Red is for Martyrdom: Unsung Heroes of the Sacred College

Well then, on the Cardinal’s ring that I will consign in a few moments to the new members of the Sacred College is portrayed precisely the Crucifixion. This, dear new Cardinal-Brothers, will always be an invitation for you to remember of what King you are servants, on what throne he has been raised. . . . Thus, wearing the Cardinal’s ring, you are constantly called to give your life for the Church.

Thus spoke Pope Benedict XVI to the new cardinals in the recently held consistory. John Paul II also heavily stressed preparation for martyrdom in his consistories of 1979,1991, and 1994. In his first consistory in 1979, Pope John Paul secretly elevated a bishop to the sacred college who, at the time, was in a Chinese Communist prison. He was Ignatius Kung Pin mei, Bishop of Shanghai. Bishop Kung was arrested and imprisoned in 1955. His life in a cell lasted until 1985 when he was released from jail, but confined for almost three more years to house arrest under the surveillance of the atheistic government’s Religious Bureau. He finally received his freedom in 1988, leaving China to come to the U.S. for medical treatment. He never returned, spending his remaining twelve years in Connecticut, thanks to the untiring efforts of his nephew who had worked through every available channel to obtain his uncle’s release, and also to Bishop Walter Curtis of the diocese of Bridgeport who hosted the cardinal.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who had written much against the evils of Communism, once said: “The West has its Mindszenty, the East has its Kung. God be glorified in His saints.” This was true, as far as the universal recognition of the two confessors. However, there were other cardinals who suffered incarceration and torture for their faith under the Reds during the past half-century — six that I now know of. Not that I am all that well-versed in the history of the Church in the 20th century, but for someone who did spend many years studying Church history, it is pathetic — worse than that — it is deplorable that of these six “other” confessors, I only was familiar with one, and that one superficially so. I speak of the great eastern rite cardinal, Joseph Slipyi of Ukraine. The following concise, biographical sketches pay tribute to these six lesser-known princes of the Church.

Joseph Slipyi was born in western Ukraine in 1882 to a well-to-do Catholic family. He entered the diocesan seminary while studying philosophy at the University of Lviv. Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky sent him to Innsbruck for further studies. Ordained a priest in 1917, he then went to Rome for more study. Earning his doctorate in dogmatic theology, he returned to Lviv and taught at that university, holding the post of rector of the Theology Academy until 1944. He wrote many books during those years. That life of scholarship and contemplation came to an abrupt end soon after the death of Metropolitan Sheptytsky, who had appointed him as his successor, having secretly consecrated him a bishop in 1939. The Soviets had taken over Ukraine in 1929, but the Nazis moved them out in 1941. The Reds took over again just months before Sheptytsky died. Prior to this they had deported half a million Catholic Ukrainians and executed dozens of priests. In April 1945, Slipyi was arrested and taken to prison in Kyiv, as were many other priests and bishops. He was told that all that he had to do to gain his freedom was to submit to the schismatic Patriarch of Moscow, a pawn of the Communists. When the Communists reconsolidated their hold in Ukraine, half the Catholic clergy were sent to prison and one- fifth were exiled; the schismatic orthodox took over all the Catholic churches and all Church properties were seized by the atheistic state. When Metropolitan Joseph refused to sever his allegiance to the pope he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and put on a train headed for the camps in Siberia. That sentence was extended three times before he was sent to the worst hellhole of all, Siberia’s Morodovvia “from which [camp] no one comes out alive.”

After he was released in 1963, through the efforts of the U.S. state department and Pope John XXIII, he spoke and wrote of his ordeals: “I had to suffer imprisonment by night, secret court-rooms, endless interrogations and spying upon me, moral and physical maltreatment and humiliation, torture, and enforced starvation. In front of the evil interrogators and judges I stood, a helpless prisoner and silent witness of the Church who, physically and psychologically exhausted, was giving testimony to his native Church, itself silent and doomed to die.

“As a prisoner for the sake of Christ I found strength throughout my own Way of the Cross in the realization that my spiritual flock, my own native Ukrainian people, all the bishops, priests and faithful — fathers and mothers, children, and dedicated youth, as well as the helpless old people, were walking beside me along the same path. I was not alone!”

In his first consistory of 1965, Pope Paul VI declared Archbishop Slipyi a cardinal, publicizing the elevation made in pectore by Pius XII in 1949, while the confessor was in the gulag. Despite the strong lobbying efforts of the Ukrainian Church, Paul VI refused to confer the title Patriarch on the cardinal, creating the new office of Major Archbishop instead, lest he incur the unholy fury of the schismatic Orthodox. Slipyi died in 1984, having never reconciled himself to any compromising détente with Moscow. His episcopal motto, Ad Astra per Aspera (to the heavens through suffering), exemplified his life on the cross. After the fall of the Soviet Union his remains were brought back to St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv. Few people realize that it was Cardinal Slipyi’s life story that inspired Morris West’s 1963 novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman .

