration was a solemn one, but at the same time it was an intimate family feast. The twenty-five years Father Apor had spent in Gyula had made it his second home. When, at the end of the celebration, the choir sang the Te Deum and the new Bishop blessed the congregation he had taught, helped and loved, everyone, including himself, wept -- sad at his going, but happy that he had become a bishop.
Several monastic orders functioned in the diocese, as well as a number of convents. The bishop's estate had to pay for the expenses of the diocese. Two seminaries, the Great and the Small, ensured the supply of priests.
The installation of Bishop Baron Vilmos Apor as the seventy-second Bishop of Gyõr took place in the cathedral on 2 March 1941. 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,' wrote the local Catholic newspaper. 'May he continue here his blessed activities, which in Gyula lit up the miserable huts of the poor as well as the dwellings of the rich; where he devoted his priestly life to improving the conditions of the poor and wiped many a tear from people's faces.'
'Work and ardent love for human beings, the desire to become all things to all men, make a priest's life beautiful. Bishop and clergy should form a holy and intimate alliance. I wish to set a good example in fostering caritas sacerdotalis.'
'I ask you, reverend brethren, to accept my fatherly love with the loyalty of sons and the confidence of children. Practice the virtue of love in your dealings with the faithful under your care. Show understanding for human frailty and let the kindness and the integrity of your lives inspire outsiders and draw them to the Church... We live in critical times. Many past errors and unchristian actions have induced our society, especially young people, to listen to unfamiliar and dangerous theories. Whether or not we shall succeed in overcoming this serious crisis without great upheavals will depend very much on the clergy's apostolic work and its fidelity to the commandment of love... "You have the poor with you always" (Mt. 26:11), says the Lord. There will always be those who, because of their physical or mental handicaps, cannot cope with the difficulties of daily life. To come to their rescue is our primary Christian duty... It is an equally important Christian doctrine that a worker should get a decent salary for his work in order to meet his own and his family's requirements. At the same time, Christian justice demands that, to deserve his pay, a worker should work hard and conscientiously.'
'These rules seem obvious, yet how often has human selfishness violated them and thereby caused great harm to mankind, especially in recent decades. It is the supreme duty of Christianity to bring closer to each other the rich and the poor, the worker and his employer, the educated and less educated.'
He also addressed himself to the seminarians saying: 'My love for my priests is on the same level as my love for you, the future pastors of our diocese. In the seminary, rich in tradition, eminent professors will teach you to become priests who satisfy the heart of Jesus. It will always be my main concern and ardent prayer that you should develop into men of truly apostolic spirit.' This was the beginning of Apor's warm and friendly relations with the seminarians, many of whom remember him with great affection.
Bishop Apor wanted to carry out his pastoral duties in the same manner as he had when parish priest in Gyula. He listened to everyone, priests and faithful alike. He visited all the institutions of the diocese, schools, monastic orders and leading city officials. These were not merely official, ceremonial visits, for the bishop noticed problems and the tasks to be undertaken; he made notes and took action as in Gyula. Notebooks were filled with the names of those asking for his help and support. In a special column the help offered or given was written down. His diary revealed a man carrying out his duties as a bishop with all his heart and soul. He received parish priests, discussed their problems and difficulties and frequently invited them to lunch -- something that did not happen often in those more formal days.
He could not, however, forget that the country was now at war, and on 5 April 1941, he wrote in his diary: 'I was deeply shocked when I learnt this morning about Prime Minister Pal Teleki's unexpected death. The official reports say nothing about the place and circumstances of his death. It is not surprising that various ill-conceived rumours spread, especially since today in Gyõr we were awakened from our sleep by innumerable German motorized units advancing towards Budapest. In the morning the high sheriff denied the rumours and emphasized that Pal Teleki died of "natural causes". We learnt the dreadful truth about Pal Teleki's death in the evening. [He is said to have committed suicide.) I can hardly believe it. What could have provoked such a mental crisis in this calm, sober, levelheaded and religious man? The night before he had gone to confession in company with the boy scouts, and had expressed his intention to take Holy Communion with them the following morning.'
'We have heard that there are crowds of German soldiers in the counties of Sopron and Vas; they are marching over Teleki's dead body towards Serbia -- the country with which we signed an "eternal friendship" pact a few days ago.' On 6 April, Apor wrote: 'Between midnight and 12 noon today,17,000 German army vehicles were counted crossing the region.' There was an air raid alarm on the following day.
Subsequent pages of Apor's diary show how much the country's future worried him. On 10 April 1941, he wrote: 'Serbia seems to have fallen entirely into the Germans' hands. Will Hungary get involved? On Good Friday we read Horthy's [Admiral Miklos Horthy, Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary] manifesto, according to which the Hungarian army would occupy the old Hungarian territories vacated by the Serbian troops. A rather odd justification for altering eternal friendship and peace pacts. The radio has changed its Good Friday programme and military marches are played to stir up the Hungarian people's enthusiasm. How and when can this crisis be overcome? God alone can help.'
