BY: JOE FARNED
As I marched to up to the monastery one Thursday afternoon, a small, blue Volkswagen rumbled up the hill and pulled into a parking spot across from the monk’s quarters. I suspected that Father Pius — an eighty-three year old monk whom I was scheduled to interview — was the hunched figure with silvery, gray hair in the driver’s seat. My suspicions were confirmed as the door eased open. Protractedly, a cane emerged, followed by feet in well-shined black loafers, succeeded by an aged man in a black robe upon whom the weight of the world and gravity had taken its toll. I approached and, speaking with deliberation, greeted him.
“Hello!” I enunciated.
Unfazed, he raised his head to meet my gaze, and bluntly questioned, “Are you the one?”
“Yes, I believe so,” I stumbled, caught somewhat off guard. I had arranged with Brother Edward to interview Father Pius a few days prior, but was unsure how aware Father Pius was of my plans.
Noting a plastic bag in his hand opposite of his cane, I offered, “May I take that bag for you, Father Pius?”
“No,” he replied, with tinge of disgust and insult, “it is very light.” His utterance of this simple comment was laden with potent, yet unspoken meaning. The Father’s stubbornness and consummate self-dependence revealed a lifetime of self-sufficient struggle, a certain grit which manifested itself in the way he pressed forward with cane in hand.
Father Pius and I walked into the Monastery, and, after dropping the plastic bag into the kitchen, he gave me an abridged tour of the facilities. Five minutes later, we found ourselves in the well-furnished reception room. The Father invited me sit on a plush couch, situated between two 1930s lamps, each with intricately colored glass shades. Meanwhile, he lowered himself into a cushioned, beige seat.
“This is very comfortable!” I remarked.
“I do not like these plush seats,” Father Pius retorted. “They are not good for my back. I would rather sit in a hard chair.”
I was yet again struck by the Father’s austerity and self-reliance, which he so ostentatiously exhibited. Hoping to ascertain the origins of his idiosyncrasies, I launched into the interview.
Born in January 1930, Father Pius Horvath was raised in Izsa, Slovakia. He was the son of a blacksmith and the blacksmith’s wife; he had only one sibling. The small village of Izsa, he explained, lay along the River Danube, which delineated the border between Hungary and Slovakia. The border represented an inhibiting physical boundary, but Hungarian culture nonetheless pervaded across the water. In the Slovak region of Father Pius’ birth, over one million Hungarian minorities resided, and, as such, his childhood was heavily influenced by Hungarian institutions.
“My education was based on the Hungarian system,” he explained. “But, when World War Two broke out, my education was unfortunately shortened.” In July 1941, the Kingdom of Hungary was invaded by Germany. Shortly thereafter, it was forced into the Tripartite Pact, which required the largely unwilling Hungarians to fight alongside the Nazis until 1945.
At first, I disregarded the Father’s comments about his education, presuming them to just be non-sequiturs produced by a drifting, nostalgic mind. Lack of formal schooling, I assumed, was just a footnote in his life of suffering under Nazi and Soviet governments — surely there were more pressing issues! Thus, instead of asking him to elaborate upon this point, I pressed forward, asking, “What was your life like under the Nazi regime? Did you feel threatened?”
“Very bad days” abounded, he recalled, for “Hungary had no choice in the matter of its allegiance.”
Neither did Father Pius, who illustrated this point with an anecdote. A few years after the German invasion, while still living in Izsa, six Nazis marched into his village and began to recruit for Hitler’s youth. A stout fisherman, well known in the village, was delegated the task of rounding up children fit for service. Father Pius, undoubtedly, was to be part of this group.
“Don’t worry,” the fisherman assured the Nazis, “please, don’t worry! I will take care of this matter with the children.”
The Nazis were oblivious to the fisherman’s deceitful intentions. Satiated by the fisherman’s categorical obedience, they blindly marched out of the village. The fisherman, as instructed by the Nazis, hurriedly assembled Izsa’s children.
“Get the hell out of here!” he wisely ordered them, this time to the contrary of the Nazis’ instructions. Father Pius listened and fled to his uncle’s house, where he stayed for several months.
That same year, Father Pius returned to his parents’ home in Isza. However, yet again, his life was fundamentally altered as the government in Hungary was yet again overthrown, and any semblance of peace and stability yet again shattered. As the Nazis left in 1945, the Russians — who sought to impose an authoritarian Communist rule — arrived.
“For me, personally, the loss was great because they had closed the schools,” he interjected.
