Croatia: A Faith Tested in Fire

Pope Benedict’s apostolic journey to the country in June

On June 4, Pope Benedict began a two-day apostolic journey to Croatia, a land bathed in Christians’ blood since the early days of the Church. 

St. Venantius, the bishop of Salona, in what was then the Roman province of Dalmatia, suffered martyrdom in 255 under the Emperor Valerian. Diocletian, a boy of 10 at the time, was born in Salona and would grow up to become an even fiercer persecutor of the Church. As emperor he decreed first that every cleric, and later that every layman, must sacrifice to the pagan gods under pain of torture; an early victim was St. Duje, bishop of Diocletian’s hometown. Today, near the ruins of Salona, the city of Split—Croatia’s second-largest city—is home to Diocletian’s retirement palace and to the Cathedral of St. Duje, built in Diocletian’s mausoleum.

The Croats migrated to the area in the seventh century and in time became the first Slavic nation to accept the Catholic faith. During the Croatian-Ottoman Wars, which began in the 1400s and lasted for nearly three centuries, Croatians struggled for their existence as a Christian people against Turkish expansionism, leading Pope Leo X to declare the nation the antemurale Christianitatis—the bulwark of Christianity.

Following World War I, Croatia became part of the newly-formed Yugoslavia. The English writer Hilaire Belloc foresaw disaster, writing in 1929 of

the precarious subjection of the Catholic Croats and Slovenes to the Orthodox power of Serbia. The incompetent politicians who imposed their own confusion of mind and their own ignorance of history upon Christendom after the Great War, tied, not federally, but absolutely, a considerable body of Catholic culture to a dynasty, a capital and a government not its own: the dynasty and government of Belgrade. A large Catholic district was artificially sewn on, as it were, to the edges of the Orthodox peoples. Thus, politically, a new kingdom called Jugo-Slavia has, to its original Orthodox half, another half, as large, attached; and this new piece is Catholic in culture and Western in script and all the details of life. We have already seen the disastrous consequences of that blunder.

The consequences would become more disastrous in the ensuing decades. In 1931, Albert Einstein protested the “horrible brutality which is being practiced upon the Croatian people” by the Yugoslav king. In 1941, the Axis powers established the puppet Ustase regime in Croatia, which killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews. In 1945, Yugoslavia became a Communist state ruled by the Croatian Josip Broz Tito; the regime convicted and poisoned Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, whom Blessed John Paul II beatified in 1998.

When Croatia declared independence in 1991, the Holy See was the first to recognize the state; a four-year war ensued until independence was secured. Communists murdered more than 70 percent of priests in some dioceses during this Croatian War of Independence, according to Marijo Zivković, director of the Family Center in Zagreb.

Thus “the Church in Croatia has been a ‘sign of contradiction’ to the spiritus mundi throughout its entire history,” says writer and artist Michael D. O’Brien, author of several novels published by Ignatius Press and winner of a Croatian national award for achievement in faith and culture. “In the modern era, it has seen the coming and going of fascism and Communism, with many martyrs under both regimes.”

“Despite the inroads made by secularism in the lives of the faithful in post-Communist era…on the whole the people maintain a living orthodoxy and great love for the Pope and the universal Church,” O’Brien adds. “Theirs is a faith that has been tested in fire.”

Today, Croatia is one of Europe’s most Catholic nations. According to Vatican statistics, the nation of 4.4 million is 90 percent Catholic. At the end of 2009, there were 2,343 priests, 1,598 parishes, and 438 major seminarians—up slightly on all counts from the year before. However, Croatian Archbishop Nikola Eterović, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, told Vatican Radio on the eve of the papal visit that the country’s Sunday Mass attendance rate “is about 20 to 30 percent, and in the big cities, even lower.”

Croatia and Europe

Pope Benedict told journalists aboard the flight from Rome that he became acquainted with Croatia through Cardinal Franjo Seper, Blessed Stepinac’s successor as archbishop of Zagreb from 1960 to 1968 and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1968 to 1981. Under Cardinal Seper’s leadership, the CDF issued documents on abortion, sexual ethics, women’s ordination, infant baptism, and euthanasia, which helped confirm the Church’s faith during the turbulent early postconciliar period.

