For many years I was aware of having been in close contact in my youth with a priest, later bishop, who was beatified in the Roman Catholic Church. I was also a close friend in the 1950s of a truly odd character whose process of beatification has been started. But recently I accidentally discovered on the internet that two further episcopal personalities whom I knew in Hungary in the 1940s have been elevated among the “blessed”. All of them are venerated as martyrs. The three Hungarian bishops are William Apor, Szilárd Bogdánffy and John Scheffler; they were beatified in 1997, 2010 and 2011, and the candidate for beatification is an Englishman, John Bradburne.
To make their stories understandable, I will have to provide a brief autobiographical sketch. I was born in Makó, Hungary, in1924 into a non-religious, totally assimilated Jewish family. My father was a journalist and my mother a schoolteacher. In 1928 we moved to the not distant city of Gyula and in 1931, shortly before my seventh birthday, the whole family was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. I received a Catholic primary and grammar school (gymnasium) education from 1930 to 1942. By that time recently enacted anti-Jewish legislation prevented me from entering university. The only possible academic opening was theology, implying a clerical future. I first applied to the Jesuits, but was promptly turned down: unknown to me, in those days the Society of Jesus did not admit candidates of Jewish origin. I lowered my aim and was accepted in the theological college of my diocese of Nagyvárad in Transylvania, which between 1940 and 1945 belonged to Hungary. The first two years of a five-year course were taught in Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare), followed by three years in Nagyvárad. In May 1944, when the deportation of provincial Jewry began, I was ordered to leave Szatmár and go on the run with church help, a peregrination which took me across the whole of Hungary as far as the Austrian border. From there I traced back my steps to Budapest, and on Christmas Eve 1944 I was liberated from Nazi tyranny by the Red Army. I studied for two more years in Nagyvárad, but in 1946 I said goodbye to my theological college and left Hungary to join the French order of the Pères de Notre Dames de Sion, and started my serious theological and Semitic studies in Louvain, Belgium. I was ordained priest in 1950. By 1952 I obtained a doctorate in theology and a “licence” in oriental history and philology.
After a brief trip to Israel and Jordan I was sent to Paris in 1953 and continued there as a scholar until 1957. This was the year when I said goodbye to the priesthood, the Fathers of Zion and France, and started a new married life, becoming a university teacher in Britain, first in Newcastle (1957-1965) and then in Oxford. Having left Christianity, I decided to revert to my Jewish roots without embracing the practices of Judaism. My first wife Pamela died in 1993. In 1996 I married Margaret and adopted her son, Ian. We happily live in a charming house on the outskirts of Oxford, surrounded by a glorious garden, backing onto 700 acres of Bagley Wood.
John Scheffler was born into a family of agricultural labourers on October 29, 1887, in the village of Kálmánd, close to the city of Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare) in north-eastern Transylvania. Transylvania was part of Hungary until 1920 when the Trianon peace treaty transferred the whole region to Romania; in 1940, it was restored to Hungary, but in 1945 reverted to Romania.
Scheffler received his schooling and theological training at Szatmár, but in 1906 he entered the Divinity Faculty of the Péter Pázmány University of Budapest. He was ordained priest in 1910. Next followed two years in Rome, devoted to specialisation in canon law. By 1915 he was a doctor of theology and taught canon law, church history and theology in the seminaries of the dioceses of Szatmár and Nagyvárad (Oradea). He published a few conventional volumes of religious textbooks for schools, but was never engaged in advanced theology. If he had, he would never have tolerated the abysmal level of instruction to which the Szatmár students were subjected in the seminary under his ultimate control.
In 1942, when Transylvania was again Hungarian, he was made bishop of the diocese of Szatmár. In 1945 the territory came under Romanian Communist rule. Scheffler could have escaped the ensuing upheaval by accepting the appointment offered him by Pius XII to succeed the assassinated William Apor as bishop of Győr in western Hungary. He, however, successfully begged the Pope to allow him to stay among his own people.
The religious policy of the post-war Romanian Communist government was to unite the country’s Eastern Orthodox church and the Latin Catholics into a single national institution, and to force the Catholics to sever their links with Rome. Scheffler refused the headship of the new church. Deep-seated hostility reigned between the Orthodox Romanians and the Hungarian Roman Catholics, so that the governmental proposal was a non-starter.
