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A prelate against Communism. Áron Márton, Roman Catholic Bishop of Alba Iulia (1938-1980)

The attitude alluded to in the title is only one component of the strong and complex personality of Áron Márton. His biography tells of a man who was modest, courageous and a leader of men. He was born as a humble farmer, but his career followed a different path, as a soldier, a priest and later a bishop. His oppositional stances, first against the Hungarian authorities’ deportation of Jews to concentration camps, and later to the Communist regime, brought him many difficulties in life, including imprisonment, but he is remembered for steadfastness and courage with which he tackled these challenges, and as a leader whose actions were governed by a great love of humanity.

Áron Márton was born on 28 August 1896 in Csíkszentdomokos, in Ciuc County, nowadays Sândominic, Harghita County, near the source of River Olt, to a farming family. In this area, with its harsh climate, the inhabitants had to work hard for their living. One can imagine that his native land hardened Áron Márton’s character and taught him that life offers nothing without determination. He attended primary school in his native village, then the lower gymnasium at Șumuleu and Miercurea Ciuc. He had been attracted to the priesthood since childhood, and therefore continued his studies at the Superior Roman Catholic Gymnasium in Alba Iulia. His fate, like that of millions of young men of his generation, was disturbed by the outbreak of the First World War. On 15 June 1915, three days after he obtained his baccalaureate, he was mobilized and sent to the Italian front. After attending the Officers’ School in Sibiu in the summer of 1916, he was promoted to lieutenant. He then participated in operations on the southern and the eastern front. He was wounded four times, but learned much about leadership during his time in the army.

After demobilization, as an ethnic Hungarian of the Roman Catholic confession, he keenly felt the confusion created by the change in Transylvania’s political status and national governance. For a while he remained in his native village, working the land with his parents and reading when he found free time. He understood that the depression he felt in this post-war interlude could not go on indefinitely. He was not satisfied with any of the occupations he tried over a period of several months, but found himself once again becoming inclined towards the priesthood. On 11 October 1918, he enrolled at the Theological Institute in Alba Iulia, and was soon considered something of a rising star in the diocese by both professors and his peers.

He was ordained as a priest in 1924 by Bishop Gusztáv Károly Majláth. However, he did not limit himself to priestly activities: he also organised and led several cultural and spiritual associations in the Szekler area. For a while he worked as teacher in the orphanage in Sibiu, where he strove to polish his Romanian and German. In 1930 he became the archivist of the Roman Catholic Bishopric of Alba Iulia. In 1932, he became the priest of St Michael’s Church in Cluj, where he edited a magazine called Erdélyi Iskola (Transylvanian School) which sought to stimulate Roman Catholic education in the province.

A crucial moment in his career took place seven years later, when Pope Pius XI appointed him Bishop of Alba Iulia. He was ordained bishop on 12 February 1939, in St Michael’s Church, Cluj. In the speech he gave on this occasion, he emphasised that the inhabitants of Transylvania speak three different languages and pray in seven different rites, but that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be a way of bringing them closer.

Áron Márton became the Bishop of Alba Iulia at an unfavourable political and military moment. On 1 September 1939, the Second World War began. On 30 August 1940 the Dictate of Vienna was signed. He considered it “a fantasy”. On 18 May 1944, while he was back in Cluj, ordaining priests at St Michael’s Church, he spoke out against the actions of the Hungarian authorities, who were at that time concentrating the Jewish population into ghettos, ready to be deported. In his work on the history of Jews in Transylvania, Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, who was at that time the Chief Rabbi of Cluj, praised Áron Márton for having courageously engaged in trying to save those destined for the gates of concentration camps: “In those tragic times, on 18 May 1944, in St Michael’s Church, the human magnificence of Bishop Áron Márton shined. He was the only Magyar bishop in Transylvania who raised his voice, prayed, and demanded Magyar society help the Jewish population confined in ghettoes and awaiting deportation”. Moreover, he sent Prime Minister Döme Sztójai a letter expressing his utter astonishment regarding the Hungarian government’s inhumane policy to exterminate the Jews. By taking this stance, the bishop incurred the hostility of the authorities in Cluj. But in later years, his solidarity towards the Jews of Cluj earned him, post-mortem, the honorary citizenship of Israel and the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”.

One might say that in 1944 Áron Márton, along with Transylvania, passed from one dictatorship to another. After 23 August, the first steps for the accession of Communists to power were made. In a pastoral letter, he ordered the clergy to stay away from politics, meaning the extreme left. He understood clearly that the Popular Magyar Union was only an instrument of the Communists. In 1948 he ordered the Roman Catholic priests in his diocese to put all their efforts into rejecting the abolition of the Greek Catholic Church, pointing out that after the persecutions of the Greek Catholics would come those against the Catholics.

Áron Márton was detained in 1949 and was sent, without a fair trial, to various prisons including Jilava, Aiud, Sighet and Bucharest, until he was sentenced to life in prison on the accusation of state treason. He spent six years in confinement and was freed on 25 March 1955. He retook his office as Bishop, enjoying relative freedom of movement. The authorities were, however, uneasy about this situation and confined him to house arrest, which lasted from 1957 to 1967. This restriction was only cancelled when the government in Bucharest realised that it would damage Romania’s international image even further.

Once Áron Márton could travel again, he made three visits to Rome, presenting to Pope Paul VI the true situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Romania. He regarded the prison in which he spent many years a “school of love” which taught him to approach each person with love, regardless of their ethnic origin or religion.

Old age brought illness and much pain. Bishop Áron Márton died on 20 September 1980 and was buried five days later in the crypt of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Alba Iulia. The merit he earned as priest and prelate; his courage and devotion in serving the church, accepting suffering and being deprived of freedom; and the humanity he showed to Roman Catholics and in general to all humans, regardless of religion, have contributed to the process of his beatification. (V.M.)