What we can learn from the Cardinals who survived Communism

CP&S comment – The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, whose 100th anniversary we mark this month, led to the greatest genocide in the whole history of Mankind, particularly under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Communist Russia spread its errors over the whole world, as Our Blessed Lady warned us it would earlier in 1917 at Fatima (before the Revolution had even broken out). Despite Communism’s official demise, it has nevertheless left deep lasting scars and a type of atheistic aggressive socialism among men and institutions that we are still suffering from today.

A statue of the confrontational Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty (CNS

by Jonathan Luxmore on the CATHOLIC HERALD 

The Church has survived brutality. But it might not survive the compromising of its values

When the centenary of the Russian Revolution is marked on November 7, Eastern Europe’s Catholic communities will recall the terrible hardships it unleashed on them. But with Christians still suffering worldwide, it will also be an opportunity to reflect on which survival strategies work best against persecution.

Communist rule was imposed gradually, making clear responses difficult. And while its ultimate goal was unchanged, its methods evolved – as did the kinds of Christian testimony needed to withstand the pressures.

Even in 1917, the anti-Church programme was far from new. There had been parallels in the bloody mistreatment of réfractaire Catholic clergy during the French Revolution, as well as with Garibaldi’s mangiapreti, or “priest-eaters”, and the 1871 Paris Commune.

Marx and Engels had lauded the Commune as the first dictatorship of the proletariat. It had put revolution back on the agenda after the suppressed uprisings of 1848. It had also broken the “parson-power” of the Church, exposing its part in a hostile front against “the people”. But the Communards had been defeated, Marx concluded, by shrinking back from the required ruthlessness.

Lenin, Russia’s revolutionary mastermind, agreed that the Commune had been hampered by naïve idealism. But he fully concurred with its contempt for the Church, with its “deep roots” in capitalist domination.

“Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness,” Lenin told the writer Maxim Gorky.

This was the kind of enemy Russia’s small, vulnerable Catholic community was up against. Yet even as Bolshevik death squads scoured the country, summarily executing priests and seizing Church valuables, there were hopes that the initial fervour might give way to something calmer.

The revolution had swept away the traditional privileges of Russia’s Orthodox church, creating opportunities for other confessions. Even in the Vatican, some saw signs of a “positive evolution”.

But hopes of a more just future were quickly dispelled.

Lacking political legitimacy, Lenin’s regime had to find ways of subduing the population. Within a year of the revolution, while a 40,000-strong paramilitary police, the Cheka, operated from Moscow’s Lubyanka, and people’s courts dispensed sentences according to “the dictates of revolutionary conscience”. A “Decree on Red Terror” sanctioned the killing of anyone suspected of opposition.

“You must make an example of these people,” Lenin telegrammed one local committee. “Hang (I mean hang publicly, so people will see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards and known bloodsuckers … Do all this so that for miles around people see it, understand it [and] tremble.”

The only valid moral values and spiritual loyalties, Lenin made clear, were those which served the revolution. Even if some clergy claimed to support it, they would merely corrupt the cause from within. “We must execute not only the guilty,” said Nikolai Krylenko, president of the Soviet Supreme Court. “Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.”

As the regime concentrated its onslaught initially on the Orthodox Church, Catholics were spared the worst. But by the early 1920s Catholic priests had received life terms for resisting Soviet rule, and all Catholic churches had been closed in Moscow and Petrograd (St Petersburg).

In March 1923, the Catholic Church’s leader in Russia, Archbishop Jan Cieplak, and his vicar-general, Mgr Konstantin Budkievicz, were declared guilty with 21 other clergy for setting up a “counter-revolutionary organisation”.

Cieplak and Budkievicz were condemned to be shot, while others received prison terms. And on Easter Saturday five days later, despite international appeals, Budkievicz was executed at the Lubyanka.

Cieplak’s sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison, on the grounds that “the punishment he really deserves might be interpreted as directed primarily against their creed by backward elements of the Roman Catholic population”. He remained in prison until April 1924, when he was suddenly put on a train to Riga and expelled.

By the end of the 1930s, it was clear that nothing could have saved the Soviet Union’s churches.