I had read much about the life of President Ngo Dinh Diem, of Vietnam. I had seen a film documentary about his life. I was also very informed about his brother, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. But I was ignorant of the fact that their nephew, Cardinal Francis Xavier Van Thuan , suffered thirteen years in a Communist prison, nine of them spent in solitary confinement. The Communist government arrested him in 1975 right after he was consecrated bishop of Saigon. After his release from prison in 1988, the government refused to allow him to resume his ministry. Then, in 1991, he fled his country after a government official “suggested” that it would be wise for him to do so. He spent the rest of his life in Rome, where, in 1998, he was made head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He received the red hat in 2001 a year before his death from cancer at the age of seventy-nine. In the year 2000 he was asked by Pope John Paul II to conduct the Lenten retreat for the Curia. He spoke little about his physical sufferings, although he did write three books dealing with the trials and tribulations of his detention. These are Five Loaves and Two Fish, The Road of Hope: A Gospel from Prison , and Prayers of Hope: Words of Courage .

Another victim of Communist atrocities was the Croatian cardinal, Alojzije Stepinac , who was sentenced in 1946 to sixteen years of hard labor by the Reds for refusing to submit to the schismatic Orthodox. He was born in 1898 to a pious peasant, one of twelve children. As a young man he served in the Austro-Hungarian army and fought on the Italian front in World War I. After the war he decided to become a priest and was sent to Rome for his studies. He was ordained in 1930. When he returned to Croatia in 1931 he had doctorates in theology and philosophy. He was ordained Archbishop of Zagreb in 1937. When his country was handed over to Stalin at the end of the second World War, he was arrested and, after a mock trial in which he was convicted of being a Nazi collaborator, he received his harsh sentence. Had he not suffered so much torture for Christ, this holy archbishop might well have been beatified for his extraordinary works of charity alone.

A robust man with a strong constitution, by 1951 his health had deteriorated under his trials to such a state that the authorities were forced to move Stepinac from prison to house arrest in Krasic lest he die a prisoner. There he was able to offer Mass, receive visitors, and write more than five thousand letters, none of which show the slightest resentment for those who persecuted him. Pius XII created him a cardinal in 1953. He died in 1960 at the age of sixty-two.

Despite protests from some Jewish organizations that resurrected the same lies hurled at this servant of God at his bogus trial in 1946, Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998 in a church in his native Croatia before 400,000 people. When his body was exhumed for the occasion, arsenic was discovered in his blood. In his eulogy the pope had strong words of praise: “[H]aving endured in his own body and his own spirit the atrocities of the communist system he is now entrusted to the memory of his fellow countrymen with the radiant badge of martyrdom.” And more, “He is now in the joy of heaven, surrounded by those who, like him, fought the good fight, purifying their faith in the crucible of suffering . . .”.

The oldest cardinal still living who suffered imprisonment under the Communists is Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek . He was born in 1914 in Valga, Estonia, and baptized in the capital city, Riga. After graduation from the Major Seminary in Pinsk he was ordained a priest on April 8, 1939, and assigned to a parish in Pruzhany. Almost immediately, under the Stalinist persecution, Father Swiatek was arrested by the secret police. During the confusion of the war with Germany, he managed to escape for a short while. Then, in 1944, he was arrested again and condemned to ten years hard labor in the gulag. Having endured two years in the sub-arctic camps in Siberia, he ended up doing seven more years in the worst of the mining camps, beyond the polar circle, in the tundra region of Inta near Varkuta. After all these years of grueling labor, he suddenly found favor with the camp commander, who, for unknown reasons, took pity on him. Looking intently at the priest during an evaluation session, he suddenly asked: “How on earth have you been able to bear it all and still be alive?” The man of God answered: “Commander, I owe my life to my unshakeable faith in God. It was He who saved me.” The commander then signed his name authorizing Swiatek’s release. It was 1953. In all, the courageous priest endured fifteen years behind bars and barbed wire.

Making his way as a free man to Pinsk in Belarus, to the cathedral in which he had been ordained, Father Swiatek found his new apostolate. The only priest who had been serving the cathedral parish was himself still incarcerated; he was serving a twenty-five year sentence, which left the parish without a shepherd. So, Father Swiatek remained there in Pinsk serving the Catholics of that diocese. When he first assumed this responsibility, the secret police (KGB) pulled him in for questioning five times in the first few months, threatening him with another arrest, and, finally, they decided to leave him alone in peace with tacit permission to carry on with his work. Thirty-eight years later, in 1991, with the nation’s declared independence from Russia, he was consecrated Archbishop of Minsk-Mahiloŭ and Apostolic Administrator of Pinsk, giving him a jurisdiction covering about 75,000 kilometers. In the consistory of 1994, Pope John Paul II gave the red hat to him, the first cardinal from Belarus.

