By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
Growing up under the yoke of Soviet-controlled Hungary, Cistercian monks at Our Lady of Dallas said their experience taught them harsh lessons about the fruits of communism and the political realities that made a Western confrontation with it difficult for President John F. Kennedy and the United States.
In the summer of 1948, seeking a firmer grip on Hungarian society, communist government officials began a systematic attempt to outlaw any religion considered a threat to the state. The effort culminated with the takeover of all Catholic and Protestant schools in the country, and the arrests of high-profile Catholic clergy in Hungary, such as Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty and Father Wendelin Endredy, abbot of the Zirc monastery.
“An important event for us was when the Cistercian school was taken away and we got civilian teachers,” said Father Roch Kereszty, then a 22-year-old who aspired to join the Cistercians as a monk, but was instead conscripted into the Hungarian army. “We didn’t trust in them, even though there were a few nice people among them. You didn’t know in whom to trust and whom not to trust.”
That distrust went both ways. On Oct. 23, 1956, Hungarian citizens staged a daring revolt against the government that was eventually crushed by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
One year later during a ceremony in New York City, then-Senator John F. Kennedy paid tribute to the Hungarian Freedom Fighters, as they were called, and lamented the reluctance of then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the United States in offering assistance to the rebels.
“Oct. 23, 1956 shall also be permanently etched in man’s history as a day of judgment – and of failure,” Kennedy said. “For on that grim and tragic day, and all through the bloody, perilous days that followed, we in the West were unprepared to act effectively, unwilling to act decisively, unable to act with unity. To those who sought help and revolution, we offered only hope and resolutions. To those who begged with urgent hearts and eloquent tongues for deeds to match our words, for actions to match our promises, we offered only the cruel disillusionment of ‘all assistance short of help.’”
On Oct. 14, 1962, two years after his own election to the presidency, Kennedy was confronted with a situation that proved to be exponentially more dangerous. It was the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a span of 13 days in which the world saw the United States and the Soviet Union go to the brink of nuclear war after the Soviets were caught placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, a satellite communist country. It was also the date that Right Rev. Abbot Emeritus Denis Farkasfalvy arrived at Our Lady of Dallas monastery.
“I thought that (Kennedy) would risk breaking the peace, but only in the interest of the American homeland and not in the interest of any other part of the world, and I did not blame him for that,” Father Farkasfalvy said. “I thought that was normal and to be expected. That’s why I was not upset when Eisenhower did not intervene for the sake of Hungary.”
When the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to an agreement that resulted in the missiles’ removal, Father Kereszty said the event was joyous one, but also provided another harsh lesson about political realities.
“Obviously we were very happy that he stopped the Russian missiles from being installed in Cuba,” Father Kereszty said. “We were very enthusiastic about Kennedy being the champion of freedom and democracy. But we already had a deep-seated suspicion that if it comes to the elections, very little will happen unless America’s direct interests are at stake.”