Page 4, 30th July 1965

30th July 1965
Page 4
Page 4, 30th July 1965 — What Is life like In Hungary today? Are the moves

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Locations: Budapest, London


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What Is life like In Hungary today? Are the moves

for a Church-State modus vivendi in Communist countries making it easier for the people?

In the article below a London priest just back from Hungary tells what he saw there. With two fellow-priests he camped on the roadside, ate at local inns, met men who escaped from prison during the 1956 rebellion, and spoke to priests in Latin.

The priests have asked us not to reveal their names in case people they spoke to might be identified. The account, as told to DONAL MUSGRAVE, follows.

Hungary today queues, fear, good humour

0NE night early this month I camped with two priest companions just outside the Hungarian border. Early next morning we drove through a mile of no-man's-land. We stopped at a 15-foot high electric fence and the border guards searched the car.

Machine•guns stung over their shoulders they were looking for literature, propaganda in any form. we thought, not for diamonds or liquers. They examined our theology books minutely and flicked through them for loose sheets of paper.

A few hundred yards away there was another electric fence and between the two was ploughed, rough land. It would slow a running man to a stumbling trot. High look-out posts stretched into the distance on either side.

There was a tremendous silence everywhere . . . this was our first impression of the country. There were few cars. No knots of pram-pushing housewives chatted on the streets. The shops were silent inside. People lowered their eyes when they saw our Roman collars and some of them muttered without looking up: Laudetur Jesus Christ us . . . and we answered In aeternum. Amen. We had a distinct impression of being studiously ignored.

Off the main motorways, the roads were unkept and often made of clinkers. Crops in the fields seemed poor and houses were dilapidated. The reason for this, we were told, was that the State owns any house with more than four rooms in it and the land is poor because the people work only to reach a certain individual quota.

Everything seemed to be done in triplicate. In the grocery shops we queued once to order, we queued up again to pay, and then we had to queue once more to collect our groceries. Imagine it ... three long queues of silent people in every shop.

The first thing we did when we drove into a town was to look for the church. In one, we found a large dilapidated building. It was locked, but we managed to get in and to meet a small old man who came up to us. We thought he was the parish priest, but turned out to he the only Lutheran minister in Hungary.

He was very friendly and took us in, read a passage from an ancient hand-written Bible to us, and after much laughing, smiling and shaking hands directed us to the Catholic church. But the priests were out.

In another town, the next day, we found the three priests at home. They gave us a great time. One of them was fluent in Latin and we chatted for four or five hours. They gave us our first impressions of how the Church is treated in Hungary.

They told us about the special Ministry of Religion, how everything the Church does has to be confirmed by the Government.

Pastoral letters are vetted and the movement of priests is strictly controlled. This means that the more zealous men get moved to less influential areas and the docile ones take their

places. Sacerdores pacifici they call them.

The Government meddles in everything to do with Church administration. In East Germany, we were told, the Church gets a much better deal and is completely free.

In Hungary every church is open. People are free to go to Mass. But in fact anyone who goes to church is automatically suspect of being a subversive chUracter and not amenable to Communist propaganda or ideology. All sorts of very subtle persecutions follow.


You can't hold any sort of official position. The communications field, like the radio or press, closes its doors. The schools too. If you go to church openly you have to be happy to work on the land or hold a nonparty job.

In fact we learned later that in every parish people in official positions, even the border guards, go to church after dark for confession and even to he married. But they've got to hold their jobs. And there are quite a number of people willing to watch and report on others—even their best friends. This creates a feeling of reservation and suspicion.

The strongest persecution concerns the religious education of the child. We were told that there is hardly a handful of real Communists in the country. They hate the Russians. But the idea seems to be to produce a new breed of atheists.

Teaching catechism is cornpletely prohibited—even in private—except in State schools where children put their names down on the catechism lists. In fact very few children do this and these are the only ones who go to church. When they do, their parents suffer the same disabilities that I have just mentioned. The priests call them valde audaces—very brave.


The young mind belongs to the State in Hungary and any attempt to teach a child religion privately is illegal. The priests can seldom visit the people's homes to give instruction—erit malion pro eis (it would make difficulties) is how they put it.

So the religious education of the child is up to the parent. And in Hungary, where there was no religious persecution until after the war, the parents have never had any practice of doing this until now.

