Over the course of the last two centuries, low-ball estimates tell us that communist regimes have killed over 100 million people.
Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto, infamously looked down on religion, which he called “the opium of the masses.” It is therefore no surprise that this extreme ideology has been historically at odds with the Church, and that the spiritual battle between communism and Catholicism continues to this day.
Here are 11 brave Church leaders, including bishops, cardinals, and a pope, who put their lives on the line to stand up for the truth of the Gospel in the face of the lies and hateful division of communism.
The Venerable Andrey Sheptysky was the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for nearly four-and-a-half decades. He was a gentle giant, standing almost seven feet tall. But Bishop Andrey’s physical stature was matched by his great spiritual courage in opposing both communism and Nazism, two evil ideologies that threatened Ukraine during his tenure. In 1933, he helped sound the alarm about the Holodomor Famine in which Stalin deliberately starved at least six million people in the region.
Seeing firsthand how truly anti-Christian communism was, Bishop Andrey likened its spread to advancing “the kingdom of Satan” in one of his theological writings. Pope Francis advanced his cause for beatification in 2015, naming him “venerable.”
Blessed Valeriu was a bishop from 1912 until his death in 1952. Like Bishop Andrey, he was a Byzantine Rite Catholic in full communion with Rome. Toward the end of his life, Bishop Valeriu saw his native Romania fell to communist rule. In 1948, he was arrested by the new regime. He was later taken to Sighet, a political prison where anti-communists, many of them clergy, were tortured and brutalized. When died there, his death was not recorded, and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
In 2018, Pope Francis beatified Bishop Valeriu and named him a martyr, along with six other Romanian Eastern Catholic bishops who resisted communist persecution. Francis said “the new blesseds … gave their lives to oppose an illiberal ideological system.” Blessed Valeriu’s feast day is July 11.
Bishop Byrne was born in Washington, D.C., and went to college and seminary in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. However, he knew that God was calling him to leave the United States and serve Him abroad.
Right after his ordination, the new priest joined a new organization called the Maryknoll Society, a ministry that organizes Catholic missions to some of the poorest regions in the world. Then-Father Byrne served in Korea and Japan, where he was put under house arrest during the height of World War II.
Right after Byrne became the Apostolic Delegate to Korea in 1949, the country fell to communism. He was urged by his fellow clergy to follow many of them in fleeing to the south — but he refused to leave his flock behind. He was eventually arrested by communist authorities and forced to go on a monthslong march through rain and snow, a grueling ordeal that soon took his life. His cause for beatification is currently being considered by the Church in South Korea.
Cardinal Mindszenty was born József Pehm in western Hungary, then under Austrian rule, and changed his surname in honor of his hometown. As a priest in the 1940s he strongly opposed the Nazis who were allied with the fascist Hungarian government at the time – and for this was sent to prison for several months. In 1945 he was made the Archbishop of Esztergom, and was created a cardinal the next year.
In the aftermath of World War II, Hungary became communist, effectively trading one totalitarian ideology for another. In a November 1948 letter, the cardinal stated “I stand for God, for the Church and for Hungary… I do not accuse my accusers… I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.” He was arrested on false charges just one month later on the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Cardinal Mindszenty was sentenced to life in prison, but only because the communists did not want him to become a martyr by executing him. Later, he was freed by Pope Paul VI and exiled out of Hungary. He died in Austria in 1975. Pope Francis named him venerable in 2019.
The Illinois-born Archbishop Fulton John Sheen is best known for his incredibly successful radio and television programs, including The Catholic Hour and Life is Worth Living, and for pioneering Catholic televangelism. However, he was also a staunch public opponent of communism, which was on the rise worldwide throughout his career.
In 1948, before becoming the longtime Auxiliary Bishop of New York and later the Bishop of Rochester, then-Father Sheen wrote the book Communism and the Conscience of the West, in which he issued a harsh rebuke of the ideology. “Communism is the final logic of the dehumanization of man,” he wrote. By “denying God, [communism] reduces man to a robot.” He was named venerable in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
In his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, which was published shortly after his death, Bishop Sheen revealed that on several occasions he reported communist spies to the U.S. Government. For this he was personally targeted by communist organizations.
A strongly anti-communist Church leader from Ireland, Bishop Browne became the prelate of Galway in 1937 when he was only 41 years old. He later supported Cardinal Mindszenty when he was imprisoned by the Hungarian Communist Party, lobbying Pope Pius XII to take action. Bishop Browne also tried to convince the Irish president to offer the cardinal asylum, but to no avail. Browne was also vocal against the rise of communist parties in the British Isles.