“Weren’t you under threat, though? Didn’t you have more serious issues to worry about?” I implored. The Hungarian monks who had founded the Priory in 1957, my classmates and I had always been taught, fled a chaotic and war-torn Hungary in the midst of the 1956 revolution.
“People put you into a category,” he replied exasperatedly. “They believe that you were always in a situation that was dangerous or life threatening.”
His situation was not so, he asserted. I was astonished — I realized that not only I harbored misconceptions about the monks’ lives, but so did the school as a whole. Moreover, the foundation of my interview — Father Pius’ ostensible status as a refugee — had been shattered.
“Did you see the video that they did last year about the monks?” he questioned me.
“Uh, yes, I think I did,” I stumbled. “They showed it in the PAC.”
“I didn’t like that video. It started with those photos of the revolution.” I remembered the photos. The black and white still frames captured the images of furious protestors assaulting Russian soldiers, broken windows and clothes littering the streets, and imposing Soviet tanks rolling towards innocent-appearing Hungarian citizens.
“That’s not how it was for me. The majority of the country was very peaceful during that time,” Father Pius explained. “My little village, Izsa, in the countryside was unaffected.”
“So, Father, then why did you live Slovakia, then Hungary?” I asked, somewhat bewilderedly. “What factors contributed to that decision?”
No factor, Father Pius explained, was greater than his desire to complete his education. Oftentimes, with his friends, he crossed the Danube — first bribing fisherman to take him across, who in turn bribed the guards on the Hungarian side — so that he could study for brief periods of time in Hungarian schools. Nonetheless, while imprisoned in Slovakia, his twenty friends and he were often forced to study independent of teachers, or in decrepit, cold, abandoned schoolhouses.
“Were you able to get an education of any quality?” I pondered.
“We never felt sorry for ourselves,” Father Pius quickly pointed out though, seemingly embarrassed by what seemed to be a complaint about the quality of his life. “We simply worked hard.”
In 1948, Father Pius made a decisive and fateful decision. He crossed the River Danube into Hungary, where he was accepted into and began his studies at the Pannonhalma monastery. However, several months into his studies, he became cognizant of the fact that he was abandoning his life and family in Slovakia. The Russians closed the local monastery, robbing him of a future opportunity to return to and live in Izsa.
His ties with his past life essentially severed, Father Pius began to take note of the exodus out of Hungary to the West.
“The first people fled because they — or their business interests — had been compromised by the Communists. The second group fled because of poor living conditions and poverty.”
The Father’s fate of joining these groups was realized when the Russian invaders compromised his studies at Pannonhalma. Under recently instituted Russian policy, only a few monasteries had been allowed to stay open, mainly for purposes of propaganda. The Communists sought to prove to the capitalist, outside world that freedom of religion existed and flourished within Hungary. However, most educational institutions had been closed or severely undermined, and Father Pius was unable to pursue his studies to a satisfying extent.
As a result, Father Pius was dispatched to a Hungarian village as a priest. The village’s previous priest had been suspended by the Russians but purportedly was to return in the near future.
After taking an examination one weekend outside of the village, the Father went to a friend’s house, along with six of his fellow priests. The friend explained that their monastic superior was offering them the opportunity to leave the country, such that they could pursue their education. The friend was to leave in the coming days and asked who was willing to come with him.
“I will!” Father Pius exclaimed unexpectedly, surprising even himself.
However, when the friend’s mother discovered her son’s plans, she wouldn’t allow him to go. Rather, Father Pius and his six friends all took flight together.
“The border with Austria was unprotected because the Soviet tanks couldn’t easily reach it,” Father Pius explained.
In the dark of night, the cold, hungry group of students crowded into a truck, so crowded that “we couldn’t even sit on the floor.” That evening in 1956, Father Pius left Communist Hungary and entered into free Austria.
In November of 1956, Father Pius began university in Freeburg, Switzerland, and in 1960, after graduating with degrees in German and French literature, and Medieval history, moved to the United States. He consummated his life-long yearning for education after receiving his M.A. in German Literature from Stanford University.
At the beginning of the interview, Father Pius had exuded a certain sense of toughness, world-weariness, and self-reliance. However, as the interview progressed, this façade melted away and was replaced by an unbridled sense of optimism.
“Joe — that is your name, yes? — even in hard times, like under the Nazis and Russians,” he explained, ”people are always people, and people are always good.”
I nodded in agreement. Now was not the time to engage in a philosophic argument, I noted.
“Do you know what the one question I always asked any soldier was?” he inquired.
“No, Father, I don’t,” I replied blandly.
“‘How is your family?’” Father Pius replied. “Finding that shred of simple humanity in people, that desire to be loved, has saved me more times than you can imagine.”