In another small town. a tourist place, we met a young priest who was a spirited character. Ile had been moved from a bigger parish and was waiting for the Government to amass enough information to send him to prison. He took us into the very centre of a long corridor ("even the walls have ears", he said) and talked about the situation in his diocese.

His Bishop had been imprisoned for refusing to toe the Government line. What they called an Apostolic Administra tor had been put in his place, without any confirmation by the Church—a man who told the priests to obey the authorities. This young priest said he was certainly not going to obey cornmends from an Administrator who had no power. He continued to teach catechism in the homes and visit the people. Every move he made was watched, he said, and expected to be imprisoned in a week or two.

And from what we heard the priests' prison is a pretty severe incarceration.

Liberated We were lucky to meet quite a number of priests, including religious, Jesuit and Benedictine, who were liberated by the insurgents in 1956.

They're still there, walking around in ordinary clothes. In fact priests can wear their collars and cassocks in the streets but we did not meet one wearing them outside the presbytery. They said it was "inadvisable".

We asked what the people ei Hungary thought of the WC,IL I II powers like Britain after the "Students' Revolution", as they call it there. We were told . . "Britain, she is cuput! Most 0l the people have lost all trust in the West. And can you blame them? We know you were sympathetic. But what good was that?"

After the Revolution was suppressed, the Communists become more lenient. Any priests recaptured were given token sentences of two years and then released. All the same there are a lot of them still in prison, we heard.

What do the people think of Cardinal Mindszenty? From what we gathered they hold him in great reverence, as a figurehead, almost a saint. But we were told that the present negotiations between the Communists and the Vatican usually result in a tighter squeeze on the parishes and things get a little more difficult every time.

It would seem that the Churches are less oppressed now than before. But the persecution is cleverer. Outwardly, everyone is free. Inwardly, it is the very opposite of freedom.

We found that the priests outside the cities were humorous and shrugged off the Communist ideology with a laugh. I suppose it keeps them sane. In the cities it is different.

In Budapest, for instance, we were given very little opportunity to talk to priests. They were quieter and seemed less keen to chat to us. Our camping site there was run like a military barracks.

Police walked around the streets of the city with machineguns over their shoulders and long, heavy truncheons in their fists. Soldiers, clearing floods from the Danube, stood around carrying guns.

There were plenty of tourists. mainly from Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Government seems to he ready to extend a friendly welcome to anyone. They need the Western currency.

But as yet they don't seem to have found out how to attract visitors. In the country especially, when we reached our camp sites no one ever offered to help us. They just stood around gawking at us. But then, they didn't help anyone else either.

When we applied for an extension of our visas we were asked very pointed questions at police headquarters. A hard faced woman tried to find out where we had been and who we had spoken to. It was like an interrogation.

"Why do you want to stay?"

"We want to remain in the People's Republic of Hungary as long as possible. It is very nice here." V, e told her. "Have you made any friends with people like you?" (meaning priests).

"We can't speak Hungarian," we said.

The country is divided into separate districts and the locals need passes to go from one area to another. If caught without one, it means a fortnight in prison.

One priest, a fiery humorous character with fluent Latin, said that he was oaught so often that he spent as much time in prison as outside but added with a chuckle that he "had just as much work to do in there. All the prisoners and jailers are Catholics."

Censorship Even though there are few cars the whole country seems to be mobile. 1 hey live in a motorbike era and roar around the roads like modern Tartars on mechanised horses.

North of Budapest we found the Benedictine College called Pannonhalm—the Monte Casino of Hungary—one of the very few Catholic schools in the country. They told us there that there are five seminaries still in Hungary, one of them with seventy students. They get few vocations but feel there is no crisis.

One of the most noticeable things is the total censorship on Western journals. The newspaper stands are bleak and never carry anything but the Communist publications. As one priest said to me in Latin . . . "It is impossible for anyone who hasn't lived behind the Iron Curtain to understand how a whole people's outlook can be determined by a Communist ideology."

Five days after crossing the border in the south-west we recrossed it again in the north. This time the guards just searched under the back seats to make sure we had no passengers.

We had said fifteen Masses behind the Iron Curtain, at all times of the day. Often, just before we began, the word seemed to get around that there was a Mass on. And when we turned around on the altar we saw that people slipped quietly into the dark churches and joined us.

We drove away from the machine-guns into Austria. A smiting Austrian guard with a smattering of English greeted us with "Austria ... He is another world ... Ja?"

We sat down on the road, broke open bottles of wine, and had the best birthday party of our lives.

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