In 1994, when he raised the Belarusian prelate to the College of Cardinals, Pope John Paul said that he wanted to pay tribute to the “Church of martyrs,” which Cardinal Swiatek represented. “For ten years, I was completely isolated from the world’s realities,” the cardinal later remarked in a November 2003, interview with the Italian bishops journal, Avvenire . The emphasis of the cardinal’s testimony was on the “truly Satanic” Soviet-era persecution of the church. “In the times of Stalin,” he said, “the Soviet Union was nothing but a huge gulag — an endless enclosure of barbed wire where thousands of prisoners died of the inhumane conditions of the life and work imposed upon them inside these labor camps.” Without expressing rancor over the cowardly betrayals suffered by eastern Europeans, Swiatek was not one to dismiss the lessons of history: “The West knew about us, yet didn´t intervene. And we felt abandoned and defenseless. . . . [D]espite knowing the Church´s situation in the Soviet Union, [the West] did not intervene in defense of believers oppressed and persecuted by the regime — perhaps influenced by certain reasons of its own or political motives. And yet the Church in Belarus, even when lacking ecclesiastical structures, suffering and even bleeding at times, remained alive and active.”

While touring, as archbishop, the furthest outposts of the vast area over which he was appointed shepherd, Swiatek once met a young Polish priest. The church in which the priest ministered was just a shell with no roof and no doors. When the Catholic parishioners realized who the man was visiting with their priest, they came to him and knelt at his feet. They then began to sing a hymn to Mary. Their bishop was in tears. Looking upon the young foreign priest the prelate asked him why he had left his homeland to serve in this desolate place. The priest gave an answer that Cardinal Swiatek could never forget, for, he knew that it was true of thousands whose hearts were filled with the same divine love. “Father,” he said, “you might say I´ve gone crazy for God.” At the age of ninety-two, June 2006, Cardinal Swiatek retired from his episcopal ministry.

The youngest priest ever ordained a Catholic bishop after the revision of Canon Law in 1917 was twenty-seven-year-old Slovakian Jesuit, Jan Chrysostom Korec . That episcopal consecration, approved by Pope Pius XII, was done secretly, in 1951, only a year after Korec’s priestly ordination, which also had to be administered underground. The consecration was an emergency measure that was performed in order to insure the survival of the priesthood under Czeckoslovakia’s Communist regime. The consecrator was fellow Jesuit, Bishop Pavol Hnilica. He administered the fullness of the sacrament of orders on Father Korec while the recipient was in a hospital sick room. Jan Korec entered the Jesuits in 1939, and, by 1950, the year he was ordained a priest, the Communist regime of Klement Gottwald had begun a full scale assault upon the Catholic Church, imprisoning Catholic religious and lay leaders and confiscating Church property. For eight years this courageous priest ministered covertly to his flock while employed as a simple laborer at a chemical factory. Then, in 1959, he was discovered, arrested, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. He served eight when the 1968 Prague Spring Reform movement paved the way for his release. The government allowed him to leave Czechoslovakia that year and go to Rome, where Pope Paul VI conferred on him his episcopal insignia. When he returned home he served as a hospital chaplain until 1973 — that is when the government returned to a hard-line anti-Catholicism. Once again, he was forced to minister underground, taking a job as an elevator repairman. During these tough times he had to suffer under a continual surveillance, including a bugged apartment. The situation finally improved during the pontificate of John Paul II and he was able to serve his Church for the remainder of his life in total freedom as Bishop of Nitrea. He was created a cardinal in 1991 at the same consistory wherein Ignatius Kung received the red hat. He is now eighty-four years old.

Cardinal Korec was considered by all of his people to be the one prelate in Slovakia who had never compromised one iota with the Reds. Freedom for Slovakia, however, in this cardinal’s un-blinded view, was followed not by the pious gratitude of the liberated, but by opulence and indulgence: “[F]reedom has also opened the way to evil, demoralizing tendencies,” he once said in an interview with The National Catholic Reporter . “The liberty of the individual has been foolishly overemphasized, transposed into a morality without limits. People have surrendered to egoism, to the urge for ruthless enrichment.” To this critical assessment of post-Christendom modernity in his homeland, he also tagged on “superficiality” in religious life as a cause of the collapse of Catholic values. Like, Mindzsenty, his Hungarian collegiate, Korec’s speech knew no false tones. Those interested in knowing more about this champion of the Faith should purchase Korec’s own memoirs, Night of the Barbarians , from Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc.

