The martyr priest died fulfilling his duty

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  • 2018. April 29.

On 1 May János Brenner, who was killed on the night of 14 December 1957 during Kádár’s retaliation period, is going to be beatified in Szombathely. The priest’s canonization was decided by Pope Francis in November. (The martyr was about 26 years old at the of his death).

Attila Viktor Soós, member of the Committee of National Remembrance, a historian expert on the beatification of János Brenner held a talk in the Szent István Centre for Culture and Religious Education. He described the church policy of the dictatorship through János Brenner’s life and martyrdom, with the help of remaining resources and memoirs. Attila Viktor Soós highlighted in his talk that János Brenner might be the saint of the coming Eucharistic congress. The martyr died fulfilling his duty, believing that he was going to a dying person he was protecting the Eucharist to his last breath. He was another saint who showed persistence guarding and protecting the Eucharist so that no harm could be done to it. János Brenner’'s death is a reminder that we might not have the proper respect for the Eucharist. We can hope, however, that we get closer to Christ by the martyr priest.

János Brenner was born in Szombathely on 27 December 1931, as the second son of three in the family. He started his studies in the episcopal elementary school in Szombathely. In the autumn of 1941 the family moved to Pécs, and he continued his studies in the practising secondary school and then in the Cistercian secondary grammar school. From 1946 he was a student of the Premonstratensian secondary grammar school in Szombathely. He finished his studies in Zirc as an oblate and applied to be a novice in the Cistercian order. He was given the name Anastasius when he joined. He had only a small share of peaceful life, devoted to God, as the attack on religious orders did not spare Zirc, either. János Brenner became a secular student of the Academy of Theology in Budapest for two semesters, while he was studying as a novice in secret. In 1951 he made his first religious profession. When the order’s leadership realized that the communist regime was not going to pass, they tried to ensure the future of their students by asking for their acceptance in diocesan seminars. That is how János Brenner was taken as a seminarist in the Szombathely diocese. In the next year most of the seminars were eliminated. He and his classmates were taken to the seminar in Győr. He was ordained as a priest by bishop Sándor Kovács on 19 June 1955 in the cathedral in Szombathely. He celebrated his new mass in Saint Norbert’s Church in the city. He was made a chaplain in Rábakethely, in the second district of Szentgotthárd, near the border. Four filial churches belonged to the parish: Magyarlak, Máriaújfalu, Zsida and Farkasfa. Vicar Ferenc Kozma set a good example for the young priest, and he helped him a lot, and Father János was always there for the members of the congregation. He respected and loved people, he was not selective. One of the members of the congregation recalls about the devoted chaplain: “He had a certain radiance about him, which cannot be explained. People liked him, and they tries to go where he was and listen to him. There was something about him which attracted people. That was his biggest crime: young people liked him and so did the old ones. He gained a lot of devotees for the Church and the Faith. He could not pass a person and not stop and say a few words. There was a kind smile on his face all the time... He really preached the word of God and gave evidence of his faith every moment. It was good to confess to him, because he could offer a piece of advice for the road.” That was, of course, frowned upon by the Communist establishment, especially because he supervised young people as well. His pupils of religious studies and his altar boys told about the serious work he did by not only holding religious studies lessons but doing sports and playing with them. The commissioner for church affairs wanted to replace the young priest. After the bishop informed him, János Brenner just said: “I am not afraid, I would like to stay.” The bishop stood up for the chaplain, and he decided to stay in Rábakethely. The commissioner of church affairs said: “All right, you’ll see the consequences!” János Brenner was aware that practising the profession of a priest was even more challenging at the time when the religious orders were broken up. A thought from his spiritual diary indicates that: “Lord, you know I do not seek happiness in this life, I placed everything I have in you... Lord, I know you do not spare the ones you love from suffering, because we benefit from it beyond measure.” One autumn night, when he was going home from Farkasfa by scooter, some unidentified people threw logs in front of him, but he avoided them by manoeuvring well. When he arrived home, he said: “They weren't lucky”  and he was cheerful about it. To this day, we do not know exactly what happened on that night on the turn of 14-15 December 1957. There are only pieces of information available  testimonies of suspects, convicts, recollections of some witnesses and the leads by which Frigyes Kahler, legal historian reconstructed the story. According to eye witnesses, Szentgotthárd was bustled with activity on 14 December. There was an evening programme organised for council members and the policemen’s ball was on at the same time. The gravedigger in Rábakethely was preparing a grave for a funeral the next day and he saw a group of people wearing leather coats around the church and the graveyard. The vicar had gone to Farkasfa to do Christmas confessions. He was staying at a family for the night, because he was celebrating the mass in the morning. Around midnight a seventeen-year-old young man knocked at the vicarage, asking that his severely ill uncle should be attended to and given the last rites. János Brenner went over to the church; he hanged the patient care pouch around his neck in which he was carrying the holy sacrament. He set off with the man on the pitch black path over the hill towards Zsida. On the way he was attacked a number of times but he managed to run away. Finally they caught him close to the allegedly ill person’s house. This proves that his murderers knew well that János Brenner took his profession seriously. That is why they were waiting for him at the given address. And on that spot he was killed with thirty-two stabs, with the holy sacrament hanging around his neck. According to the autopsy report the hyoid bone and the cartilage of the larynx had multiple fractures. That is caused by strangling, the injury is a result of somebody stepping on the neck, with force. There were traces of soil on the white collar of the cassock and the outline of a soul could be seen. They did not only want to kill him, they wanted to defile him. The investigation was only a show; everybody was a suspect, even the parish priest. Finally, an individual was sentenced to death by the district and county court, but he was acquitted by the Supreme Court. Later the boy was convicted, who called our János Brenner from the vicarage. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8)  János Brenner’s motto chosen for his first mass was a guiding principle of his life as a priest. He lived and died in this spirit for Christ and for those in his care. In his short, God-loving life everything was for his good, even (or especially) death, as his blood is planting seeds for Christianity. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” János Brenner did that: he gave his life for a non-existent ill person, for his profession, for Christ. He was capable of all sacrifices. He was unafraid of persecution and threats. In search of the motif for the murder, a number of accusations were brought up against the young priest during the investigation (jealousy, human trafficking), but they could not find anyone who would say anything bad about him. At the end of the investigation somebody said: “You have just conducted János Bren’s canonization trial”. The life of an honest priest, faithful to God, with a pure soul was revealed for everybody. He was not a human trafficker; he was a fisherman. Source: (István Császár – Attila Soós Viktor)