“I have been to Croatia twice,” Pope Benedict recalled. “The first time was for the funeral of Cardinal Seper, my predecessor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was a great friend of mine. He was also president of the [International] Theological Commission, of which I was a member. I was therefore acquainted with his kindness, his intelligence, his discernment, and his cheerfulness. And this also gave me an idea of Croatia itself because he was a great Croat and a great European.”

In Croatia, he continued, “I experienced a popular piety which, I must say, is very like that in my own region. And I was very happy to see this embodiment of the faith: a faith lived with the heart, where the supernatural becomes natural and the natural is illuminated by the supernatural…I saw that there is a very profound brotherhood in faith, in the will to serve God for man, in Christian humanity.”

When Pope Benedict arrived in Croatia, he entered a nation that is scheduled to enter the European Union in 2013. Speaking at the welcoming ceremony in Zagreb—the nation’s capital and a city of 685,000—the Pontiff challenged Croatia’s leaders to use EU membership to promote Christian values throughout the continent.

“My thoughts go back to the three pastoral visits to Croatia made by my beloved predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, and I thank the Lord for the long history of faithfulness that links your country to the Holy See,” Pope Benedict began. “For over 13 centuries, those strong and special bonds have been put to the test and strengthened in circumstances that were sometimes difficult and painful. This history is an eloquent testimony to your people’s love for the Gospel and the Church.”

“From its earliest days, your nation has formed part of Europe, and has contributed, in its unique way, to the spiritual and moral values that for centuries have shaped the daily lives and the personal and national identity of Europe’s sons and daughters,” he continued.

Twenty years after the declaration of independence and on the eve of Croatia’s full integration into the European Union, this country’s remote and recent history can stimulate reflection on the part of all the other peoples of the Continent, helping them, individually and collectively, to preserve and to inject new life into that priceless common heritage of human and Christian values. So may this beloved nation, in the strength of its rich tradition, help to steer the European Union towards a fuller appreciation of those spiritual and cultural treasures.

Following separate meetings with President Ivo Josipović and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, the Pope spent much of the afternoon at the apostolic nunciature before addressing political, academic, economic, and cultural leaders at the historic Croatian National Theatre in the early evening. Not all the dignitaries present that evening supported the nation’s membership in the European Union, according to Ivo Goldstein, a professor at the University of Zagreb and author of Croatia: A History. He told CWR that “among those 16 who were introduced to him in the Croatian National Theatre, and chosen by the Croatian Catholic Church, were people who did just the opposite in previous years: some of them were promoting hate speech, some are involved in pro-Ustase propaganda, some spoke against joining Europe.”

The Pontiff told those present that Europe is doomed unless it adopts a correct understanding of conscience.

“The great achievements of the modern age—the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society—should be confirmed and developed while keeping reason and freedom open to their transcendent foundation, so as to ensure that these achievements are not undone, as unfortunately happens in not a few cases,” the Pope said. “The quality of social and civil life and the quality of democracy depend in large measure on this ‘critical’ point—conscience, on the way it is understood and the way it is informed. If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself. If, on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings—in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny—then there is hope for the future.”

Conscience, Benedict concluded, is “the keystone on which to base a culture and build up the common good,” for rightly-formed consciences build up a culture through acts of love and service.

It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society. It is a contribution that begins in the family and is strongly reinforced in the parish, where infants, children, and young people learn to deepen their knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, the ‘great codex’ of European culture; at the same time they learn what it means for a community to be built upon gift, not upon economic interests or ideology, but upon love.

The Pope’s address on conscience “was a powerful speech that all the media in Croatia” quoted for days afterward, said Father Jozo Grbes, a Franciscan who leads a Croatian parish in Chicago and was in Zagreb in June. “As Croatia is advancing toward the European Union and as the moneymaking business is becoming the main goal, the Pope spoke about the importance of educating our consciences.”