Vilmos Apor, the youngest of the bishops, did not speak out in his first year in office, but it was soon realized by the other bishops that he sometimes held different views from theirs on politics. Despite this, in 1943 they appointed Apor vice-president of the Catholic People's Alliance, which was a political as well as a social institution. He knew that Hungarian Catholic public life was not well organized; Catholic interests were not adequately represented either on the local or national level; they need reorganizing, and they needed support.
The Catholic People's Alliance was one of the Church's oldest associations and the meeting place of conservative Catholic politicians. It was financially strong and supported by the bishops. However, its members were old, several branches had ceased to function, and their programme was no longer popular. Bishop Apor thought that the Alliance had to be modernized and put in charge of a new Catholic policy. He considered it his duty to make Catholics take part in the political life of the villages and counties, and he started to reorganize the Alliance. He wanted to base its activities on centres led by priests, and these local centres and the clergy were expected to co-operate as much as possible with Catholic charitable organizations. Despite spending much time and energy on this, he was unable to attain his goal because petty internal political struggles broke out within the Alliance -- from which he kept aloof. In September of 1944 he expressed his intention of resigning and of asking the Primate to put Jozsef Mindszenty, then Bishop of Veszprem with whom he agreed on social matters, in charge, 'since he has worked in it for a long time and has a great deal of practical sense and experience'. However he did not go ahead with his resignation and stayed on as the movement's vice-president.
The Cardinal-Primate supported the now revived Catholic Social People's Movement and its new leader, Dr Bela Kovrig, and he wanted Bishop Apor to become their counsellor in church affairs. He asked him if he would take this on, and he replied '...On condition that they inform Your Eminence of the organization and intentions of the Movement in advance, and obtain your consent, I am willing to assist them with my advice.' In view of the active role Apor was willing to play, the Movement took on a truly Catholic character. Reassured, the Primate gave his blessing to the enterprise, hoping other Catholic groups would co-operate. The programme of this people's movement was summed up briefly in a brochure entitled Where Are We Going? 'For quite some time,' it stated, 'we have noticed how important it has become to strengthen the unity of the Catholic youth organizations and professional associations, so as to enable them to carry on an organized and regular fight against the attacks of those trying to revive economic liberalism, and to struggle against Marxism gaining ground.' The programme was thoroughly discussed with Bishop Apor and then submitted to Cardinal Seredi who accepted it.
The new party wanted to win the support of the bishops and, after preliminary discussions with Apor, it addressed a memorandum to the Primate and to the episcopal conference held in March 1944. The minutes of the meeting recorded: 'In present times an extreme left-wing radicalism threatens the entire agrarian population. Its aim is to influence it, not only socially, but, eventually, politically. This movement might estrange the agrarian population from religion. Not only the events of the war, but also the proximity of Soviet Russia and clever agitation have greatly increased the danger of left-wing radicalism gaining influence over the rural masses. The Catholic Agrarian Young Men's National Council (KALOT) offered to fight against the growing influence of these tendencies.' Thus the new party had not only a social programme, but also a role to play in defending religious beliefs: this was the main reason why Bishop Apor favoured it. He supported the party's endeavours, but warned against it becoming too radical. Financial aid, granted from time to time, as well as letters of introduction from Bishop Apor, helped the Christian Democratic People's Party to establish itself on a sound basis.
The approach of war complicated the handling of social problems. The majority of the clergy openly expressed their anti-war attitude, and they influenced the higher clergy in that direction. At the same time, the threat of war compelled the bishops to take a stand on an increasing number of questions, in particular those concerning Catholic youth. The growing influence of the Levente youth movement worried the clergy and teachers because its para-military activities were contrary to Christian teaching, although it tried to win the Church's support by making the attendance of its members at retreats compulsory. [Levente was a disciplined movement for youth which had been set up after World War I with the objective of preparing its members for possible future military service. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Hungary was not allowed to have an army of more than token size.] Bishop Apor himself received several official complaints from the movement about priests obstructing its activities, but he did not take any action to stop them; instead he actively encouraged local leaders to keep young people away from Levente training courses which were tough and severe. Against the introduction of a Levente movement for girls the entire clergy protested.
At the bishops' conference in the autumn of 1943, Bishop Vilmos Apor had said that the clergy were totally ignorant on some important matters, and there was a certain tendency to yield to radical views, especially on questions concerning landholding. The clergy ought to know what attitude to adopt concerning right- and left-wing parties, and how they should safeguard the Catholic character of the Church's institutions and associations. Directives were needed, he said, on ethnic minority questions, and for the clarification of theoretical principles relating to social life.
Although the majority of bishops held different and rather uncertain views concerning political and social questions, and the Primate was cautious because he thought it was dangerous for the bishops to give political directives, the conference nevertheless asked Bishops Vilmos Apor and Lajos Shvoy to work out acceptable guidelines.
The Jewish law of 1938 did not differentiate between Jews who had kept their original religion and those who had been baptized. This problem was discussed at a conference of bishops held on 13 January 1939. The Primate set out his views in writing. He declared that every law had to be based on justice as well as on love for our fellow men, and the effect of Christian baptism could not be circumscribed or adjudicated upon by any human legislature.Concerning the second Jewish law, which strictly limited the citizen's rights of Jews, the bishops' opinion was that it should not apply to Jews who were now Christians; nor to those who, though remaining Jews, had adapted themselves to the country's Magyar (Hungarian) way of life and had been Hungarian citizens for forty or fifty years.
