Conversation with Father Bernard, a Cistercian monk who was forced to leave his home country in 1956
In a previous article, we covered the book launch of Fr Bernard. Prior to the event, we interviewed this accomplished Cistercian monk regarding the history of his vocation, his escape from communist Hungary, and what differences he sees between the Catholic Church in the USA and Hungary.
I am told that you followed your brother to the United States who had to leave Hungary because he was a priest?
No, he still was not ordained yet. He went to Cistercian Saint Emeric High School of Budapest where we are now and graduated from here in 1943. It was then that he entered the Cistercian monastery at Zirc. Later, Abbot Vendel sent him to the West with some other monks because he knew that the communists would close the monastery. In 1947, he went to Austria, where he was ordained a priest. Curiously, I was ordained eighteen years later, in the same church and by the same bishop. I celebrated my first Mass in that church, and the homily was given by the same priest. But there was one small difference: my parents were allowed come to my ordination. This was not the case with my brother as the authorities did not allow them to leave Hungary so that they could participate in my brother’s ordination.
When did you follow your brother to the US?
When the revolution of 1956 was over, my mother told me: “Go, look for your brother, and join him.”
You used to go a Catholic, Cistercian High School. Did you get into trouble because of this or were you ever harassed by the government?
That was the reason why I had to leave. My father was a police officer in the eleventh district during the Horthy era, and my brother was a priest in the USA. It was clear that I could not continue my studies here in Hungary.
You arrived in America in 1958, and you became a priest there. Later, you celebrated many Masses in Hungary, too. How do you prepare homilies in Hungarian and in English? Do you talk to the American people differently?
I have lived in America for sixty years, so English as a language is much easier for me than Hungarian. I think in English. For that reason, writing a homily in English is easier for me than writing in Hungarian. I usually cheat when I write in Hungarian. I use an online translator. I write in the English word that I am searching for in Hungarian, and I choose the word that I need from the four or five options that the computer proposes. I could not write it alone without this aid.
As regards the difference between talking to Hungarians or Americans, I think there is just one big difference. In America, we say ‘you’ for everyone. There is no distinction whether you are talking to an old lady or to a young boy; you say ‘you’ to both of them.
In Hungary however, you address an older lady differently than a young boy. There are rules that determine how you address people and they are not always clear —for example when you are talking to a big crowd.
But I do not have a problem with this when I talk to my Hungarian brothers and sisters. I say “dear brothers and sisters, what is your opinion about…”, or “be good”, and care not if there is an old man whom I should be saying: “Be good, Sir.” I talk to all of them as I talk to my friends.
Is there any difference in the attitude of young people towards faith and religion between the two countries?
Our school is a very popular school in Dallas, and our students come from a deeply religious family background. They take their faith and their relation with God seriously. Here, in the Saint Emeric High School, I also like to visit the classes, but I do not know the children as well. I do not know what goes on inside their heads or how their relationship with God is. They are talented, good-natured children. We are especially graced with an abundance of altar servers; there are more than thirty of them here that assist at Mass, and that is wonderful.
One final question: we still have not talked about that when you decided to become a priest? When you left Hungary you still had not thought about serving God as a priest, had you?
No, when I ran away, I was still a normal young man (laughs). Moreover, upon graduation, I was still undecided. I started studying at the Catholic University in Dallas, where many Cistercian monks taught, including my brother. It was there that I began to hear the call of God as a strong force that attracted me to him and it was there that I decided to enter the Cistercian order in Dallas.
Father Bernard has been a member of the Cistercian order since 1967, much to the delight of his older friends and his students.