Memorial plaque at Kistarcsa. The text reads: "They could not break him, they tortured him to death."
A Different Kind of Anniversary
In addition to a plaque in the former internment camp at Kistarcsa (one of the most notorious Communist concentration camps, where he was held prisoner and tortured from June 1950 until his death in March of 1951), there is also a church named after him in Budapest, dedicated by Cardinal Erdő in 2014. Those two memorials sum up the life of Bishop Meszlényi Zoltán.
Born in Hatvan, in 1892, the second of five children of a teacher (who was later made school principal) and his wife, he received his early schooling in Rimaszombat, Budapest and Esztergom. He was an excellent student, and Cardinal Vaszary Kolos sent him to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He received three degrees – in Philosophy, Theology and Canon Law, and a doctorate in Philosophy. Due to World War I, he had to finish his studies in Innsbruck, Austria, where he was ordained in 1915.
First assigned to be chaplain in Komárom, Fr. Meszlényi was soon summoned to the Cardinal’s chancery. There he was given ever greater responsibilities, and became known for his outstanding social concern.
Pope Pius XI named him Titular Bishop of Sinope, and he was consecrated in October of 1937, becoming assistant to the Cardinal, a position not dependent on the person, but on the office. When Cardinal Serédi Jusztinián died in 1945, his successor, Cardinal Mindszenty József confirmed Bishop Meszlényi in his office. After the arrest of Cardinal Mindszenty by the secret police in December of 1948, Canon Drahos János became administrator of the archdiocese, but he too died in 1950. Since the chapter did not want to elect the person picked by the state, Bishop Meszlényi became the Vicar General. He knew what awaited him, and although he was afraid of it, he accepted his fate. As can be seen in his oath of office at his induction: ”As Christ’s faithful shepherd, I will never deny my fidelity to the Church! So help me God!” He gave away his fur-lined winter coat to a poor fellow priest, saying, ”I won’t need this any more.”
Twelve days after his election, on June 29th, 1950, Bishop Meszlényi was dragged from his apartment in Esztergom by the ÁVO (secret police), and imprisoned at Kistarcsa without an open trial or any kind of sentence.
Eyewitnesses later related how the Bishop was kept strictly separated from the other prisoners, in solitary confinement, where he was beaten and tortured. The window in his cell had to remain open in summer and winter. They made him run barefoot in the winter cold, even though he had trouble with his feet. He had not been a healthy man even before his imprisonment, requiring medicines daily. Of course no medicines were provided for him in Kistarcsa. By these means they tried to get him to turn against Cardinal Mindszenty, but without success. According to the ÁVO’s own marginal note on his dossier, ”Compromise is not Meszlényi’s line.”
And so they decided simply to do away with him. He died – according to the date noted by his torturers – on March 4th, 1951. (If there had been any documents, they were destroyed by the ÁVO.) By the time they took him to a hospital, he was already dead.
Bishop Meszlényi was buried in an unmarked grave in Rákoskeresztúr. Only in 1966 could his remains be exhumed. Then, in total exclusion of the public, he was laid to rest in the lower church of the Basilica at Esztergom, with only a few of his priests and seminarians permitted to attend.
In 2014, the first church dedicated to his memory was consecrated in Budapest’s XIth District.
*The other Hungarian Bishops martyred in the 20thcentury were
- Apor Vilmos (1892-1945) – of Győr – beatified in 1997
- Romzsa Tódor (1911-1947) – Byzantine rite – of Munkács - beatified in 2001
- Bogdánffy Szilárd (1911-1953) – R.C.+Byzantine rite – beatified in 2010
- Scheffler János (1887-1952) – of Szatmár – beatified in 2011
- Chira Sándor (1897-1983) – Byzantine rite – of Munkács – cause has been entered