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Jail Birds - A history of incarcerated cardinals

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Cardinal Joseph Zen’s arrest in Hong Kong on Wednesday has prompted condemnation from democracy and religious freedom advocates, as well as a statement of concern from the Holy See.

While the 90-year-old cardinal was released on bail, Zen could face life in prison if convicted of colluding with a foreign government in his pro-democracy advocacy.

But Zen is not the first “Prince of the Church” with a record – a number of other members of the college of cardinals have spent time in prison throughout Church history.

The Pillar took a look at other arrested, indicted, or imprisoned cardinals in the life of the Church. These are their stories:

St. John Fisher

St. John Fisher. Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.

St. John Fisher was an English cardinal and martyr in the early 1500s. He was appointed both chancellor of Cambridge University and Bishop of Rochester in 1504, and he came to be known for his preaching and educational reforms. Fisher was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith during the Protestant reformation. When King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, Fisher – then a bishop – refused to take an oath acknowledging the new church and the king as its supreme head. Fisher was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was named a cardinal by Pope Paul III, who hoped the act would lead to clemency. Instead, Fisher was found guilty of treason and beheaded on June 22, 1535. He was declared a saint in 1935 and shares a June 22 feast day with St. Thomas More.

Aloysius Stepinac

Aloysius Stepinac. Public domain.

Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac opposed both the Nazi and communist regimes in Croatia in the mid 1900s. As Archbishop of Zagreb, he organized hiding places and humanitarian aid for Jews and other persecuted groups during the Holocaust. He also spoke out against totalitarian ideologies in homilies and speeches that made him a target of the regimes. Stepinac was arrested in 1946. He was convicted of treason by the communist Yugoslav government and served five years in prison before being moved to house arrest.

Stepinac was made a cardinal in 1953, while under house arrest. He died in 1960, and was declared blessed in 1998.

Nguyễn Văn Thuận

Nguyễn Văn Thuận.

Văn Thuận was Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon in 1975 when the city came under the control of North Vietnam. He was arrested by communist authorities and placed in a re-education camp for 13 years, most of which were spent in solitary confinement. The bishop’s reflections and prayers during his imprisonment were later published in a book, The Road of Hope. In 1988, Văn Thuận was transferred to house arrest, and was subsequently forced to leave the country. He moved to Rome and worked at the International Catholic Commission for Migration before becoming president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

He was made a cardinal in 2001, a year and a half before his death of cancer. Cardinal Văn Thuận was declared venerable in 2017.

George Pell

Cardinal George Pell. Image Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Cardinal George Pell was serving as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy when Australian authorities announced in 2017 that he was being charged with sexually abusing two choir boys in Melbourne in 1996. Pell denied the charges, and his attorney maintained that the alleged crimes would have been impossible, given the crowded venue and Pell’s obstructing Mass garments.

Pell was convicted on five charges of abuse in December 2018 and sentenced to six years in prison. He spent 13 months in prison while appealing. The verdict was initially upheld by an appellate court before it unanimously overturned by Australia's High Court in April 2020, after which Pell was released.

József Mindszenty

József Mindszenty. CC-BY-SA3.0

Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty was arrested multiple times for opposing fascism and communism in Hungary in the early and mid 1900s. Outspoken against totalitarian regimes, he resisted giving up control of the country’s Catholic schools. His most prominent arrest took place in 1948, by the Hungarian secret police. He was tortured and forced to confess to various crimes, for which he was sentenced to life in prison. Mindszenty was released during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. When communist forces invaded the country again later that year, the cardinal was granted asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, where he remained for 15 years.

Mindszenty died in 1975 and was declared venerable in 2019.

Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei

Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. Public domain.

As Bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei opposed the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’s efforts to extend communist control over the Catholic Church in the country. He spent 30 years in prison, and became a hero of the underground Church. In June 1979, Pope John Paul II named Kung a cardinal in pectore, meaning that the appointment was made secretly, to protect Kung and the local Catholic community from harm. Kung himself was not aware that he had been made a cardinal until he was released from prison in 1988. Kung died in 2000 of stomach cancer. In 2020, Cardinal Zen accused the Vatican of stalling on Kung’s beatification process in order to avoid offending Chinese authorities.

Angelo Becciu

Angelo Becciu. Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you are a reader of The Pillar, you are likely aware of the ongoing trial of disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu. The cardinal has not, as of now, spent time in prison, but he has been stripped of the rights and privileges of the role of cardinal, and is facing a criminal trial. Becciu has been charged with embezzlement and abuse of office in connection with a series of financial scandals at the Vatican Secretariat of State, where he served in the role of sostituto from 2011-2018. Becciu has adamantly maintained his innocence, even going so far as to sue an Italian news magazine over claims that his reputation had been damaged, harming his chances of being elected pope one day.

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