After the meeting with cultural leaders, Pope Benedict addressed tens of thousands of young people taking part in a prayer vigil in Zagreb’s main square. Nicholas Tanner, an English journalist and author of Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, told CWR that “the biggest challenge the Church faces today is keeping in touch with the nation’s youth.”

“No longer the persecuted Church of the past, it can no longer count on the automatic sympathy of the younger generation as a suffering Church,” Tanner said. “It continues to invest a lot of emotional energy on the past and on issues that are of little interest to young people, especially the Communist-era persecution of high-ranking churchmen like Cardinal Stepinac. But whether Stepinac’s battles with the Tito regime are of much concern to youngsters, who barely remember the Yugoslav state, is questionable.”

For his part, Father Grbes sees a strong Catholic influence on the nation’s youth. “I oftentimes said Mass for thousands of young people,” he told CWR. “The young Catholic movement is very strong in Croatia.”

At the prayer vigil, Pope Benedict told the youth that following Jesus Christ will fulfill the aspirations of their hearts:

Jesus speaks to you today, through the Gospel and his Holy Spirit. He is your contemporary! He seeks you even before you seek him! While fully respecting your freedom, he approaches each one of you and offers himself as the authentic and decisive response to the longing deep within your hearts, to your desire for a life worth living. Let him take you by the hand! Let him become more and more your friend and companion along life’s journey. Put your trust in him and he will never disappoint you! …

The Lord Jesus is not a Teacher who deceives his disciples: he tells us clearly that walking by his side calls for commitment and personal sacrifice, but it is worth the effort! Young friends: do not let yourselves be led astray by enticing promises of easy success, by lifestyles which regard appearances as more important than inner depth. Do not yield to the temptation of putting all your trust in possessions, in material things, while abandoning the search for the truth which is always “greater,” which guides us like a star high in the heavens to where Christ would lead us. Let it guide you to the very heights of God!

The message to Croatian families

On June 5, Pope Benedict presided at an open-air Sunday Mass at the Zagreb Hippodrome on the occasion of the National Day of Croatian Catholic Families.

Croatian family life has become stronger since independence, according to the Family Center’s Marijo Zivković, whom Pope John Paul II appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family from 1982-87 and 1994-99. Zivković told CWR that only 10 percent of children are born out of wedlock, that the number of annual abortions has plummeted from more than 40,000 to 4,500 since the fall of Communism, and that Croatia is the “only European country in which the number of families with three or more children is increasing.” Nonetheless, in Croatia there are “more people dying than being born”: the total fertility rate of 1.43 births per woman is well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Abortion is still available on demand during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The Mass, attended by an estimated 400,000, was the high point of Pope Benedict’s apostolic journey and his primary reason for traveling to Croatia. “Everyone knows that the Christian family is a special sign of the presence and love of Christ and that it is called to give a specific and irreplaceable contribution to evangelization,” the Pontiff preached. “Dear parents, commit yourselves always to teaching your children to pray, and pray with them; draw them close to the sacraments, especially to the Eucharist, as we celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Eucharistic miracle of Ludbreg; and introduce them to the life of the Church; in the intimacy of the home do not be afraid to read the sacred Scriptures, illuminating family life with the light of faith and praising God as Father.”

“Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge the spread of a secularization which leads to the exclusion of God from life and the increasing disintegration of the family, especially in Europe,” the Holy Father continued. “Freedom without commitment to the truth is made into an absolute, and individual well-being through the consumption of material goods and transient experiences is cultivated as an ideal, obscuring the quality of interpersonal relations and deeper human values; love is reduced to sentimental emotion and to the gratification of instinctive impulses, without a commitment to build lasting bonds of reciprocal belonging and without openness to life. We are called to oppose such a mentality!”

The Pope added:

Alongside what the Church says, the testimony and commitment of the Christian family—your concrete testimony—is very important, especially when you affirm the inviolability of human life from conception until natural death, the singular and irreplaceable value of the family founded upon matrimony and the need for legislation which supports families in the task of giving birth to children and educating them.