The so-called third Jewish law, which was introduced by Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy on 11 June 1941, clashed with Church laws even more violently than had the previous ones. Marriage between non-Jews and Jews was prohibited; a person who had two Jewish grandparents was declared a Jew. Even if the originally Jewish grandparents had been baptized a long time ago, all their offspring were considered Jews. However, those whose grandparents on both sides were Christians at the time of their marriage were not considered to be Jews. The entire Christian party and all the priest deputies in the National Assembly voted against this third Jewish law. But the debate in the National Assembly showed that the attitude of the Upper House was not unanimous; some of its members did not attend, others abstained from voting.
At the bishops' autumn conference of the previous year, the Archbishop of Kalocsa, Count Gyula Zichy, in his capacity as patron of the Holy Cross Association, urged the Church to take a resolute and vigorous stand against the persecution of Jews, which was by then being carried out under this law, proclaiming that Jews urgently needed protection.
The Holy Cross Association had been founded to protect baptized Jews affected by the laws against Jews in 1939. It did not differentiate between Catholics or Protestants. The first chairman was Archbishop Count Gyula Zichy, and its members were prominent Catholic personalities. Membership in 1939 was 114, in 1944 it was 7,300. The financial basis of the association was assured by church collections and contributions paid by wealthy Jews. Support from the bishops began to be more forthcoming and local branches were formed all over the country. The intention was to give work and legal advice to Jews, and assistance to those of them assembled in the so-called labour camps. On 22 March 1942 the association amended its basic rules with the intention of promoting the Christian spirit and to deepen the faith of its existing members, and of those Catholics recently baptized and affected by the anti-Jewish laws.
When Archbishop Gyula Zichy died in May 1942, the bishops asked Bishop Vilmos Apor to become patron of the Holy Cross Association in his place. His appointment came into effect not long after the promulgation of the third Jewish law.
In January 1942, the association had addressed a memorandum to the Prime Minister, Miklos Kallay, which dealt primarily with the legal position of baptized Jews. These people were now in a worse situation than were those who had kept their Jewish faith; they were no longer protected by the associations of their former religion, and, despite the support of the Catholic hierarchy, some Christians treated them with mistrust. Baptized Jews felt they belonged to the Christian community because they had joined it. The memorandum made some basic claims on behalf of the baptized Jews and referred to the fact that leaders of the Protestant churches had done the same. The fundamental request of the association was that Christians of Jewish origin should be totally excluded from the burden of these anti-Jewish rules, or at least temporarily be exempt from all measures affecting Jews. If the government thought this could not be granted, it should at least allow the formation of a Christian-Jewish council, since Christians of Jewish origin were part of the Christian society and had severed all links with Jewry, the majority of them having been born and brought up in a Christian religion. The memorandum also pointed out that, although many among them were of mixed racial origin, their spiritual attitude was naturally non-jewish; all having been influenced by a Christian education and outlook.
Bishop Apor protested against Jews and baptized Jews having to wear the yellow Star of David. This measure also offended the mass of the Christian population. His efforts failed, and he therefore considered it necessary to put pressure on the other bishops to take a united stand, and to request the intervention of the Pope as well. He wrote to the Primate asking him to apply pressure on the government to exempt baptized persons, especially members of the clergy or of monastic orders from the burden of this law. He wrote: 'In not a single country belonging to the Axis [the German-Italian Axis or alliance, and their allies in the war) is the holy Sacrament of Baptism so completely ignored by the laws and rules relating to the Jews as in the country of St Stephen. This is not a demand addressed to the occupying power, but to the Hungarian authorities.' The bishops' demands and protests in favour of the exemption of baptized persons finally brought some results; baptized Jews were excluded from the authority of the Council of Jews and a special Christian-Jewish council was formed for them.
Bishop Vilmos Apor gave considerable financial help to the Holy Cross Association. He offered accommodation to Jewish refugees. He was on very friendly terms with the secretary-general of the association, Dr Jozsef Cavallier, who often visited him in Gyõr to inform him about its affairs. Following the Holy See's advice, to baptize Jews had become one form of saving them. Out of a Jewish population of some 825,000 in 1944 about 100,000 were registered as baptized Jews. The conference of bishops issued a statement concerning the baptism of adult persons: 'Nobody may be rejected,' it said, 'and all candidates must be welcomed politely, regardless of their nationality or race.' A six-month period of preparation was ordered, but this was shortened by Bishop Apor in view of the extraordinary circumstances of the time. After attending catechism classes 50 to 100 persons at a time were exempted from waiting, and he also gave permission to baptize Jews who served in labour battalions.
