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Sara Salkahazi, Hungary's Martyr of Charity

Interview With Cardinal Peter Erdo

BUDAPEST, Hungary, SEPT. 23, 2006 (Zenit) - Hungary witnessed a first-of-its-kind event last Sunday with the beatification of Sara Salkahazi.

To reflect on the meaning of this celebration and to know more about the personality of the new blessed, we interviewed Cardinal Peter Erdo, primate of Hungary, before the beatification.

Q: Of what importance is this event?

Cardinal Erdo: First I wish to say that the last canonization that took place in Hungary was in 1083, at a time when there was still no technical distinction between beatification and canonization. Therefore, it is correct to say that it is the first beatification that is effected in Hungary.

Above all it is a great joy, not only for Catholic believers but for the whole society: a completely extraordinary event. And it is also very important that all this is happening in the year of Hungary's jubilees, in a year that the Hungarian episcopal conference has declared a year of prayer for the spiritual renewal of the Magyar nation. Above all it is the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution.

What does this beatification mean for us in the city of Budapest? It means that a woman of today, of the 20th century, let us say an ordinary woman, that is, not aristocratic or of the royal household, can live the Christian ideal and also be shown to all the people as an example of Christian life.

The blessed and saints are, on one hand, our patrons who intercede for us and, on the other, they are always examples of Christian life and this example must be current, palpable for people today.

Hungarians have relatively few canonized saints, also because our administrative strength, to carry out these processes, was somewhat lacking in our very agitated history.

Therefore, it is an extraordinary joy that John Paul II already beatified three Hungarians and now Benedict XVI has permitted the beatification of Sister Sara Salkahazi, who was a martyr and died in Budapest, in this city which has existed under this name only since 1873, because before, Buda and Pest were two different cities.

The patron saint of our city is St. Gerard Sagredo of Venice, who was an Italian bishop. After St. Stephen's death, [St. Gerard] was thrown into the Danube from the mountain that now bears his name. His statute raises the cross over the city of Budapest. His martyrdom was closely linked to the Danube's waters.

And now we celebrate the beatification of a saintly woman of the 20th century, who also suffered martyrdom and whose martyrdom is also related to the waters of the Danube.

She was shot on the Danube, with many people of Jewish origin, because she was a martyr of Christian charity. She gave her life for her neighbors. She hid many persecuted people in her convent, and when this fact was discovered at the end of 1944 she was arrested and then, together with the women she was hiding, was shot on the Danube.

Later, eyewitnesses of this event were found who stated how she died. She made the sign of the cross in the last moment of her life; therefore, fully conscious, she wished to give witness of the way that a true Christian must behave in such tragic situations.

Q: In the history of the Church, including during difficult periods, some charismatic personalities have appeared as compasses in the storm. What role did Sister Sara play in the tormented period in which she lived?

Cardinal Erdo: Above all, Sister Sara was a very modern woman. A journalist in the city of Kosice, which belonged to Hungary when it was born and later formed part of Czechoslovakia, she wrote for several newspapers and later she also wrote plays and her writings are full of human sensibility but also full of Christian thought.

Through her intellectual activity, she was open to a vocation and decided to dedicate her life to the service of her neighbor. That is why she entered the Society of the Social Sisters, which was a new congregation of that time and which was engaged above all in service to the poor and the sick.

In regard to the poor, Sister Sara discovered the extreme need of women in the society of that time; women who were obliged to work even though they had a family, who often lived in utter dependence and poverty.

She also organized several houses for women in situations of crisis. Thus, a Christian feminism characterized the thought of this religious and also the house in Budapest where she was a superior at the end of her life.

Initially it was a house for women workers and in this house they later hid many women of Jewish origin. This was not an isolated action of Sister Sara but also organized centrally by her whole congregation.

It was Margit Slachta, superior general of the congregation, who wrote that in each house of her Society, persecuted women were hidden; yet more than that, when students were in boarding schools, they were sent home to have enough room for persecuted women.

Hungarian laws at that time exempted people of Jewish origin from the juridical consequences of their origin if they were members of a religious congregation, or if they were priests or clerics of a Christian church.

Because of this, for example, in the city of Cluj, in present-day Romania, which also belonged to Hungary, this Society had a large house, where not a few young women were dressed as religious to save their lives. So, we have many testimonies of this kind.

We have other information also that in another house of the Society in Budapest, until the last moment of Nazism, there were many people hidden, also men, naturally not as religious, but, for example, in compartments under the house's roof and other such things.