Stalin had followed up Lenin’s call for “revolutionary boldness”, taking it far beyond what even Lenin had anticipated. The campaign against the kulaks, or rich peasants, had cost 6.5 million lives, while “terror famines”, notoriously in Ukraine, had taken eight million more, and Stalin’s 1937-8 Great Purge a further seven million.

While 45,000 Orthodox churches lay in ruins, some 110,000 Orthodox clergy were shot, hanged, burned alive, drowned in ditches or crucified on church doors.

As for Russia’s Catholics, 422 priests had perished, along with 962 monks, nuns and lay people, while all but two of the Church’s 1,240 places of worship had been closed or turned into shops, warehouses, farm buildings and public toilets.

Why had the Church encountered such hostility? How well had it understood the communist challenge?

Such questions would be faced by Church leaders in Eastern Europe, as communist rule arrived in the 1940s on the bayonets of the victorious Red Army. And they would be answered differently.

While Greek Catholic communities combining the eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome were savagely suppressed in Ukraine and Romania, Catholic cardinals elsewhere – Stefan Wyszyński in Poland, Josef Beran in Czechoslovakia, József Mindszenty in Hungary, Alojzije Stepinac in Yugoslavia – all tried to rally Catholics to the Church’s defence, drawing on their understanding of local conditions. In time, all were brought down, proving that co-operative or confrontational Church stances ultimately had little impact on communist hostility.

But leadership skills played their part. Whereas Mindszenty and Stepinac had rejected the communist programme outright, Wyszyński had been ready to go along with it, believing communists, like anyone else, were open to persuasion, and that intelligent flexibility, rather than unbending rigour, stood a better chance of saving the Church.

Wyszyński was ready to take the regime at its word, study its decisions and reach agreements with it, while avoiding being pushed into committed opposition or provoked into over-reacting with rhetorical condemnations.

Not even this saved Wyszyński from being jailed in 1953 when Bolesław Bierut’s regime launched a clampdown. But even at the height of Stalinist rule, the Polish Church was too well supported for the regime to risk a head-on collision.

Writing in the 1970s, Mindszenty defended his more confrontational stance, claiming to have recognised the dangers when other Church leaders had fallen for propaganda claims that communism was becoming more tolerant.

The pattern had been clear, Mindszenty argued. The regimes were determined to crush the faith, and they would do so even if Christians proved accommodating, as the Russian Orthodox Church’s fate had shown. In the “decisive contest” between Christianity and communism, there could be no illusions of neutrality and appeasement.

“I was convinced we had been called to bear witness”, Mindszenty concluded. “Historical studies had taught me that compromise with this enemy will almost always play into his hands”.

Ironically, this was the opposite of what Wyszyński had concluded, after also studying the Russian Orthodox example. He knew the Church would have its martyrs, and that silence and timidity would merely embolden its enemies. But he also sensed that, sooner or later, the regime would overreach itself and have to recognise that, even under communism, a strong Church would be a permanent feature.

Sure enough, within three years Wyszyński had been restored to office when Bierut’s successor, Władysław Gomulka, needed Church support for a reformist “Polish road to socialism”. Although decades of conflict still lay ahead, the Polish Church would ultimately prosper.


What lessons can be learned from this today?…

Read on to find out

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13 Responses to What we can learn from the Cardinals who survived Communism

  1. Pingback: What we can learn from the Cardinals who survived Communism — – World Faithful Catholics

  2. johnhenrycn says:

    “…as Our Blessed Lady warned us…at Fatima (before the Revolution had even broken out)…”
    Indeed. How do people who sneer at the Fatima seers account for shepherd children – illiterate and of illiterate parents who’d never heard of Communism, or perhaps even Russia – having the perspicuity to give voice to what was about to happen three months later almost three thousand miles away? Now, I’m making assumptions about the children and their parents which may not be correct, or entirely correct; but are there any non-agenda-driven historians who’ve addressed those assumptions and who either support or disprove them? Perhaps Toadspittle, who is always “entirely open to the idea…” [place whatever topic is being debated here] has out of burning concern for truth vs. non-truth, and with the benefit of decades of experience as an investigative journalist, conducted a thorough review of all the literature and can correct my said assumptions if they are false.