As early as 1943, Bishop Vilmos had decided that it was no longer acceptable to delay taking an open stand against extremist movements. He saw that it was essential to keep the clergy and faithful informed of what was going on. The steadily increasing persecution of Jews, especially in his own diocese, persuaded him to adopt an even stronger stand and to take positive action. Following the establishment of a ghetto in Gyõr, he addressed the following letter to the Minister of Interior, Andor Jaross:
'On 28 May 1944, the local newspaper published Your Excellency's intention to cancel the reassuring and humane measures taken by the local municipal authority, and to have persons regarded as Jews moved into a ghetto: this would include everybody declared a Jew by ministerial laws, regardless of sex or age. As Bishop of the ancient City of Gyõr I protest, before God, Hungary and the world, against this measure which is in contradiction to human rights, and punishes not only innocent adults, against whom no legal action has been taken, but also children incapable of committing crime. I hold you, Mr Minister, responsible for all cases of sickness and humiliation and death caused by this measure.'
'When protesting against the violation of human rights owed to every person, I do it in my capacity as protector in this diocese of the eternal and divine truth. I also protest against the measures you are taking because they affect many of my Catholic followers, most of whom have been members of Holy Mother Church since their early childhood, or for several decades. I consider it a shocking injustice to make these Catholics share crowded quarters with people of a totally different faith and culture. It is very regrettable that you, Mr Minister, do not allow that the persons concerned should be entitled to be protected by their religion and be granted justice and spiritual comfort.'
As soon as the Jews had been moved into the ghettos, the bishop requested that the local police and gendarmerie should allow spiritual help to be brought to them. His request was refused six times. When the deportation of Jews seemed imminent, Bishop Apor went to the German headquarters personally to intervene on their behalf, but his request was rejected. He sent a telegram of protest, and the reply to this was the withdrawal of the permission he already held to visit them in the ghetto.
Meanwhile, the Vatican had also learnt about the conditions in Auschwitz and protested strongly. Pope Pius XII himself called on the Regent of Hungary to stop further deportations, and gave him an unusually severe warning in which he stated that after Hungary lost the war there would be nobody to speak out in his defence. Angelo Rotta, the Apostolic Nuncio in Budapest, visited the Prime Minister as soon as the first anti-Jewish measures were taken by the Sztojay Government, and demanded humane treatment 'for those who had no other crime than their origin.'
Bishop Laszlo Ravasz (the much respected and admired head of the Reformed Church in Hungary) and other Protestant bishops vigorously protested against the deportation of Jews. Hoping that a joint approach by all the Churches would be more effective, Ravasz asked the Lutheran Pastor Jozsef Elias to take his personal, written message to Cardinal Seredi. Accompanied by Jozsef Cavallier, general secretary of the Holy Cross Association, Pastor Elias visited Bishop Apor before going to the Cardinal. Apor received the two emissaries most cordially, but could not conceal his pessimism because on that very day the remaining groups of Jews, previously assembled in camps in and around Gyõr, had been forced into cattle trucks and deported from the country. Apor told his visitors that he had approached every competent person from the Prime Minister down to the heads of local authorities, asking to be allowed to enter the camps in order to give at least spiritual comfort to the unfortunate victims. Not only was permission refused, but he was threatened with imprisonment both by the Minister of the Interior and by the local high sheriff.
Bishop Apor gave Cavallier a letter for Cardinal Seredi in which he begged the Primate to agree to joint protest action with the Protestant Churches in spite of the risks involved of government retaliation, such as the prohibition of pastoral work, or even the possible closure of churches. He also suggested some precautionary measures which might be taken concerning the distribution of the joint pastoral letter so as to make it more difficult to intercept: large numbers should not be mailed from the same post office, envelopes should be of different sizes and colour, etc.
On 15 June 1944, Apor again wrote a letter to the Primate, supporting the Protestant proposal: 'I ask Your Eminence to resort to extreme measures in opposition to the government. We have reached the stage when the Reformed Church has gone further than we have and has decided to take drastic measures. I implore Your Eminence to support the memorandum and the firm attitude of Christians of other denominations; or at least to address an ultimatum in a similar tone to the govemment, and if this fails, to take energetic action in the name of the bishops.' Apor also tried to make his fellow bishops take a united stand. He wrote to the Bishop of Vac, Jozsef Petery: 'One cannot tolerate anti-Semitism. It must be condemned from the Pope down to the least of the bishops. It is not enough to be sorry for those who are persecuted and submitted to a series of cruelties; one must state openly that nobody may be punished for the blood in his veins. Nobody may be condemned without assuming personal guilt. Life, fortune, family, liberty and work are rights assured to every human being. A person may be deprived of these rights only on the basis of a legal judgment. What the Jews are undergoing is genocide, and he who approves of it may not protest if another class of society, possibly the Church itself, also gets deprived of its rights.'
The insistence of Bishop Vilmos Apor, Bishop Endre Hamvas and other bishops, and most of all pressure from the Holy See, made the Primate finally take the decision to issue a joint pastoral letter, the text of which Bishop Apor approved.
This pastoral letter, Successor to the Apostles, dated 29 June 1944, severely condemned the fact that people were being abused solely on the grounds of their racial origin. It admitted that up to that time all protests had been generally unsuccessful and had only obtained insignificant concessions. Illegal deprivations and deportations had not been suspended. As a consequence of this deplorable state of affairs, the bishops made it clear that they '...jointly raise their protesting voice and request the authorities to be conscious of their responsibilities before God and the nation, to respect divine law and to remedy injustices immediately. The illegal measures the authorities are taking not only cause instability and divide the nation at a time of great tension, national calamity and the struggle for survival, but turn public opinion of the Christian world against the country, and, most importantly, bring God's wrath upon its people.'