Dear families, be courageous! Do not give in to that secularized mentality which proposes living together as a preparation, or even a substitute for marriage! Show by the witness of your lives that it is possible, like Christ, to love without reserve, and do not be afraid to make a commitment to another person! Dear families, rejoice in fatherhood and motherhood! Openness to life is a sign of openness to the future, confidence in the future, just as respect for the natural moral law frees people, rather than demeaning them!

Pope Benedict’s message to families was crucial because of the inroads made by secularism. “The greatest challenge in Croatia is the same as in Europe in general: progressive secular moral relativism that defines Europe today,” says Father Grbes. “Croatia is fighting against it. Croatia is still a traditional Catholic nation, but the European Union is pushing for certain reforms, laws, and its own agenda, e.g., homosexual marriages.… That’s one of the reasons the Pope spoke in Croatia about the tremendous importance of Catholic family values. He openly asked [Croatians] to reject the mentality of secular culture that is destroying families and pushing God to the margins of society.”

Michael O’Brien agrees; the Church in Croatia, he says, faces strong challenges in “maintain[ing] its strong moral voice in the face of what may be the most insidious and omnipresent form of materialism: that is, the new consumerism, coupled with Euro-politics that seek to corrupt the moral foundations of all nations in their sphere of influence.”

Following dinner and a meeting with the nation’s bishops, the Pontiff traveled to Zagreb Cathedral, where he led bishops, priests, and religious in Vespers and prayed at the tomb of Blessed Stepinac. He found a receptive audience, according to O’Brien.

“The bishops of Croatia have been unfailingly firm in their teachings to their people, never hesitating to state clearly the absolutes, the principles on which any just society is built,” says O’Brien. “As a result, the Catholic people of Croatia have immense respect for their bishops.”

Tanner adds that the Church in Croatia is characterized by a

strong attachment to the Holy See, augmented in recent years by the Vatican’s very prompt decision to recognize Croatian independence and Pope John Paul II’s very evident sympathy for Croatia, as a “frontier” Catholic Slav land, much like his own Poland; a strong attachment to the cult of Virgin; a strong attachment to the religious orders, the Franciscans in particular…. Generally speaking the Church in Croatia is culturally and intellectually conservative. There is little interest in such issues as…women’s ordination, for example—not least because there is as yet no shortage of clergy.

During his homily at the cathedral, Pope Benedict paid tribute to Blessed Stepinac. “Precisely because of his strong Christian conscience, he knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming, in a time of Nazi and fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox, and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of Communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests,” the Pope said, adding:

His martyrdom signals the culmination of the violence perpetrated against the Church during the terrible period of Communist persecution. Croatian Catholics, and in particular the clergy, were objects of oppression and systematic abuse, aimed at destroying the Catholic Church, beginning with its highest authority in this place. That particularly difficult period was characterized by a generation of bishops, priests and religious who were ready to die rather than to betray Christ, the Church, and the pope. The people saw that the priests never lost faith, hope, and charity, and thus they remained always united. This unity explains what is humanly inexplicable: that such a hardened regime could not make the Church bow down…

Blessed Cardinal Stepinac expressed himself in this way: “One of the greatest evils of our time is mediocrity in the questions of faith. Let us not deceive ourselves…. Either we are Catholic or we are not. If we are, this must be seen in every area of our life.”

After a visit with Cardinal Josip Bozanić of Zagreb, Pope Benedict arrived at the airport, where he was unable to deliver his departure address because of a storm. The Vatican later released his prepared remarks.

“At a time when stable and trustworthy reference points seem to be lacking, Christians united together in Christ, the cornerstone, can continue to act as the ‘soul’ of the nation, helping it to develop and to make progress,” the Pope’s address concluded.

As I leave for Rome, I place all of you in the hands of God. May he who is infinite providence, the giver of all good things, always bless the land and the people of Croatia; may he grant peace and prosperity to every family. May the Virgin Mary watch over the historic journey of your homeland and of the whole of Europe. And let my apostolic blessing, which I offer you with great affection, accompany you on your way.

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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.