- What does János Brenner's sacrifice mean to us today?

  • The beatification is not just a celebration of the Hungarian Church but of the whole nation, as this martyrdom represents an attitude against the Kádár-regime. This innocent young man was killed, because the ardent pastoral work he was doing was unacceptable for the local, Vas county bodies of the party state. We are in the time of the retaliation wave after the 1956 revolution. Some sources indicate that Father János, the chaplain of Rábakethely had been threatened an attacked before, and there had been talk of his relocation. He was murdered in the end.

- Father János did not participate in the revolution.

  • If we look at his sermons and pieces of writing, we do not come across any political issue or topics of public affairs. He was revolutionist in the sense that he took his mission as a priest most seriously, and for that he must be an example for priests today. For the wider public, his determination and vocation can serve as an ideal  the persistence to do an assigned task.

- It is 30 years after the political transformation. Why can his beatification take place only now?

  • I met János Brenner’s brother, Father József in 1997, when I was 17, and we started to look for people who might have known him through his connections, and we made interviews with them with Father István Császár. The procedure officially started in 1999, and for a couple of years the data were being compiled. We needed the documentation of the investigation of the time, which was finally found in the archives of the capital city, attached to the court case files, all about a thousand pages.

- So does that mean that the police took it so seriously to find the murderers of someone who was considered to be a reactionist at the time?

  • No, but truth be told, a lot of people were interrogated, and the reports are in the documentation. At the same time the testimonies of those who were close to Father János were removed. The authorities were not after the truth, they were trying to build fables based on the witnesses. First they created a story based on a crime of passion, saying there was a man who was jealous of Father János, because he was on friendly terms with his wife. However, neither of the couple was around at the time of the murder. Then they tried to prove that the perpetrators wanted the money that was put aside for the church that was to be built in Magyarlak, but that proved to be untrue as well. The third idea was that the family of one of the convicted people, Ferenc Tóka held a grudge against Father János, because he helped Ferenc’s brother to become a priest. The political officers of the County Police Department were leading the investigation, who were conducting surveillance on the church. In the procedure, the famous canine, Kántor was used, and we also know today that he picked up a scent, but his owner held him back, and prevented him from leading to the real perpetrators.

- Ferenc Tóka was sentenced to death in the end.

  • Yes, but the charges were dropped due to the absence of evidence. Eight year later a drunk young man, Tibor Kóczán was apprehended for unauthorized border crossing. He was the person, who called away Father János from the vicarage and he admitted, that he had been involved in the crime. Parallelly, two high-ranking officials, Károly Dabad Deputy Minister for Defence and Károly Kis, member of the Presidential Council interceded, so that Tóka would be acquitted due to absence of offence. Moreover, he was given a compensation of 60 thousand forints in the 1960s.

- To what extent was this case represented in the contemporary media?

  • It hardly appeared in the press. It is an important to mention that there was a police ball the day before the tragedy, and presumably the perpetrators were coming from there. They stabbed the victim thirty-two times with two knives, hit him on the head many times, broke his rib and stepped on his neck. For this brutal murder a spot had to be secured. We know that when Kóczán went home that night wearing clothes covered in blood, his mother asked about it, and some months later a soldier shot her to death on a corn field. Now it seems that the documentation of that case needs to be revisited, because it might take us closer to the truth. Another important detail is that political officers, who used to harass and pressurize priests later threatened church officials that they would end up like Father Brenner. At the same time the authorities were trying to make all the leads and recollections disappear, and until the political transformation there was a news blackout on the case. This story also proved that the regime continued to be intensely anti-Church until the mid-sixties, to the same extent it was in the fifties. At the time János Kádár said things like religious congregations could be handled with machine guns. The intention to intimidate does not need pointing out.

- Is the remembrance of church persecution present in today’'s society?

  • It could be more significant. The same way there is a museum on 1956, there is a need for an exhibition on church persecution in Hungary. The great number of participants in the beatification on Tuesday indicates a certain devotion to the matter. From those who have been recently canonized, Father János is the closest to us, with his smiling looks that touch so many souls, along with his path as a priest and his persistence. It is important that the message reaches as many people as possible: we need heroes and ideals that we can present to society.

(Extract from 'Thirty-two stab wounds'. The interview was published in Magyar Hírlap on 30 April 2018)


Attila Viktor Soós