Bishop Apor also tried to find out whether the Germans were really as opposed to preferential treatment being given to baptized Jews as the Hungarian Government was asserting. If this were true, he observed, all influence should be used to bring the Hungarian measures into line with those adopted by the Slovak government, where anti-Jewish laws were far less harsh. In addition, a special memorandum should be sent to the Prime Minister pointing out that the acceptance of racial discrimination and its application is against justice and basic Christian ethics. He also recommended that a pastoral letter explaining the unchristian substance of the racial discrimination should be sent to the faithful.
The situation in his diocese compelled the bishop to speak out boldly from the pulpit of Gyõr Cathedral on Whit Sunday of 1944: `He who denies the first command of Christianity and declares that there are men, groups and races, who may be hated and persecuted; who assumes that men, whether Negroes or Jews, may be tortured, must be regarded as a pagan -- even if he boasts of being a Christian. Everyone who approves of, or takes part in, the torturing of human beings commits a grave sin.'
In the meantime, Apor's life-saving activities were no longer restricted to Gyõr. He got in touch with his former fellow students and relatives in Switzerland, and others, including the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
The Primate did not convene the bishops' conference in the autumn of 1944, although this might have provided an opportunity to take a stand. The majority of bishops did not protest. Bishop Apor did, and he wrote to the Cardinal on 23 September: 'I regret that the bishops' conference will not take place; travel difficulties could have been overcome. The clergy should be urged to stay with their flock. The situation of monastic orders should be discussed. Nuns should be supplied with civilian clothes. The Holy Father must be asked to help. The clergy cannot fulfil their pastoral obligations without proper guidance, and I very much regret the postponement of the publication of a joint pastoral letter concerning the Jewish problem.'
During his pastoral visit to Hungary in August 1991, Pope John Paul II received representatives of the Jewish community at the Apostolic Nunciature. Their president, Dr Peter Feldmajer, in his address to the Pope criticized the Hungarian Catholic Church for not protesting strongly enough against the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi era. But he did acknowledge with a few words of thanks the efforts of the then Papal Nuncio, Angelo Rotta, and Bishop Apor for raising their voices against the persecution. He did not mention that Hungary was then under occupation by Nazi Germany, nor that many religious communities had, at great risk to themselves, saved many Jewish lives.
According to the minutes of a chapter meeting of the canons held on 17 April 1944, in the sacristy of Gyõr Cathedral, 'The diocesan bishop stated that many people made homeless due to the heavy air raid at noon on 13 April have asked to be admitted to houses which had not been hit. Every corner of the episcopal residence is already occupied by the homeless. He requests the cathedral chapter to come to the rescue of the victims of the bombardment' (Gyõr Diocesan Archives).
The resignation of the government of Prime Minister Sztojay and the appointment of a government under General Lakatos, who was close to the Regent, brought with it the possibility of Hungary leaving the war. The Regent, Admiral Horthy, decided to take Hungary out of the war and issued instructions to the army to cease fighting, but his order of 15 October was intercepted and not sent to the troops. The Germans then deposed Horthy and engineered a takeover of the government by the Arrow-Cross party under Ferenc Szalasi. The Primate and all bishops knew the Szalasi takeover was unconstitutional and opposed it.
The Prince-Primate's request, addressed to the German Ambassador, Weesenmayer, to declare Budapest and Esztergom 'open cities' failed. The evacuation of the population began, but the clergy remained in place. The priests vigorously opposed the Arrow-Cross and refrained from supporting its activities. Almost every priest tried to save or hide persecuted members of the population. Angelo Rotta, the Nuncio, approved of their conduct.
Many of those who managed to escape deportation went to Bishop Vilmos Apor because they knew that he would take the risk of hiding them. The bishop availed himself of every opportunity to help. He kept in close touch with superiors of monasteries in which there was room for refugees. A number of people found refuge in the diocesan employees' holiday homes. Others were sheltered among the sick in hospitals. Krizosztom Kelemen, Abbot President of the Benedictines and abbot of the important Abbey of Pannonhalma, which was under the protection of the Red Cross, agreed to hide several children at Bishop Apor's request.
Bishop Mindszenty personally took the memorandum to Budapest and gave it to the Deputy-Premier. Retaliation by the Arrow-Cross was to follow and Mindszenty was arrested two weeks later and imprisoned in Sopronkohida. Bishop Apor soon got to know about this and of others who were imprisoned there, because a list of inmates, and a report on the treatment they had had to endure, was smuggled to him out of the prison. He took action to have their condition improved, and it was thanks to him that Bishop Mindszenty, Bishop Shvoy and other prisoners were eventually taken to custody in a convent at Sopron. To achieve this Apor visited the German Ambassador, then at Hedervar. The Ambassador refused to intervene personally, but nonetheless he instructed Szalasi to allow the transfer.
