Catholic University of Croatia Makes Its Public Debut

Holy Father calls Croatia’s first Catholic university a “sign of hope.”

Although Croatia is historically Catholic, it took until 2006 for this country with a long, dazzlingly beautiful Adriatic coastline across from Italy to found its first Catholic university. Why did it take so long, excepting for the impossibility of establishing a Catholic university during Croatia’s 50 years of Communist rule? (Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.) Because Croatia never before had to contend with forces so relentlessly subversive of the moral, intellectual, and spiritual life of the nation.

For although Croatia may strike the casual observer as vibrantly Catholic, cracking the surface of Croatian life exposes terrific social, moral, and religious tensions threatening to cut Croatia from her moorings and set her adrift in the European dead pool of secularism and materialism. Like most of Europe, Croatia’s population of 4.2 million already has a birth rate below replacement level. And abortion, another Communist legacy, remains legal, though Croatia has a burgeoning pro-life movement.

In her defense of the Faith and the motherland, the Church in Croatia is engaged in a struggle for the country’s heart, mind, and soul. One initiative combining all three elements in this struggle is the Catholic University of Croatia (CUC).

Central to its mission is renewing Croatia’s Catholic identity after decades of Communist persecution. It is no coincidence that the first thing one sees upon entering CUC is a brass bust of its patron, Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, Zagreb’s legendary cardinal. Imprisoned by Tito’s Allied-back henchmen after World War II, he later was placed was under house arrest, where his captors slowly poisoned him to death. (He died in 1960 at the age of 61.) Stepinac’s example is a daily reminder to students and faculty alike that the Faith in Croatia is a pearl bought at a great price, not to be sold for a mess of anti-Christian, post-modern pottage.

During his 2011 visit to Croatia, Pope Benedict XVI called CUC “a sign of hope.” Addressing a packed audience in the opera house in Zagreb, the Croatian capital city where CUC is located, Benedict said he “trust[s] that it will help to foster unity among the various fields of contemporary culture, the values and the identity of your people, lending continuity to the fruitful contribution of the Church to the history of the noble Croatian nation.”

“A new Christian humanism in Europe”

To prove the Holy Father right, CUC’s leaders determined the university had reached the point of development suitable for a grand public unveiling at its partially renovated campus, a quadrangle of late-19th century buildings that served as an Austro-Hungarian military barracks before housing the Yugoslavian military academy.

The unveiling, dubbed “University Days” (June 2-4), had CUC faculty and students playing host to prospective students as well as dignitaries from Croatia and abroad, including the Vatican’s top bookkeeper.

Day one (Saturday, June 2) featured a public open house. “The halls of the university were full of enthusiastic young people who were able to visit for the first time,” said Dr. Stephen N. Bartulica, head of Public and Student Relations. More than 500 people, mostly prospective students, visited the campus to learn more about the programs in history, psychology, and sociology now being offered at CUC. These subjects, taught from tired Marxist perspectives at Croatia’s state universities, were deemed especially in need of a truthful, Catholic corrective. Other academic programs will be added as the school grows.

“I went to a Catholic high school and came here because of the university’s strong Catholic identity,” explained second-year history major Antun Kovčaliya. “Here I can openly and freely express my opinions. Also, I enjoy the fact that our classes go beyond the basic subject matter by drawing connections to other subjects, like bioethics, religion, and philosophy. This is an approach that truly deepens our education.” (Like many Croatians, Antun also speaks fluent English, a compulsory subject in primary and secondary school.)

During the University Days, CUC students also organized special presentations for the public, featuring medieval cuisine, Gregorian chant, and the old Slavic alphabet Glagolica. Genetic biologist Dr. Tomislav Domazet-Lošo delivered a guest lecture which focused on the scientific evidence for life beginning at conception. Dr. Bartulica, who also teaches an introductory course in political philosophy, “hopes that this open house will become an annual tradition at CUC.”

The following Monday and Tuesday (June 4-5) featured a roundtable discussion, lectures, and ceremonies showcasing CUC’s emergence as a center of Croatia’s intellectual and spiritual life.

