Improved Church Relations With Communist State : Hungarian Cardinal Laszlo Lekai Dies

From Times Wire Services

Cardinal Laszlo Lekai, the leader of Hungary’s 6.5 million Roman Catholics whose efforts to coexist with the Communist government contrasted strongly with those of his predecessor, Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, died Monday night of a heart attack.

Lekai, 76, who had been in poor health for several months, had headed the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary since 1976.

He was appointed by Pope Paul VI after the death of Mindszenty, who had led the church from inside the American Embassy in Budapest for 16 years after he was freed from prison during the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Convicted of Treason


Mindszenty had been convicted in a Hungarian court of treason and illegal monetary transactions.

Mindszenty was recalled by Rome in 1972 and died in Vienna three years later.

The Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet praised Lekai for his “realistic, constructive and mutually beneficial church policy.” Of Hungary’s 10.5 million people, 65% are Catholics.

Born March 12, 1910, in Zalalovo, Lekai studied theology in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1934. He graduated from the German-Hungarian College in Rome and worked as prefect of the seminary of Veszprem from 1937-44, continuing parish duties after the end of World War II.

Lekai was credited with preserving the church hierarchy in Hungary. New churches are being built, and the government provides financial aid. Religious education by the churches is expanding, and restrictions are being lifted.

Criticized as Too Accommodating

But critics charge that Lekai went too far in accommodating the political system and supporting the official government line. He was satirically called a “peace priest.”

There still are no formal diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Hungary, but they signed an accord in 1964 governing church-state relations. It was the first of its kind in Eastern Europe.

A funeral Mass and burial for Lekai are scheduled Tuesday in Esztergom, site of his archdiocese. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend, including top Vatican and Hungarian government officials.