On Szalasi's instructions the minister of education and religious affairs called on Apor to complain about several measures he had taken, and to object to the relations he maintained with the Nuncio. In his turn, Apor sharply objected to the tone used by the minister, and told him he took exception to his interference in the affairs of a bishop.
On behalf of Szalasi, the self-styled 'Defender of the Nation', Bishop Vilmos Apor was summoned to a conference to be chaired by Szalasi himself, and which was to be held at the Arrow-Cross headquarters in Koszeg on Wednesday 28 March 1945, at 10 a.m. The subject to be discussed was the regulation and stabilization of relations between the Hungarian State and the Catholic Church. In view of the importance of the matter attendance was compulsory. The Abbot of Pannonhalma, who was also summoned to be present, wrote a confidential letter to Bishop Apor asking whether he, too, had received an invitation. The Abbot's papers reveal that by then he knew the Arrow-Cross leaders had decided to arrest the two of them.
The passion, however, began sooner than expected. From Christmas 1944, the day Esztergom was occupied by the Russians, the situation in the diocese of Gyõr daily became more dangerous, because its eastern part had come under Soviet domination. In january 1945, the Germans counter-attacked and reoccupied Esztergom, and so, up to the middle of March, that part of the diocese came under German-Hungarian control once more. The Arrow-Cross government sent a commission, primarily for propaganda purposes, to examine the brutal behaviour of Soviet soldiers. The commission wished to rely on information given by the clergy and accordingly got in touch with the bishop. Bishop Apor appointed five priests to work with the state commission and to find out what had happened in the previously occupied region of the diocese. A copy of their joint report was given to him and he was shattered by what he read.
'I also ask religious orders to protect and maintain their fraternal communities as long as possible. To comfort each other and to set an example to believers has never been as important as it is now. Wear your ecclesiastical habits as long as it does not hinder the performance of pastoral work. Let us show our unshaken faith and confidence in Divine Providence by keeping calm. We must at the same time do our best to rouse and strengthen similar feelings of faith and confidence in our followers. Calmness and serenity can maintain discipline and order in difficult times.'
The bishop visited his priests, went to see nuns in their convents, and tried to prepare everyone for what was to come. He sent a letter to the German military commander by special messenger, asking that he spare the centuries-old treasures and the population of Gyõr. General Sepp Dietrich replied in one sentence: 'I cannot do it because of the military requirements which are paramount.'
Many persecuted people and refugees came to Bishop Apor and he offered shelter to everybody. He also worked out plans for the siege. He sent the majority of male refugees to the mansion at Szany, the bishop's country estate, and invited women, children, the elderly and priests of his staff to his residence in Gyõr. Among the eye-witnesses to the preparations and final events was the bishop's niece, Countess Ilona Bolza, who recalled:
'In December 1944, the Germans recaptured from the Russians the Budapest military hospital where I worked as a Red Cross nurse. The patients were evacuated to the West. I didn't want to leave the country, and therefore, despite the complications of travelling in those days, I went to Gyõr and straight to the episcopal residence. The bishop received me with great affection, but it was obvious that my arrival caused a problem, because by then, months before the siege of Gyõr, there was only one empty bed in the residence -- in the room of his sister, Gizella. However, she also welcomed me cordially. So I, too, became one of those living in the residence.'
'Fighting began in Gyõr on 28 March 1945, the Wednesday in Holy Week. The first Russians came to the cellar after dark. On the following days Russian visits to the residence became more frequent. Bishop Apor received every Russian soldier personally at the entrance of the cellar and, up to the evening of Good Friday, he didn't have a moment's sleep. Although those around him asked him to rest a little during the day, he always said, "I must be awake in case anything happens."
'There were striking differences in the behaviour of the Russians. Some of them knelt down to kiss the bishop's ring, while others tried to pull it off his finger and searched him for weapons. On the morning of 29 March, Maundy Thursday, the Germans fired a series of shots from the other side of the River Raba, having blown up the bridge across the river the day before. On the same day the residence was hit by German mortar shells which also set the tower and roof of the neighbouring cathedral on fire, as well as the tower of the Carmelite church nearby.'
'It was on Maundy Thursday that he celebrated his last Mass in the cellar. No one among those present could hide their feelings, since it was impossible not to recall the early Christians celebrating in the catacombs. The following day was Good Friday, and as the bishop could no longer celebrate the day's ritual, he just read the story of Christ's passion. Never before had the participation and emotion of the people present been as evident and impressive as then.'
'Fighting in the city was over, and Russian soldiers roamed the streets looking for Germans. Several groups had a look at the cellars under the residence. The bishop saw the growing danger and sent two of his priests to the Russian headquarters in the Town Hall for help, but they could not even obtain a military guard to be posted in front of the residence. More and more Russian soldiers entered the cellars and made more and more noise. Unfortunately, we did not have a good interpreter. The one I mentioned, who spoke Slovak rather badly, tried to interpret, but he, like everyone else, was very frightened.'
'On the same day Bishop Apor asked all men present, including the physician, to help him if action were needed, since, as he put it, "We must all die one day, and one had better sacrifice one's life for a good cause on a day like this." His words showed clearly that he was ready to protect those under his care by laying down his life for them.'