In 1950, the communist security police detained all the un-cooperative Catholic bishops. Scheffler was first sentenced to a not particularly onerous two-year house arrest in a Franciscan convent. However, as he still refused to play the government’s game, in 1952 he was moved to a prison in Bucharest and, during the last two months of his life, to the dreaded Jilava jail. He, like all the other inmates, clerics and non-clerics, had to undergo deprivation and ill-treatment and his already deteriorating health was affected. (According to some accounts, he was repeatedly subjected to showers by boiling water. According to another version, the boiling shower happened only once.) He died on December 6, 1952.
John Scheffler behaved during the last two years leading to his death as a pious, traditional Catholic prelate of his generation. If at the end, he had been set free, his memory would have survived as that of a courageous man who stuck to his convictions whatever the circumstances. His beatification is entirely due to the fact that he ended his days in a prison of the hated regime.
In his anti-communist zeal, Pope John Paul II redefined martyrdom. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a martyr is a person who is put to death. For example, the greatest luminary of the ancient Church, Origen of Alexandria, who was severely tortured under the persecution of Decius in AD 250, but died of the ill-treatments four years later, was never recognised as a martyr. John Paul made the notion more elastic by removing execution as an essential ingredient of martyrdom. For him, it was enough that clerics, especially bishops, died in Communist jails. With the new definition in mind, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed John Scheffler a martyr and the ceremony of beatification took place in the cathedral of Satu Mare on July 3, 2011.
My personal knowledge of John Scheffler is rather superficial. It is linked to my arrival in September 1942 in the Szatmár seminary. We lived under the same roof as the bishop, and our paths crossed from time to time. If I remember correctly, soon after the start of the first academic year, we were introduced to Bishop Scheffler and had to kiss his pastoral ring. But the main venue of meeting was the nearby cathedral where the bishop celebrated solemn mass on major feast days and delivered sermons. I cannot recollect anything of his preaching. In September 1944 he survived the bombing by Soviet planes of the episcopal residence in which several priests, canons and theological students lost their lives.
In sum, I remember the Blessed John Scheffler as a brave, conventionally pious Hungarian bishop, wholly dedicated to church and Pope, whose elevation to martyrdom resulted from his imprisonment in Jilava that he courageously bore during the final two months of his life.
Szilárd Bogdánffy was was born on February 21, 1911, in Feketetó (Crna Bara), then southern Hungary and now part of Serbia. Both his parents were teachers. In 1925 he entered the gymnasium of the Piarists in Temesvár (now Timişoara in Romania) and after graduation, he was accepted as a student of theology in the diocesan seminary of Nagyvárad, where he was ordained priest in 1934. By this time Nagyvárad, renamed Oradea, had become part of the Romanian kingdom. He was sent to continue his theological studies at the University of Budapest and gained a doctorate with a dissertation on “Apocalyptics in the Synoptic Gospels”. (During our daily contact for the best part of two years, I never heard from him anything to suggest that he was an expert in the New Testament.)
On his return to Szatmár, he joined the staff of the local seminary and held the office of spiritual director when I was there between 1942 and 1944. I lost touch with him after May 1944.
As I mentioned earlier, after the end of the second world war the anti-religious campaign of the Romanian communist government sought to abolish all links between the Romanian Catholic Church and the Vatican. To counteract the communist persecution of the Church, the Holy See authorised the clandestine ordination of new bishops. The stratagem was soon detected by the Securitate police. Szilárd Bogdánffy was chosen by Rome and was secretly consecrated in February 1949 by the papal nuncio in Bucharest. His task was to work underground as auxiliary bishop of Satu Mare and bishop of Oradea. But he was an inexperienced agent and his cover was soon blown. Like Scheffler, he too was first invited to lead a separatist Church with no Vatican connections, but like Scheffler he declined the offer. As a result, two months after his episcopal ordination he was arrested and spent the next four years in various prisons, where he, like the other political inmates, was inhumanly treated. He suffered with humility. His last jail was at Aiud (Nagyenyed), where he died without medical attendance of pneumonia on October 3, 1953.
