Healer of Nations, Healer of Souls

By Lawrence Elliott

To a Europe fractured by nationalism and ethnic conflict, Imre Kozma sends a message of hope.

A FREEZING WINTER WIND was sweeping the season’s first snow across the road as Father Imre Kozma, a Hungarian priest, drove his car through the darkness of a November night in 1991 to the border with Croatia. His destination, the besieged town of Vukovar, was about to face a final attack by Serb forces. Father Imre hoped to rescue seven monks - and, along with them, thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged city.

When he reached the Croatian front lines, the soldiers listened sceptically as Father Imre explained his mission. Only the commander of the Serbian forces besieging Vukovar, they explained, could permit its evacuation. "But General Raseta won't see you. He sees no one except his soldiers."

Undaunted, Father Imre got on the telephone, working through his network of contacts to find a way to see General Aildrija Raseta-and soon had secured a five-minute interview. For nine hours Croatian escorts led him on a bumpy, wearying journey. They finally arrived at the Serbian command post at 4 a.m. A short time later., as the rugged 50-year- old was being led through a dimly lit corridor to see Raseta, he could not stifle a feeling of fear.

The general greeted the priest, then listened as Father Imre explained what he was there for. "I want to take the civilians to safety," he said. "The war has claimed enough victims." For nearly an hour he argued and pleaded, but Raseta was like a wall.

"Let me take these people out of here," Father Imre said. "And I will let the world know that General Raseta is a good officer who knows when to temper duty with mercy."

Minutes later. Father Imre made his way out of the command post with General Raseta’s grudging permission to grant safe passage. In a few days, most of Vukovar's townspeople-the aged, women and children-were on buses, escaping the war zone. Soon the Serbian guns finished reducing the town to rubble.

On August 12, 1,992, Pope John Paul 11 bestowed upon Father Imre the title of "Protonotary Apostolic" for his humanitarian activities, including his courageous work in the former Yugoslavia.

A MAN OF GOD, Father Imre Kozma is a healer of souls and, if he gets his way, a healer of nations. As a parish priest, he is beloved by his Budapest congregation for ministering to thousands of downtrodden and homeless. A leader in humanitarian-aid work, he has been a tireless campaigner for solidarity between the peoples of a fractured central Europe.

Through his fund-raising and lecture tours throughout Europe, the United States and Canada, Father Imre has supported refugees in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and, directed the distribution of millions of dollars worth of food, pharmaceuticals and clothing. With countless relief expeditions into ravaged war zones, Father Imre and his volunteers have saved many lives and given hope to many who believed all was lost.

As president of the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service (MCS), he has helped shelter thousands of victims of war with families in Hungary, at the same time planning for the repatriation of thousands of Bosnians driven from their homes. That many are Muslim has never entered Father Imre's calculations-only that they were in need.

THE FIRST TIME I saw Father Imre, he was down on his hands and knees in a muddy garden at a home for the aged west of Budapest- digging potatoes with the bereft, tattered men and women who had come there for a meal. Why was a man who could call on an army of 40,000 supporters and who had orchestrated relief efforts throughout Europe rooting around in a muddy garden?

"I have to spend at least one day a week among the poor, homeless or aged," he said, brushing his hands on rough work trousers. "Otherwise I get cut off from their world. They don't need that. They need a brother."

Father Imre's first emergency shelter was a rented ferry at a Budapest dock in November 1993, he replaced it with an old East German ambulance train that he brought from Berlin to Budapest. The train sleeps 180 and has helped alleviate the capital's acute homeless crisis. Though a far cry from luxury, the shelter has given warmth and comfort to thousands. One of these was Robert Milder. A trained graphic artist, Milder lost his job, was divorced by his wife and suddenly had no home or any savings. When winter came, he was sleeping in doorways. "I heard about Father Imre's shelter from the street grapevine," he says, "but I thought they wouldn't take me because I was such a mess."

As he does every year, Father Imre came to spend Christmas Eve with the homeless, and immediately won Robert's heart. He didn't lecture or sermonize, but listened to the men as though nothing in the world meant more to him. "He told us we were made in God's image," says Milder. "He said God would help us rise above our troubles if we wanted His help." For the 45-year-old lapsed Catholic, this was the turning point.

When Milder heard about the second stage of the MCS rehabilitation program, a shelter where the men had to work and save money, he applied. At first he unloaded trucks and did other odd jobs. There were times when he wanted to give up, times when he craved a drink. But there was always a steadying hand at the shelter.

"They tell me you're a hard worker," Father said to him one day. "God will help you. God believes in you."

When the job of caretaker for some small MCS cottages became vacant, the organization gave it to Milder. Now he has his own quarters there, tranquillity, time to draw. In December 1994, MCS used one of his drawings to illustrate its Christmas card. On the facing page was a greeting from Father Imre.

Milder shudders at the thought of what would have happened to him were it not for Father Imre and the Maltese Charity organization. "I wish I could tell everyone in the world about him," he explains. "But where do you start? What can you say about a man who picks your life out of the garbage and gives it back to you?"

A SENSE OF CHARITY began early in Imre Kozma's life. Born in 1940, he was a year-and-a-half old when his father was killed in a wartime railroad accident. He was raised by his mother and grandparents in a modest farming village 80 miles west of Budapest. He remembers accompanying his grandmother to take food to Jews hiding from deportation during World War II. His grandfather, a poor farmer who, read the newspaper and the Bible every day, taught Imre what it means to attend church: "Go not out of obedience or obligation, but in search of God's will."