Another victim of Communist persecution, also created a cardinal at the 1991 consistory, was Romanian-rite metropolitan, Alexandru Todea . Only the second cardinal ever created from that country, he suffered fourteen years in a Red prison. When the Communists came to power after the war in 1946, he had been exercising his priestly ministry in various parishes for seven years. In a country overwhelmingly Orthodox (90%), he was a priest of the Uniate Byzantine Catholic Church, which numbered about one million people. There were Latin rite Catholics also in Romania; they totaled about two million. All Catholic priests, bishops, nuns, and intellectuals were arrested off and on by the Communist government police — Todea five times — until 1948, when the Byzantine Catholic Church was officially suppressed by the government and all the Catholic religious rounded up en masse. Once again sent to prison, Father Todea managed somehow to escape and he went into hiding for three years. During those years he was secretly made a bishop. When the Communists did find him out in 1951, he was sentenced to a life term. All he had to do to avoid prison this time was join the schismatic Orthodox. Even the post of metropolitan was offered him, but he steadfastly refused to renounce the pope. For a time Todea shared a cell with eight priests and four Latin-rite Catholic bishops, including Bishop Schubert who had consecrated him. “There, united in suffering, we worked together, hungry, mocked, and mistreated,” he later recounted. He was not released until1964, thirteen years later, during the second Vatican Council. Of ten thousand prisoners released over a certain time period, Todea was among the last twenty-five. After his release he continued to labor among his flock, having to offer Mass privately in homes, because all of the Catholic Churches had been given over to the schismatics. This underground apostolate continued until 1989 when the Communist regime fell apart. Three years before that he had been elected metropolitan of Fagaras and Alba Iulia at a secret meeting of Romanian Catholic bishops. John Paul confirmed this appointment in 1990. When the pope made his historic visit to Romania in 1999, an ailing eighty-seven-year-old Cardinal Todea had to be carried into St Joseph’s cathedral in Bucharest for the papal Mass. He died on May 21, 2002.

This leaves us with the two more famous cardinals of whom there is much available information in the West: Joseph Mindszenty and Ignatius Kung. Both cardinals have educational foundations bearing their name. When Pope Pius XII created Archbishop Mindszenty a cardinal in his consistory of February 18, 1946, as he placed the red hat upon his head, he uttered these prophetic words: “Among the thirty-two [being then inducted into the sacred college], you will be the first to suffer the martyrdom whose symbol this red color is.” As Archbishop of Esztergom (the principal see of the nation) and Primate of Hungary, Mindszenty had already spent a year in prison under the Nazis; he would spend eight more years (1948-1956) in prison, and in torture, under the Communist regime, followed by fourteen more years of virtual exile confined to asylum within the walls of the American embassy in Budapest. There he remained, a symbol of resistance, until 1971, when Pope Paul VI ordered him to leave his country and go to Vienna. If that were not enough, he also suffered more betrayals in 1973 when the pope compelled him to resign his bishopric and his title of primate. The head of the Church in Hungary is also, by tradition, the primate. According to the Hungarian constitution, if the country should be without a president, or king, the primate rules in the interim. The courageous cardinal, who personified anti-communism and wore the wounds of its cruelty upon his body, died in exile in Vienna in 1975. God spared him another cross when, three years after his death, the United States State Department returned the great relic of the Crown of St. Stephen, not to a liberated nation (for which America held the crown in trust), but to the Communist tyrants who still held the reins of power. There are many articles written about the life of the Hungarian prelate and at least one book, Mindszenty the Man , written by Phyllis Schlafly.

Ignatius Cardinal Kung is honored on his nephew’s excellent website, that of The Cardinal Kung Foundation . There is a wealth of biographical information on that site, as well as inspiring stories, and up-to-date data about the Chinese cardinal and the trials of the underground Catholic Church. Suffice it to say, no prelate ever endured more years behind prison walls and in solitary confinement than Ignatius Cardinal Kung. When, after his arrest in 1955, the Chinese Communists offered Kung his freedom if he would renounce his allegiance to the pope and join a new government church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, he firmly refused. In fact, his oppressors went further with their satanic allurements. They offered him the leadership of the schismatic “Catholic” Church. He would not even need to sign his name to a statement renouncing the pope. All he had to do was nod his head in submission; that would suffice. Just a nod. To this he responded: “I am a Roman Catholic Bishop. If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a Bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.” This champion of the Faith died as the true Bishop of Shanghai, in exile from his flock, in Connecticut, on March 12, 2000. He was ninety-nine years old.