'At supper time, Bishop Apor told me, "Ilona, go and help them to distribute supper." I went into the laundry, which by then we used as a kitchen, and which was a few steps lower than the entrance to the cellar, from where a heated exchange of words was heard. The dispute concerned the wish of some Russian soldiers to take women "for peeling potatoes". (Later we learnt that this was the phrase commonly used by the Russians when they wanted women.) Bishop Apor then entered the cellar and asked the elderly men and women there to volunteer to go to peel potatoes, so that the young people would have time to hide. A number volunteered.'
'A short time later the Russian soldiers returned. There were four or five of them, and they were all drunk. Nobody knows why a young girl came out of her hiding place, which was in the apple cellar, but the Russians saw her and ran after her. The girl screamed, "Uncle Vilmos! Uncle Vilmos, help!" The bishop ran up the stairs leading to the entrance to the cellar and shouted at the Russians, "Out! Get out of here!" For a moment the bishop's dramatic intervention took the Russians by surprise, and they went towards the exit. Then one of them turned back and with his machine-gun fired a series of shots. Sandor Palffy, the bishop's seventeen-year-old nephew, jumped in front of him to protect him and was hit by three shots. The bishop, too, was hit by three bullets; one lightly grazed his forehead, the second passed through the right sleeve of his cassock, and the third, the most dangerous one, penetrated his abdomen.'
'Leaning on the arms of the diocesan chancellor and his secretary, the bishop walked as far as the archway leading to the big cellar. The light of the lamp fell on him, his forehead was bleeding and a woman refugee cried out, "Our father bishop, you have done this for us!" In a low voice, but smiling, the bishop replied: "Willingly. Very willingly." The doctor administered first aid, but saw that an operation would be necessary. The bishop's sister, Gizella, assisted the doctor. The bishop was then put on a stretcher, covered with a blanket and taken to the hospital. Because of the damaged and blocked streets they had to take detours and use side roads, so that the journey to the hospital, which was in the same town, amounted to a distance of about 7-8 km and took far longer to complete than usual. On the way they had to take the blanket off the bishop several times because Russian soldiers wanted to see whether they were not concealing a treasure. [Countess Ilona Bolza comments: "They did not know that precious treasure was lying on the stretcher!"] Each time they shone their torches in his face, he blessed them, and all the way to the hospital he prayed for the conversion of sinners, saying, "May God forgive them because they are mentally disturbed and know not what they do."'
'Two professors, Petz and Jung, who knew the bishop from his parish in Gyula, operated on him as soon as they reached the hospital. While, thanks to the bishop's foresight, the episcopal residence had electricity, in the hospital even the most elementary hygienic requirements were missing, and the surgery was performed by the light of a petrol lamp.'
'The bishop never uttered a word of complaint, although the surgeons said that a lacerated stomach and intestines cause more pain than any other wound. Painkillers did not have the slightest effect. Because on Good Friday, the bishop had only drunk tea, and had eaten very little the day before as well, there was some hope that complications could be avoided.'
'On the next day, Holy Saturday, there was a slight improvement in his condition. The bishop took Holy Communion. Finding my way among dead bodies lying around in the streets of Gyõr, I went with Chancellor Zagon to the hospital. We were not allowed to enter the sick room on the lower ground floor. Bishop Vilmos' sister, Gizella, who had not left her brother's side for a moment, told us to stand in front of the window because the bishop wanted to bless us. He asked us if everybody had survived safely in the residence, and when we answered that they had, he just said, "I thank the Lord for having accepted my sacrifice."'
'On Easter Sunday hope was fading because an infection had set in and the patient's condition was deteriorating rapidly. The bishop made his confession and was given the Sacrament of the Sick. His pain increased in the course of the afternoon, but his mind remained lucid. His sister, Dr Jung, the parish priest and the nurses were around him, and they wrote down the last words of the good shepherd as he bade farewell to his flock:
"My warmest greetings to my priests. May they remain faithful to the Church! They should preach the Gospel courageously, help to rebuild our unfortunate Fatherland, and lead our poor, misled people back to the right road. I offer all my sufferings to make up for my own sins, and also for my priests, my followers, the country's leaders and my enemies! I ask God not to hold them responsible for the sins they committed against the Church in their blindness. I offer my sufferings for my beloved Hungary, and for the whole world. St Stephen, pray for the poor Hungarians."
"My God and Father, into thy hands I commend my soul. Jesus, Mary, St Joseph be with me now and at the hour of my death."
'The next day, Easter Monday, 2 April 1945, the Bishop of Gyõr entered eternity.'
The news of his death profoundly affected a great many citizens of the city of Gyõr. His death dispelled the myth that the Soviet military leadership protected, or at least spared, members and institutions of the Church. The medical staff, the nurses and all hospital employees escorted the dead prelate to the hospital gates, where priests took over the stretcher and carried it towards the residence area.
The following report comes from another eye-witness, Istvan Sandor: 'On the Tuesday after Easter, I was in a first floor room of the Town Hall, waiting for papers. I looked out towards the Baross Bridge where there was hardly any traffic. Suddenly, a very peculiar sight caught my attention: a covered stretcher was being carried from the direction of the hospital; it was followed by a bareheaded priest. I knew him by sight; he was the director of the teachers' training college, a refugee from the Tisza region.'