Cardinal Kung, who would serve as the Bishop of Shanghai for half a century, was born when China was still ruled by an emperor. During his childhood, it became a republic, but it would not stay this way. In 1950, almost exactly one year after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took over, Kung became the first native Chinese bishop of his hometown. The same year, he was also made the Apostolic Administrator of Souchou and Nanking, two other populous areas in the country.
While many other clergy members were fleeing the country to avoid persecution, Bishop Kung refused to abandon his community and stayed behind. He fostered a strong devotion to Mary among Chinese Catholics, including promoting constant prayer of the Rosary and membership in the Legion of Mary. After leading a Rosary in the presence of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, the bishop prayed, “Holy Mother, we do not ask you for a miracle. We do not beg you to stop the persecutions. But we beg you to support us who are very weak.”
Bishop Kung was finally arrested by the communists in 1955. He was taken to a large arena where he was forced to “confess” in front of an audience numbering in the thousands. As the public expected to hear a list of crimes, the bishop instead announced, “Long live Christ the King, Long live the Pope.” After all, being Catholic was the only “crime” for which he was imprisoned.
In 1979, just one year after he ascended to the papacy, Pope St. John Paul II made Bishop Kung a cardinal in secret, as the bishop was still serving a life sentence. He was eventually freed with help from his nephew, Joseph, and in 1991 John Paul II publicly declared that he had elevated Cardinal Kung. The cardinal died In 2000 in Connecticut at the age of 98. Joseph Kung passed away a few days ago, also in Connecticut, at the age of 90.
If only one man could be credited for the downfall of communism in the Cold War, it would have to be John Paul II. Born Karol Józef Wojtyła, he was in his late 20s when his native Poland became communist. In 1964, he became the Archbishop of Krakow, the country’s cultural capital, where he constantly reminded the Polish people of their illustrious and deeply Catholic history, and that better times were on the horizon. “It cannot happen that one group of men, one social group … should impose on the whole people an ideology, an opinion contrary to the will of the majority,” Bishop Wojtyła stated in 1976. Two years later he was elected the first Polish pope in Church history.
The unique experience of living under communism set the new pope apart from his predecessors and gave him the will to confront the evil ideology. One year into his pontificate, John Paul II met with the communist leader of Poland and correctly identified the conflict between freedom and the communism as a manifestation of spiritual warfare. Just a decade later, the Iron Curtain began to fall. John Paul II died in 2005 after 27 years as pope. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2014.
In 2018, actor Jim Caviezel narrated a documentary entitled Liberating a Continent, which details John Paul II’s role in curtailing the threat of communism.
Cardinal Thuan served as a bishop in Vietnam from 1967 until 1994 and was created a cardinal two years before his death. His uncle was Ngo Dinh Diem, the anti-communist Catholic president of South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1975, just days after Bishop Thuan was named an Archbishop of Saigon, the city was conquered by the communist North. The Vietnamese communists took the bishop’s elevation as, to use his own words, “a conspiracy between the Vatican and the ‘Imperialists.’” They promptly arrested him. He would spend the next 13 years of his life in prison. On one occasion, the communists moved Bishop Thuan and over a thousand other prisoners to another location via boat. “Here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission,” he said. “It is God’s will that I am here. I accept his will.”
After praying to Our Lady, he was finally released in 1988. Cardinal Thuan was named venerable by Pope Francis in 2017.
A priest for over 60 years, the now 91-year-old Cardinal Zen was the Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009 in the almost immediate aftermath of the city-state being submitted again to Chinese Communist Party rule. He continues to be an outspoken advocate for human rights and representative government.
Born in Shanghai, Zen escaped to then-British-controlled Hong Kong as a teenager, when his home country became communist. In November 2022, a Hong Kong court convicted Cardinal Zen for his efforts in helping anti-communist and pro-democracy protesters, a politicized verdict he appealed less than a month later. Earlier this month, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Since 2011, Bishop Alvarez has served as the head of the Diocese of Matagalpa in Nicaragua. He is an outspoken critic of the nation’s Leftist, pro-Liberation Theology, and anti-human rights dictator Daniel Ortega. On February 10, 2023, the bishop was sentenced to 26 years in prison following his refusal of the Sandinista government’s order to abandon his post and leave the country. This is part of the wider persecution of the Nicaraguan Church by Ortega, who is a self-professed Catholic. A petition to free Bishop Alvarez has circulated in the last few days.