In fact, after her death, no other religious was killed, either by the Nazis or the Communists who arrived later. It was a truly moving story already at that time, but a story about which, under Communism, relatively little was said; hence the cause of beatification could only be initiated after the change of the system.

Q: Saints and blessed leave us an ideal testament and a strong example to follow in which the Catholic community should be inspired in life and in daily difficulties. Sister Sara's testimony is an up-to-date message for us all. In what way can we propose her exemplary life in the contemporary context of irresponsibility and relativism?

Cardinal Erdo: By presenting the details of her life, because in at least 10 places she worked for the poor: for example, in Ukraine of the Carpathians, where also at that time there were enormous social problems and poverty.

Then, we can present her as a person who fought for her vocation, a person who was very determined to follow the will of God, once she recognized it.

All those who knew her say she was a severe and strong personality, even though she knew how to joke, but who never wished to give up when she had recognized something as the will of God.

This clarity of decision could be a great example for people today who have great difficulty in deciding, in finding their vocation, their spouse, or their life's profession.

She is also a great example of Christian attitude that helps others without calculation, without taking her own interests into account and who looks with open eyes at the social situation of the people, of the city where she lives and who is aware of the needs of people who live around her, because today we are often very isolated and do not even realize the misery in which some of those close to us live.

Hence, there is a very strong alienation in present-day society and we as Christians must pull down this wall of alienation. We must open our eyes and also our hearts to those who have some kind of need, which might have to do with health, or be material, psychological, spiritual or social in people who are oppressed or persecuted.

Today's world is full of such situations; hence, the testimony of this religious is, sadly, of great present importance.

Q: What was her charism? How can you describe her spirituality?

Cardinal Erdo: Her life was inscribed harmoniously in her congregation; hence, social service to the human person.

Today the great systems of social welfare, of health, if they work, do not function as before, including in the Western world; this is one issue.

Another issue is that the loans given by these systems are generally material loans and not directly personal, so that the systems are de-personalized, while the help that these religious tried to give was always a most personal help which did not just calculate the quantity of foods distributed but tried to be in personal contact with the needy. This too, in my opinion, is a very timely aspect of Christian spirituality.

Q: Her motto was: "Ecce ego, mitte me!" (Here I am. Send me!). How can this motto be interpreted and applied in the contemporary world?

Cardinal Erdo: All of us are obliged to seek the will of God in general, if we want the objective norms of human behavior that are already written in our hearts and nature.

But we are also obliged to seek the concrete will of God: his plan for our person, hence, our vocation.

Surely it cannot be impossible to find this vocation. God does not call us to hide himself but he calls us to meet us; therefore, we must believe with much optimism in the fact that it is possible to know the will of God also in the concrete situations of our lives.

When Jesus Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would teach us the whole truth that he taught and would make us recall all the teachings of Jesus Christ, we have no illusions, we do not think that the Holy Spirit works a miracle with our memory, but instead points out to us in each concrete situation what Jesus Christ wants, what his teaching means for us in that specific situation -- hence, [...] baptism, which also implies the Holy Spirit as gift of God, and, in a special way, confirmation, which gives us this indelible sign of the Holy Spirit, the capacity to hear the voice of the Spirit which points out to us what God wills, what he expects from us in the specific circumstances of each day.

There are traditional and current phrases of Christian life, such as the examen of conscience every day, or a good resolution every morning looking ahead, foreseeing how the day will go, which will certainly be full of stress and agitation, and we try to foresee what the greatest temptations of the day will be which are predictable or perhaps what occasions there are to do good.

Therefore, if we have a small project for the day, no doubt at night, in our examen of conscience, we can ask ourselves if, with the grace of God, we have been able to accomplish the project. Or, if there were sins, we can ask for God's forgiveness and begin again with our eyes open wider.

If we succeed in learning this attitude of attention to the Holy Spirit, it will become increasingly easier. And this promptness is called virtue in the theological sense of the word.

Q: What has impressed you personally of the figure of Sister Sara?

Cardinal Erdo: I still know personally ladies who were rescued by Sister Sara or other religious of her congregation. For me, her figure was always a figure of the stories of the ancestors, if we want a realistic reading.

It is a proof that the saints are not persons who are remote from us, from daily life, from our possibilities; rather, they are people like ourselves who simply -- even in the trivial circumstances of daily life -- succeed in following God's will consistently. And this promptness of the person then receives God's blessing.

And through our simple actions, miracles take place, events that later shake a whole generation and that leave their mark for a long time, including on the conscience of an entire city or a whole nation.

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Keywords

Salkahazi, Hungary, Erdo, Beatify, Charity

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