Bogdánffy’s fate was the mirror image of that of Scheffler. He behaved as a devout Catholic cleric was expected to do. He withstood Communist pressure and piously accepted the foreseeable consequences of his resistance: a premature death at the age of 42 after four years of imprisonment. Benedict XVI hailed him as a martyr of Communism.
The ceremony of beatification took place in the cathedral of Oradea on October 30, 2010, conducted by Cardinal Peter Erdő, Hungarian Archbishop of Esztergom, in association with Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
How do I remember Szilárd Bogdánffy? I was 18 years old when we first met in September 1942 and we were in daily contact until May 1944. He was a good-looking and friendly young priest, but his behaviour was that of a strictly conventional Hungarian clergyman. He became my confessor and spiritual adviser during those two years and I confided to him my problems and received textbook solutions.
On one occasion, however, matters became more serious. To give it in context, I must sketch my life in the Szatmár seminary. Having passed the final examination in my gymnasium with the highest honours, I set out starry-eyed to start my “higher” education in philosophy and theology. I was deeply disappointed. Apart from Bogdánffy’s non-academic talks on spirituality, I had to attend classes on scholastic philosophy and Christian apologetics, taught by the bursar, and a course on Church history delivered by the director of the seminary. The level of instruction was primitive. The lecturers read aloud from the textbooks, very occasionally adding a comment. They were bored and deadly boring.
I first decided to put up with the unavoidable and spent about one tenth of my time on coursework, enough to gain top marks in the twice-yearly examinations. In the rest of my time, I read literature, wrote poetry and, having found some books by Henri Bergson, tried to familiarise myself with his philosophy. That kept me reasonably pacified during the first year. However, by the start of the second year my patience snapped and I became profoundly unhappy. The only person I could approach was Bogdánffy.
I screwed up my courage, told him how I felt and that my sole intention was to give my best to the Church. To achieve this, I needed a greater challenge and timidly asked for transfer to the Central Seminary attached to the theological faculty of the University of Budapest, where Bogdánffy himself had obtained his doctorate. I was put in my place in no uncertain terms and felt totally devastated and humiliated. Bogdánffy did not try to placate me by telling me that there was no such provision in the budget, but maybe later on something might be done, or that in the worsening circumstances with anti-Semitism increasingly affecting all walks of life, it might be safer for me to lie low until the dawning of better days.
He appeared to be unable to grasp anything unconventional. Instead, he bluntly told me to exercise humility and obedience and accept without question, as was my duty, the decision of my superiors. The man whom I trusted showed not an ounce of sympathy. Never again did I seek his guidance. The close relationship between spiritual adviser and advisee abruptly came to an end. If I had been asked then whether Bogdánffy was or ever would become a saint, my answer would have been predictable. Today my milder reply to the same question would be: pass, but RIP.
William Apor constitutes a special case. Unlike Scheffler and Bogdánffy, he was a towering Church figure and my personal indebtedness to him is immeasurable.
Baron William Apor of Altorja was born on February 29, 1892, at Segesvár in Hungarian Transylvania of a noble family whose records are traceable back to the 13th century and possibly earlier. The Apors were granted the baronial title in 1713. The future bishop’s father was a high Hungarian official who shortly after William’s birth was transferred to the Habsburg imperial/royal administration in Vienna. It is there that the boy first went to school. He continued in an Austrian Jesuit college at Kalksburg, but to counteract his wholly German education he was sent for the final two years of grammar school to another Jesuit institution in Kalocsa in Hungary. At the end of his schooling he was admitted as a student for priesthood by his relation Count Nicholas Szécheny, the Hungarian bishop of Győr, who promptly despatched Apor for the next five years to the theological faculty of Innsbruck, also run by Jesuits. He gained (apparently just) a doctorate in theology in 1916. Meanwhile Bishop Szécheny was transferred to Nagyvárad and took Apor with him. Ordained priest in 1915, he served as prefect of the Nagyvárad theological seminary between 1917 and 1921. But his main place of attachment was to the city of Gyula, where he was curate from 1915 to 1917 and then parish priest for 20 years from 1921 to 1941. In 1929, he was given the title of “abbot-parish priest” to commemorate an extinct medieval abbey in the neighbourhood, granting him the right to wear an abbot’s hat and carry a crook during solemn church services. It was in Gyula that our paths first crossed after my family setted there in 1928. Concern for the poor was his distinctive mark during the years of depression, accompanied by a determination to protect the persecuted, i.e. the Jews, during the late Thirties and the war years. Finally, in 1941 the news that Pius XII had nominated Apor bishop of Győr both saddened and delighted the people of Gyula. He was consecrated in his parish church by Cardinal Justinian Serédi, prince-primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church, assisted by two other bishops. Apor left for his new seat and it was there that in October 1944 I met him for the last time in dramatic circumstances.