'Then, from the opposite direction a party of Cossacks on horseback appeared on the road. Their leader noticed the group of men with the stretcher and approached them, uncovered the body and saw it was Bishop Vilmos Apor. The officer was deeply impressed by the sight of the dead man and, taking off his cap, bowed deeply.'
Baron Vilmos Apor had been dead for two days, but his funeral had to be postponed. His body could not lie in state in the cathedral because the roof had been destroyed. Therefore, he was taken into the Chapel of Our Lady, Patroness of Hungary, and placed in front of the altar. It had been decided by then that eventually he would be buried in the Hedervary Chapel of the cathedral, and just temporarily in the crypt of the Carmelite church. A magistrate, Dr Andor Weiss, offered the burial place reserved for himself to be used for this purpose.
Further delay was caused by the undertaker's office being closed and there being no coffin of the right size to be found -- for the bishop was a tall, broad shouldered man. Finally, a few young men promised to find a carpenter who was on the other side of the River Raba. As the bridge had been blown up, the coffin finally arrived in a boat.
On Wednesday 4 April, the procession moved from Chapter Hill towards the Carmelite church along a deserted street. A witness recalls that the austerity of the mourners and the complete lack of splendour were most impressive. The funeral ceremony which was performed by Abbot Miklos Pokorny, the vicar-general, was equally simple and attended only by ten or twelve people. In its simplicity this was thought to be well suited to the bishop's personality. When standing in front of his resting place the mourners all felt that he had not been a politician, but a good priest who had dedicated every moment of his life to his people and fellow priests, who prayed for them and loved them. 'Despite our sorrow, we felt as if we saw the face of Jesus and heard his voice: "Why are you afraid? Have confidence. I have overcome the world." Everything the bishop did carried the stamp of greatness; whatever he said reflected the wisdom, mercy and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. We all felt him to be part of our lives. There, in front of the open grave, we knew he was a martyr, the martyr of service and charity. He had raised his hand, spoken courageous words, and offered his own body to protect the chastity he himself had practised all his life. His personality radiated the gospel of those who were pure and just' (Gyõr diocesan archives).
When his sister Gizella asked the Carmelite Father Erno Szeghy to say Mass for him, she received a similar reply: 'I have been his confessor for nearly a year. I only pray to him and not for him. I had the privilege of getting insight into his spiritual life and know he was a saint.'
Diocesan life in Gyõr gradually got back to normal. The clergy had followed the dead bishop's instructions throughout; not one of his priests had left the country. In November 1946, the new Bishop of Gyõr, Kalman Papp, nominated the members of the committee which was to start beatification proceedings, and the Jesuit Father Csavossy was appointed Postulator of the cause. On 9 April 1947, Cardinal Mindszenty wrote to Father Csavossy: 'I can assure you that now is the appropriate time to introduce the canonization procedures. I wish it and officially approve of it, and want the necessary steps to be taken to do the same for all priests who lost their lives when protecting women.'
The martyr-bishop's body was buried in the Carmelite church, but very soon it was decided that the St Ladislaus Chapel in the cathedral should become his final resting place. Though impoverished by the war, the clergy and faithful raised a very large sum of money to purchase a marble sarcophagus, with an effigy of the bishop in episcopal vestments lying on top, and scenes from his life carved on the sides. The official burial was arranged and thousands of invitations were sent out. But it was not to be. Three days before the ceremony should have taken place, the Office of Church Affairs [the Communist government department which fully controlled the bishops and priests until its abolition in 1990) issued the following statement, signed by Bishop Papp: 'I inform you that Bishop Apor's funeral has been cancelled, because it would have been against the interests of the country and its foreign policy.' The Gyõr police and fire brigade surrounded the Carmelite church, and only persons who could prove that they were working in Gyõr were allowed to enter the city; everyone else was turned back.
In spite of Communist pressure and opposition, devotion to the saintly bishop spread all over the country. People came to pray in front of the empty tomb, and collected facts about his life and death. Refugees -- in the West in particular -- kept his memory alive; memorial services and meetings were held in Vienna, Cologne and Rome; and each year press releases were issued on the anniversary of his death. Hungarian and European public opinion continued to insist that the bishop's body should be transferred to the cathedral. The authorities finally capitulated in 1986, more than forty years after his death; but they still refused to allow a solemn public burial. In the presence of a few old priests, the bishop's body was placed in the sarcophagus in the middle of the night and the country was only told much later. Everyone knew, however, that the words of their beloved Pastor were true: 'The Good Shepherd follows you and brings you the peace you cannot find elsewhere and which the world can never give.'
Martyr of Service and Charity:
Life of Baron Vilmos Apor
First published 1993 by the
Incorporated Catholic Truth Society 38-40 Eccleston Square
London SW1V 1PD
Copyright 1993 The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society
ISBN 0 85183 9045
Printed by The Ludo Press Ltd, London SW18 3DG
Internet version by kind permission of the Catholic
Truth Society, London