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    “…as Our Blessed Lady warned us…at Fatima (before the Revolution had even broken out)…”
    But here is another question – just to illustrate how objective even an orthodox Catholic can be: When were the first reports of the July 13th Fatima apparitions printed in a newspaper of public record? Before or after October 24th/25th, 1917? And of course, we need also to consider the Revolution of February 1917, also momentous and perhaps a subject of discussion amongst Portuguese peasants even without the benefit of newspapers, especially considering the profound influence of anti-revolution sermonizing by priests at Mass, which the Fatima children would have heard.

  4. johnhenrycn says:

    “When were the first reports of the July 13th Fatima apparitions printed in a newspaper of public record?”
    …by which I mean to say – as a qualified (amateur) historian (but also as “any fule kno”) – oral accounts of predictions unsupported by accounts published before those predictions become facts, are not conclusive proof of their happening, even though they might have done.

  5. johnhenrycn says:

    Did Our Lady, in July 1913, mention the word “Communism” or “Bolshevik” or “revolution”, or was her warning confined to “Russia’s errors”?

    I know of a village in my “old country” that bears my unusual surname made famous mentioned in a celebrated well received 1962 autobiography about a relation countryman of mine my grandparents that fell to the Communists. Fatima is not mentioned, which absolutely proves…well, nothing really 🙂

    “To me, my life started at [ _____ ] I remember very well indeed the end of the world that came with the Russian Revolution. The protected and idyllic world of my childhood collapsed. We lost everything…”

    Google says: “Your search – ‘To me, my life started at [ _____ ] I remember very well indeed the end of the world that came …’ – did not match any documents. Suggestions?”
    Nice to know Google has not yet conquered the universe – and please – if you have a link to the contrary, I’d prefer that you not publicise it; but it is strange that I remember seeing it on Google some years ago.
    Good night.

  6. johnhenrycn says:

    “Did Our Lady, in July 1913 1917 (ad nauseam….)”
    It’s only 22:59 over here, so don’t be looking at your Greenwich time stamps.

  7. johnhenrycn says:

    It was only 22:5920:59 over here when I said that. Sorry if you reset your watches to Nuuk, Greenland time based on my advice.

  8. johnhenrycn says:

    I”m still wrong – timewise – so it appears, but no matter as you were all asleep hours ago, I think.

  9. kathleen says:

    Not sure, JH, but I don’t think any Portuguese newspaper (all secular in 1917) thought it worthwhile reporting on the goings on at Fatima before the Miracle of the Sun on 13th October – (an outstanding event that they could not ignore!) Before this, they were scornful of what they saw as stupid peasants’ superstition!
    Huh! He who laughs last…. etc.

    “Did Our Lady, in July 1913, mention the word “Communism” or “Bolshevik” or “revolution”, or was her warning confined to “Russia’s errors”?

    Not sure if this is only a rhetorical question, or not 😉, but it is an interesting one all the same.
    Naturally, “Communism” or “Bolshevik” or “revolution”, would appear to describe those “errors” of atheistic Marxism far more accurately than the name of a vast Christian country that was once known as “Holy Russia”!

    But Communism is only the name given to an evil mindset that was not unknown to Man, although it was not formerly known as “Communism”; e.g., the genicide and terrors of the French Revolution come to mind. “Bolshevik” is the name given to only one branch (albeit, an extreme one) of Communism. And “revolution”, well… that one needs no definition.

    By singling out Russia, perhaps Our Lady was pinpointing from whence would come the roots of this revived dangerous evil in the persons of Marx, Engles, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. All Russians!

    Yet Russia today is a totally different country, as far as we can see.
    Whilst we in the West are throwing our precious “pearls” to the swine, and renouncing our greatest glory! What idiots!
    That is the tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

  10. johnhenrycn says:

    I wonder what to make of this event in Nigeria on 0ctober 13th last:

    There was a heavy rain shower in my area during the early afternoon of October 13th, although nothing else of interest then occurred; but a week or two before, I noticed the sun near the horizon in the late afternoon was surprisingly large. This happens, I’m told, in equatorial areas, but I’d never witnessed it before in my own.

  11. johnhenrycn says:

    I thought this is where I’d first heard about it, but couldn’t remember for sure 🙂

  12. toadspittle says:

    Do we think The Deity has nothing better to do than make the sun jump through hoops?

    I was going to tackle SteveD regarding Fatima (yet again) – until a tremendous sense of ennui, as Jabba would say – engulfed me. Thank God.

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