Apor played a leading role in the Hungarian episcopal assembly through his whole-hearted rejection of the anti-Jewish measures introduced by the government, and especially after the German takeover of the country in March 1944. As president since 1943 of the Holy Cross Society established to protect baptized Jews, he understandably displayed a particular concern for the members of his flock. He nevertheless condemned without reservation any legal discrimination based on racial theory. When the civil authorities ordered everyone considered Jewish to move into the newly-formed local ghettos, Apor openly pilloried from the pulpit those who claimed that there were people, groups or races that could be hated or tortured. To deprive innocent people of their freedom and civic rights was a flagrant denial of human and divine justice. He firmly remonstrated with the minister for home affairs, and when a priest sent by him to offer solace to Jews was refused entry to the ghetto by the police, he wrote to the prime minister and personally appproached the local Gestapo. When told that they were simply obeying Hitler’s orders, Apor retorted: “Tell the Führer that the divine law of justice is obligatory even for him.” Obviously all his efforts were of no avail.
After news from Auschwitz had reached the bishops, Apor — who had privileged information, his brother being Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican and his sister the head of the Hungarian Red Cross — urged the primate, Cardinal Serédi, to issue a pastoral letter condemning the persecution of the Jews. As the primate was dilly-dallying — he feared that such an intervention might engender increased cruelty and even endanger the Church — Apor wrote three further letters to the cardinal, pressing him to send an ultimatum to the government. Finally, by the end of June 1944 the letter was ready and was printed. But the plan was reported to the authorities (by Serédi?) and predictably its distribution was forbidden, so that it was never read in the churches.
By April 1945 Soviet troops were besieging Győr. Apor generously offered shelter to a large number of frightened civilians in the cellars of the bishop’s castle. On Good Friday, April 30, a group of drunken Russian soldiers burst into the episcopal residence looking for women. With noble courage, the bishop confronted them and ordered them to get out. One of the soldiers shot him three times and they all ran away. He died a martyr three days later on May 3, but the women were saved.
I first met William Apor in June 1931, when I was six years old. He explained to me what would happen at the baptismal ceremony. He had already been instructing my parents. I was already towards the end of my first year in a Catholic primary school where I was prepared for the great event. The baptism took place without witnesses. I suppose my parents wanted to keep it secret. Some years later I became an altar boy serving during mass and from time to time, on major feast days, we were invited to breakfast with the parish priest and the clergy. Glorious cups of coffee with frothy cream and delightful cakes are unforgettable memories and so are also the friendly words of “Mr Baron” as we used to refer to him. My father occasionally invited Father Apor to write articles in his newspaper on festive dates. The last memorable event connected with Gyula is my attendance at his episcopal ordination on February 24, 1941.
My next and definitely most momentous encounter with William Apor took place three years later, in October 1944. Having been sent away from my relatively safe seminary in Szatmár, I criss-crossed the country to end up in Sopron at the western end of Hungary. There I attended lectures at the theological college of the Dominicans and lived in private rented accommodation with bed and board. On October 15 all hell broke loose. While the Russian army was approaching Budapest, the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, was removed from office and the leader of the extreme Nazi Arrow-Cross party was made head of state. In the circumstances, to remain on my own in Sopron looked foolish. I had to move eastward towards the approaching Russians, but how? Then I remembered William Apor. His episcopal seat in Győr was less than 50 miles from Sopron. I quickly packed my belongings and caught a train for Győr. I was directed to the bishop’s palace, summoned all my courage and requested an audience with Apor. “Have you got an appointment?” I was asked, to which the answer was no. A thousand worrying thoughts passed through my mind. Was he there? Was he free? Above all, would he remember me? The secretary returned with a smile on his face: His Excellency would receive me at once. Of course he remembered me. He asked about my parents and expressed sorrow when I told him that they had both been deported and that I had no news from them. Then he inquired about me. I told him that I had been sent away from the seminary with an exemption certificate. He wanted to see it and and looked completely perplexed. In a mixture of legal and ecclesiastical gobbledegook it claimed that I was exempted from the anti-Jewish legislation because I was a deacon in the Church on account of having performed the role of a deacon at mass. I was, of course, not an ordained deacon, but it was hoped that the policeman reading the document would not know the difference. Fortunately I was never asked to produce it, so we will never know.
