Sixteen years after his death in exile, Cardinal Josef Mindszenty's dying wish will be fulfilled this weekend when he is returned home to a Hungary in which "the red star of faithless Moscow" has finally fallen.
Three days of religious pomp and ceremony surrounding his reburial in the crypt at Esztergom Cathedral will posthumously bestow a measure of honor and recognition the cardinal was denied in life.
Yet exhumation of his remains and the 200-mile journey to his chosen resting place ironically mirror the troubled and intrepid existence Mindszenty endured as a tireless fighter against repression.
Mindszenty came to symbolize the immortality of the human spirit in a 40-year struggle with Hungary's oppressors--from the ambitious interwar excesses of Regent Miklos Horthy, to World War II-era fascist collaborators to the Communist dictators whose imposed atheism failed to shake the commitment of millions of Catholics.
Tens of thousands of the faithful are expected at his entombment early Saturday at the cathedral basilica above the Danube Bend where church leaders have been laid to rest for centuries.
The gathering is likely to evoke the heart-clutching scene nearly two years ago, when the reburial of 1956 revolutionary leader Imre Nagy drew a million Hungarians who wept and vowed never to be slaves again.
As the stirring June, 1989, event served as Eastern Europe's symbolic burying of communism, so will Mindszenty's final journey lay to rest religious repression and resurrect the soul of liberated Hungary.
"Mindszenty could not return to Hungary in his lifetime," Rudolf Hapsburg, head of the Austrian-based Mindszenty Foundation, observed last week during a visit to Hungary. "But as his ashes return home, his memory is revived as a lesson and inspiration to the entire Hungarian religious community."
The cardinal's fate traces the tragic path of his nation's history for the past century.
Born in 1892 to a farming family in western Hungary, Mindszenty was ordained in 1915 and endured his first internment only four years later during the short-lived Communist revolution of 1919.
After years as a parish priest, he was appointed bishop of Veszprem in March, 1944, but served only eight months before his arrest by Nazi collaborators toward the end of World War II.
Mindszenty became bishop of Esztergom, the primate of Hungary, in September, 1945, at the start of the Soviet occupation that over the next three years saw religion banned, church property nationalized and leading clerics like Mindszenty denounced and jailed.
The cardinal who had stood up against religious persecution and Communist violence was tortured for 39 days after his arrest in December, 1948, condemned in a show trial and sentenced to life in prison on trumped-up charges of espionage, treachery, plotting to overthrow the government and black-market speculation.
A week after the beginning of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolt in 1956, a young prison officer freed Mindszenty for a few short days, during which he addressed his anti-Communist following by radio. The officer was later executed for his kindness. When Soviet tanks thundered in to crush the uprising and reimpose Communist rule, Mindszenty sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.
He spent 15 years in the relative seclusion of his book-lined room and the embassy garden, walled off as he had been in prison from the Hungarian congregation he was fighting to guide.
Contending that the proper place for the Hungarian primate was Hungary, Mindszenty for years refused Vatican efforts to arrange his safe passage to Rome.
But finally, in 1971, he left his homeland under an asylum agreement worked out between Rome and Budapest. He wrote in his memoirs that he relented only after receiving a letter from then-President Richard M. Nixon suggesting that his continued presence in the embassy was not in Washington's best interests.
From Budapest, Mindszenty first went to Rome and then settled in Vienna. But even there his continued activity against Communist rule in his homeland proved to be an embarrassment to the Holy See, which at the time was trying to develop better relations with Moscow. Pope Paul VI stripped him of his offices as Primate of Hungary and Bishop of Esztergom in February, 1974. Mindszenty died on May 6, 1975, at the age of 83.
In accordance with his last will and testament, Mindszenty was buried in the St. Laszlo Chapel of the Grace Church in Mariazell, Austria. His dying request, according to the Hungarian Catholic Church, was that his mortal remains be returned home as soon as "the red star of faithless Moscow falls from the Hungarian sky."
The first steps toward politically rehabilitating the late primate were taken more than a year ago, when the reform-minded Communist leadership that has since transferred power to elected opponents denounced the show trial that cast Mindszenty as an enemy of the people.
Hungary's chief prosecutor concluded last year that the trial was solely political and evidence had been manufactured to secure conviction of one of Hungarian communism's most ardent critics.
With both his name and the path home cleared, Mindszenty has now embarked on the journey to a place where his followers hope he can rest in peace.
The fulfillment of his will was to begin last night with the exhumation of his coffin at Mariazell and the examination of his remains, according to Vatican procedures that envision eventual appeal for beatification.
A memorial Mass is planned at the Mariazell church on Thursday afternoon, and the convoy carrying Mindszenty's ashes gets under way from the Austrian burial ground at 6 a.m. Friday, in the care of Opilio Rossi, cardinal of Rome and papal legate, as well as Mindszenty's successor as Hungarian primate, Esztergom Bishop Laszlo Paskai.
The procession halts at the Austrian-Hungarian border at midday Friday for a ceremonial handing over of the cardinal's remains.
The funereal entourage will be met at Esztergom in time for a 5 p.m. devotion for the cardinal, with funeral services at 10:30 a.m. Saturday expected to draw at least 60,000.
Mindszenty will be laid to rest at the 19th-Century cathedral overlooking the Danube, home at last and finally triumphant in the struggle for religious freedom that eluded him in life.
While Mindszenty is still revered by Hungarians old enough to remember the turbulent times leading up to 1956, four decades of communism has distorted his image among the nation's young. Many find it difficult to understand what their elders see as an important rectifying of the mistakes of the past.
Sandor Vekas, who was only 4 years old during the Hungarian uprising, sees Mindszenty's return as a necessary show of respect for a man who devoted his life to the fight for freedom.
"It's a sad aspect of Hungarian history that we can only pay tribute to dead people," the 39-year-old engineer observed. "I hope to live in a country where people are given the recognition they deserve while they are still alive."