Top: Blessed Brenner János; Fr. Brenner József, his brother, the only surviving family member; Center: memorial chapel at Rábakethely; Bottom: scene at beatification ceremony
Brenner János was born in Szombathely, in western Hungary, in 1931, the second of three sons of a devout mechanical engineer and his wife. In 1941, the family moved to Pécs, in the southern part of the country, and all three boys began their studies at the Cistercian prep school there. (Eventually, all three of them became priests.)
After the war, the family moved back to Szombathely, and János continued his studies. He felt called to join the Cistercians, and when the Communist regime nationalized all religious schools, he went to the Cistercian monastery at Zirc, with the intention of joining the order. But soon thereafter, in 1950, the regime dissolved all religious orders, and János became a novice in secret. He completed his seminary studies at Győr, and was ordained in 1955.
Fr. Brenner was assigned as chaplain to Rábakethely, a small village now part of the town of Szentgotthárd near the Austrian border, where his zealous and enthusiastic work brought about a spiritual revival of the parish. The young priest had a cheerful and open demeanor, coupled with apostolic zeal, which brought many back to the Church. His kindness and charity were remembered by all who met him. His pastoral work, particularly his work with the youth, was regarded with suspicion by the regime which, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, considered the clergy to be their chief enemy. Secret police documents have been found, proving that Fr. Brenner’s every word and move was reported.
An unsuccessful attempt on his life was made in early December 1957, when logs were thrown on the road in front of his motorcycle. He knew that his life was in danger, telling a parishioner, “If I die, take my motorcycle; let it be yours.” Nevertheless, when two days before his 26th birthday, he was called from the rectory in the middle of the night, supposedly to a dying person, he set out without hesitation, carrying the Eucharist in a small bag around his neck. Not far from the rectory, he was attacked, beaten severely and stabbed 32 times. He died shielding the Blessed Sacrament with his hand.
To cover up its crime, the regime began a very slipshod investigation into the murder, interrogating many of the townspeople. At first they tried to find an amorous affair that would have been useful in anti-religious propaganda. But Fr. Brenner had lived a pure life, and no such affair could be unearthed. Then they came up with two “perpetrators” who had obviously been set up to take the blame. One of them was given a death sentence that was never carried out. Both were released after a prison term, and were even paid damages! But according to a priest who, by virtue of his ordination, is bound by the seal of the confessional, neither of them was the murderer. The identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators has remained a secret to this day.
The purpose of Fr. Brenner’s murder (Cardinal Amato called it “the mystery of evil”) was intimidation of the populace. But the plan did not succeed, as the people were even more devoted to the clergy after János’ martyrdom. (7 priests were murdered by the Communist regime at this time.)
For decades, not even the name of Fr. Brenner was allowed to be mentioned. When priests were interrogated by the secret police, they were often urged to “cooperate” by being asked: “Do you want to come to grief like Brenner János?”
In 1996, after the regime change, a memorial chapel to Fr. Brenner János was consecrated on the spot where he was martyred, and in 2001, the beatification process was started. He has been called a “Hungarian Tarcisius”, enduring martyrdom in defense of the Blessed Sacrament. (Tarcisius was a 3rd or 4th century Roman, probably a deacon, who was killed by a mob as he was bringing the Eucharist to the sick.)
His beatification on May 1st drew many groups of pilgrims, on foot and bicycle, not only from Hungary but also from the surrounding countries (which had been part of Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon severed them from the mother country). They came for this joyful occasion to celebrate “the civilization of love”.
viola vonfi is our correspondent from Stamford, CT