Bishop Apor in his noble simplicity would never have invented something so circuitous as my phoney document. Indeed, his inability to twist the truth led to the deportation and death of the only Jewish convert student at his seminary, the brother of Joseph Stiassny, my future colleague at the Fathers of Zion. It is on the record that later on Apor ordered his priests to provide Jews, if requested, with baptismal certificates. Did our meeting have anything to do with this?
At the end of a cordial audience, Apor inquired with a gentle smile whether he could do anything for me. Yes, I answered, please help me to get lost among the hundreds of students in the Central Seminary in Budapest. Without further ado, he went to his desk and wrote a longhand letter of recommendation, no doubt accepting responsibility for all the fees and living expenses I would incur. He signed the letter, sealed the envelope and gave me his blessing. I arrived in Budapest and was admitted to the seminary with no questions asked, regaining my freedom two months later thanks to the same Soviet army, some of whose soldiers assassinated my saintly benefactor.
So: Ave atque vale, Bishop Baron William Apor of Altorja. Or, to use the traditional Hebrew formula: Zikhronkhah livrakhah! May your memory be a blessing!
The English candidate for beatification, John Randal Bradburne, son of an Anglican clergyman and cousin of the playwright Terence Rattigan, was born on June 14, 1921, in Skirwith, Cumbria, and educated at Gresham’s School in Norfolk between 1934 and 1939. In 1940, he joined the 9th Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army and faced the Japanese invasion of Malaya. After the fall of Singapore, he escaped, spent a month in the jungle and managed to sail to Sumatra, whence he was rescued by the Royal Navy and returned to India. Apparently he was awarded the MC for his heroic escape, though he said he never received it. He ended the war in Burma with Orde Wingate’s Chindits, small special forces operating behind enemy lines.
After the war he took on odd jobs. He worked in forestry and did some schoolmastering, but to use the colloquial expression he was bitten by the religious bug. In 1947 he was received into the Catholic Church by the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey and tried without success to become a monk. Then he had a love affair which nearly led to marriage, but nothing lasted with John. During the Holy Year of 1950 someone gave him a small sum of money to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Once there, he decided to continue to Jerusalem. He set off, apparently with £5 in his pocket, and somehow got as far as Cyprus. There he approached an official for a loan to take him on to Haifa in Israel (Cyprus was then still a British colony). “Do you have a guarantor?” he was asked. “Why don’t you cable the British consul in Tripoli, who is my brother?” John replied. Philip Bradburne bailed him out.
He arrived in Haifa and hitch-hiked to Jerusalem, hoping to shelter with the Benedictines, who had a monastery on Mount Zion. So he asked the first woman he met the way to Zion. She directed him to the house of the Fathers of Zion, my then religious order. The superior, Father Pierre de Condé, received him cordially. John at once felt convinced that his arrival at the house of the Zion Fathers was a sign of divine vocation and expressed his wish to join the congregation. He was quickly shipped to Louvain, where the noviciate was rather short of fresh blood.
John arrived in late December 1950, the day after I was ordained priest, and attended my first mass. Full of joie de vivre, he had little understanding of what the congregation was about and was equipped only with an English public schoolboy’s French. He was truly a fish out of water and my colleagues did not have much time for him. His palpable assets were a beautiful singing voice, an all-pervasive musicality and a powerful though unbridled piety. I was his only friend and he became my first native English teacher. The kindly and patient novice master tried his best to train him, but John could not tolerate the “stuffy” life of the noviciate and after 18 months he decided to leave. He came to Paris, where I spent the summer of 1952, to say goodbye before setting off on a hitch-hiking trip to Jerusalem. He never got further than Naples, where he spent two years as sacristan and general factotum for an Italian village priest. He entertained himself and the locals by playing Bach on his recorder. On my return from my first visit to the Holy Land, we were supposed to meet at the port of Naples, but John did not turn up. I learned later that he had set out for the rendezvous but taken the wrong bus.
