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This week the Danube Institute, where I work, was scheduled to host a conference centered on the life of the Most Venerable, Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. One by one, however, COVID-19 forced speakers to cancel. Train travel by Vienna was determined to be unsafe, knocking out one speaker. Next came the news that first the Lombardy region, then the whole of Italy was locked down, knocking out our Rome-based speaker.
I finally informed our Croatian speaker and our local speaker, US Ambassador David Cornstein, that the conference would be canceled, as Budapest began a rolling move to reduce the risk of “community spread” by limiting (then canceling) public meetings, shutting down schools, reducing the operating hours of stores, etc. We were moving into the COVID-19 world, which has changed lives here in Budapest and in capitals, cities, and townships across the world.
Confinement is not a new experience in Budapest.
A short stroll from where I sit is the American Embassy where Cardinal Mindszenty spent 15 years in a state of “asylum cum house arrest.” Under the terms negotiated between the US government and the Soviet-controlled Hungarian government, Cardinal Mindszenty was confined to quarters, forbidden to conduct public Mass, could spend only 15 minutes outside in the garden once a day, not allowed to receive Hungarian visitors, and in general, lived like a prisoner. Let us state it again: for 15 long years.
But this was a piece of cake for the Cardinal. Before this, he had spent eight years in solitary confinement, was tortured, brainwashed, and put through the travesty of a show trial. Cardinal Mindszenty had three days of freedom after he was released by young revolutionaries during the 1956 uprising until his arrival at the US Embassy seeking asylum as the Russian tanks returned.
Wait, there’s more.
Before that, he was imprisoned by the Pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party during World War II, as Hungary fell under control of the Nazis during the German occupation of Hungary. His crime? Along with all the Hungarian Catholic bishops, he wrote a letter denouncing the government when it ordered the Jewish community into the ghettos. He said the government had no right to take away their God-given human rights.
Now, 50 years after his release COVID-19 has led to our own brief (with luck) confinement. We’re required to stay close to home, to limit venturing out to necessary trips for food or medicines, to avoid standing too close to other wayfarers. Governments are working to mitigate shortages in medical supplies such as masks and testing equipment, rewriting or eliminating regulations that act as impediments to beating the virus, warning against large gatherings, etc.
Budapest seems eerily quiet, but that’s an illusory calm before the growing storm. And parts of it are hives of activity. The hospitals, of course. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers are on long shifts to treat patient numbers expected soon to grow exponentially.
It’s the same across Europe. The Brits have even called up retired healthcare professionals, expanding the system’s capacity to cope with the increased need. Businesses are thinking out of the box, turning their plants to the production of suddenly needed new products from hand sanitizers to respirators to new testing methods. Ordinary people are volunteering, signing up to deliver groceries to their house-bound neighbors. One shouldn’t romanticize it, but there’s a spirit of cooperation about as well as one of panic hoarding.
The US Embassy in Budapest, where Cardinal Mindszenty spent 15 years.
Many of us will be taken ill, some of us will die, but most will recover. We have the benefit of modern supply chains to keep us fed. We have modern connectivity to allow us to remain informed, to work, bank, socialize and entertain ourselves, and now, to even seek medical advice via “telemedicine.” Some of us will say the rosary as Cardinal Mindszenty did, as we ask for God’s help during this time of trouble.
The bottom line? Be of good cheer and if you get a little testy with your confinement, think of Cardinal Mindszenty and the amazing example this man of God gave us, especially fitting for our modern travail.Published in