There was always a place at the table for those who were poorer than they. Once, when a beggar came to his grandmother's door, she handed seven-year-old Imre half a loaf of bread and some apples to give. Later she told him, "A child can give so it is not humiliating to take. "The boy who became the priest never forgot. "To this day, I always ask myself, 'Is this what my grandmother would do?' " Imre grew to be a strong young man and an excellent football player who sparked the-interest of local professional teams. But the course of his life was set: he was going to become a priest and work with the poor.

It was not easy. A career in the priesthood in the 1950s was widely regarded as a wasted life. In Communist Hungary, all but three seminaries had been shut down. None of this daunted Imre. After five years of study and prayer at the Esztergom seminary-"the most beautiful years of my life"-he was ordained in June 1963.

He expected to go to Rome for further study. But the Communist government refused to allow it. Instead, he was assigned to a church in the mining town of Dorog. He counted only 57 worshipers at the five Masses he celebrated the first Sunday. Just two children came to his catechism class. People passing him in the street even spat on his cassock.

But, little by little, he began winning his holy war. He learned the names of nearly everyone in the town, churchgoers or not. Early one spring morning in 1965, mine workers coming from the night shift were astonished to see him waiting with packets of flower seed for their gardens. In September more than 100 children joined his catechism class. Sunday after Sunday, people filled the church.

In 1968, assigned as chaplain to the Franciscan church in Budapest, he organized a series of conference lectures for university students that attracted overflow crowds. The students were captivated by a system of ethics and morality based on Christian values and, universal truth. The wardens of Party orthodoxy accused Father Imre of anti-state activities and harassed his students, many of whom were expelled or denied the chance to study for advanced degrees.

In 1976 Hungary's cardinal-archbishop informed Father Imre that the state would no longer allow him to remain in the priesthood. Finally he was allowed to stay-as long as he moved back to Zugliget, a district in the hills of outer Budapest, where Imre had served before. His parish was the Church of the Holy Family, a neglected building in a depopulated parish.

It was a monumental miscalculation. All that spring and summer, Father Imre's Budapest students, often 200 a day, came out from the city to replace the roof, rebuild the floors and walls, and to paint and clean.

Zugliget became Father Imre's first systemized charity. Appalled at the poverty, he organized his young men and women - the core of the thousands in every part of Hungary who would eventually rally to his support - into teams that toured the area, then greater Budapest, to work with troubled youths, the handicapped and disadvantaged. Many repaid the gift by becoming volunteers themselves. And so the circle widened.

While Father Imre was helping impoverished Hungarians, his reputation as a motivator and mover of people was spreading through the church and the nation. When a group in Germany set up the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, Father Imre was asked to lead its Hungarian operation.

It was only natural then that, on August 13, 1989, an official from the West German Embassy in Budapest should call Father Imre with a desperate plea. Could he provide "humanitarian assistance to the influx of refugees from East Germany"? Taking advantage of the fact that they could travel to Hungary without a visa, thousands of these refugees had come to Budapest as "vacationers," with the goal of fleeing to the West. "Yes, of course," Father Imre replied. He set up a tent city in the courtyard of the Holy Family Church and scrounged trailers for a larger camp in the park across from the church.

When word got back to East Germany that those who had journeyed to Hungary were being sheltered and fed, the flow of tourists - turned refugees swelled into the thousands. Soon Father Imre and his helpers were sheltering nearly 50,000 East Germans. The Hungarian government decided to allow the refugees to cross into Austria defying a treaty with East Germany forbidding it. Finally, on September 10, Budapest let the East Germans into Austria. The Berlin Wall had been rendered meaningless. Two months later it came down.

West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher came to Budapest and presented Father Imre with the Commander's Cross, the highest honor Germany can bestow on a foreigner. "You were the one who took the first stone out of the Berlin Wall," said Genscher.

As the Wall was collapsing in Germany, news came back from Romania that citizens there were ready to revolt against their despotic leaders. Father Imre and the MCS readied trucks loaded with relief supplies. When fighting broke out in the city of Timisoara on December 15, 1989, Father Imre was soon on his way with a 22-truck convoy.

As IN THE BIBLICAL MIRACLE of the loaves and the fishes, Father Imre's resources somehow expand to meet the growing needs of a fractured Europe and a Hungary struggling with the growing pains of a young democracy. His favorite maxim: "Don't brood; give."

An average of eight trailer trucks come into Hungary every week, bringing pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, food and clothing. With 40,000 volunteer workers - among them many high-ranking members of Hungary's reform government - millions of dollars in donations and endless good will, Father Imre makes it work. In all of Hungary, Maltese Charity has only 89 paid employees. Incredibly, Father Imre also remains a simple parish priest. He celebrates Mass every day and teaches church school. Sometimes he is torn between priestly duties and human emotions. He wishes he could visit his aged mother more often and struggles to remain patient when anyone stands in the way of his work. All the good he and his volunteers have done cannot appease a certain torment of soul that he cannot do more.

In the autumn of 1994, he was with a Maltese Charity group that was delivering food and medicine to a refugee shelter for Bosnian women and their children. One woman with two infants told Father Imre that her husband, fighting near Sarajevo, had no idea where she and the children were.

Two weeks later, Father Imre found the husband. When he told the tough young soldier that his family was safe in Hungary, the man wept, then put his rifle down and said, "Please, take me to them. I am finished with fighting."

The reunion was filled with happy tears and embraces, including, many for Father Imre. But even as his heart warmed to the family reunited and he acknowledged that his efforts, have transformed the lives of millions, Father Imre found himself thinking, There is so much more to do.

Readers Digest

Reader's Digest selected Father Imre Kozma as the magazine's 1996 European of the Year.

Reproduced with kind permission from (the July 1996 Asia Edition of) Readers Digest,and, also, with kind technical assistance from Greg (my younger brother).

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