His father’s death put an end to John’s Italian escapade and he was summoned to look after his mother in the charming Devon town of Ottery St Mary. It was there that we met again on my first visit to England to attend an international orientalist congress in Cambridge in 1954. I stayed with him for a couple of days and discovered that he spent most of his time as a hermit: praying, making music and churning out reams of doggerels in a hut at the end of a large garden belonging to a friendly couple. John insisted that I should visit his hermitage and meet his friends, especially the lady. After a long discussion on religion she and I discovered that we shared the same ideas and I was invited to visit Ottery the following year for a holiday. It dawned on me then that what was happening was more than friendship. After two years of struggle I decided to join Pamela in March 1957, leaving behind priesthood and Church. Stateless, jobless and penniless, I launched into a seemingly hopeless adventure. Yet by providential accident, within six months I had embarked on a promising academic career, first at Newcastle and from 1965 at Oxford. By 1962 I had obtained British citizenship.
Poor John was totally devastated and blamed himself for what had happened to me. We remained in occasional contact until 1958 or 1959 by which time he was in London, employed as sacristan at Westminster Cathedral and housekeeper at the archbishop’s country residence in Hertfordshire. Then he disappeared and we learned that in 1962 he had left for what was then still Southern Rhodesia to join an old army friend who had become a Jesuit. John looked for a hut or a cave in Africa to pursue his hermit’s life as a member of the third order of St Francis, his spiritual hero.
He ended up in charge of the leper colony at Mtemwa. He lovingly cared for these outcasts and was loved by them in return. However, he was soon dismissed by the authorities as he refused to follow their rules: he referred to the lepers by name and not by registration number and insisted that each should receive one loaf of bread per week. Demoted, he returned to his hermitage, but continued to look after his lepers.
In the mid-1970s I helped a friend to get a professorship in theology at the University of Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rodesia. A couple years later he and his wife returned to England for a term’s leave at my college in Oxford. On our first meeting, he reported that a short while ago he had attended a dinner in Salisbury and set next to an odd-looking fellow, who told him that he knew me and my wife. It was John.
Sure enough, on May 15, 1978, a letter came from John written by hand and, as may be expected, in versified form, which after some initial personal remarks, developed into a disquisition on the Holy Trinity, but ended inconsequentially with a heartfelt last line: “Forgive me if I ever was unkind.”
He was forgiven and Pam’s poem in reply, mimicking John’s style and correcting his trinitarian theology, lovingly finished on behalf of both of us:
Heaven keep you safe and sound dear John
And bless the bed that you lie on.
This prayer was not heard in heaven. By 1979 the situation in Southern Rhodesia, soon to become Zimbabwe, had fast deteriorated. The colonial authorities advised all the whites to evacuate the region, but John was not going to abandon his beloved protégés. We learned from the British newspapers that on September 3, 1979, the “lepers’ saint”, “a man of love and peace who could not hurt a fly” — the words of an African friend — was shot dead by Mugabe’s marauding guerrillas while kneeling in prayer.
Two weeks later a requiem mass was celebrated in Salisbury Cathedral by the local archbishop. The process potentially leading to John’s beatification was launched by the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe, supported by the John Bradburne Memorial Society, which also collects money to support the Mtemwa leper camp.
Only heaven knows whether John Bradburne will eventually join the Blessed William Apor, Szilárd Bogdánffy and John Scheffler on the register of martyrs. This extraordinary character was very close to me. I have never forgotten his inimitable French, describing himself as “un vieux clou fou, mais toujours votre ami” (a crazy old nail, but always your friend). I can only conclude my reminiscences with:
Rest in peace, dear John! May the choir of the angels make you rejoice with Bach cantatas in your heavenly hermitage.
John Bradburne called himself a religious jester, a buffoon and a troubadour, to whom the epithet “God’s Fool”, coined by Julien Green for St Francis of Assisi, truly applied.