Monday morning’s roundtable discussion addressed the relationship between academia and the market in the context of Croatia. Croatian Minister of Labor and Pensions Dr. Mirando Mrsić outlined government policies designed to enable young people to enter the job market after completing university studies. Wieslaw Tarka, the Polish ambassador to Croatia, shared Poland’s experience since 1990 to the present, noting that Poland, by embracing a market economy, has achieved steady economic growth for two decades.

And Dr. Gordan Črpić, head of sociology and vice-rector at CUC, emphasized that Croatia is still going through a difficult transition to a functioning market economy. Although outwardly affluent—Croatians have a penchant for dressing well and driving the latest cars—the global economic crisis has hit the country hard: recent surveys indicate a dramatic loss of confidence in institutions, especially political institutions. As a corrective, Dr. Črpić stressed the importance of adopting principles of Catholic social teaching, such as a just wage, solidarity, and subsidiarity. He cited the encyclical Centesimus Annus, which points out that the human person cannot be reduced to just another commodity on the market, but rather must always be respected as a subject with intrinsic dignity.

Later that day, Cardinal Raffaele Farina, archivist at the Vatican Secret Archives and librarian of the Vatican Library, gave a special presentation on the historic hall of Pope Sixtus V at the Vatican Library. (Cardinal Farina retired from these posts just days later, yet continues to serve on curial bodies including the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.) He offered an overview of the famed hall and its recently completed renovations, and spoke about the importance of the Vatican Library to scholars.

On Tuesday, more than 100 dignitaries and special guests attended the event celebrating the sixth anniversary of CUC’s founding by the Archdiocese of Zagreb. The Grand Chancellor of CUC, Zagreb archbishop Cardinal Josip Bozanić, gave the welcoming address. He focused his remarks on the need for a new Christian humanism in Europe, emphasizing that CUC can make an important contribution to this.

“Recent trends in Europe have caused a fragmentation of knowledge and the truth about man has been thus neglected,” said Cardinal Bozanić. “A renewal of Christian anthropology can bring us back to a common understanding of our cultural heritage and give us a firm foundation for the future.”

Rev. Dr. Željko Tanjić, rector of CUC, spoke about recent developments at the university, especially the new academic disciplines of sociology and psychology. He pointed out that the emergence of a Catholic university is something entirely new in Croatia, but is steeped deeply in the tradition of the Church. CUC is steadily growing as an institution and is focused on academic excellence, as well as the moral formation of its students, noted the rector.

“We wish to make a contribution to Croatian society offering the best that the Church can give in educating and forming the next generation,” said Rev. Dr. Tanjić.

The Italian Minister of Culture, Dr. Lorenzo Ornaghi, also spoke at the event. Dr. Ornaghi, the longtime rector of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, said that he was very pleased to visit CUC and announced that the two Catholic universities would develop closer ties. He also quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal to Catholic universities to strengthen their Catholic identities in their mission of evangelizing culture.

Cardinal Farina gave the founding celebration’s keynote address. Entitled “Constantine the Great and the Ideology of Peace,” His Eminence’s speech stressed the significance of the Edict of Milan for the Church and the later evangelization of Europe. Cardinal Farina said that Constantine’s vision of the Church included the following elements: legitimate worship, possession of rights, the truth, and unity or harmony (concordia). “Constantine’s concept embraced the idea that unity, eternity, and universality were the three characteristics which were intrinsic to the Empire,” he said.

Before the conclusion of University Days, a special Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Bozanić, together with Cardinal Farina and invited priests. The Mass was attended by faculty, students, and friends of CUC and included the blessing of the new university chapel. Located in the basement of CUC’s main building, the stately chapel will be the center of CUC’s sacramental life, offering daily Mass and frequent opportunities for confession. The priest’s chair, a gift of the Church in Croatia, was used by Pope John Paul II on his 2003 visit to Croatia, the 100th trip of his pontificate.

“In full conformance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Over the course of a month-long visit to Croatia this past spring to learn about CUC, the country, her people, and the challenges the Church faces in Croatia, this writer spent many hours in the company of CUC’s rector, Rev. Dr. Željko Tanjić. Don (“Father”) Željko, as he is commonly called, is an energetic 44-year-old priest, educated in Rome and the Catholic University of America. He explained his hope for Croatia’s first Catholic university thusly:

We must be idealistic as well as practical. On the practical level, we must provide truly excellent academics that will attract the best students and prepare them to succeed professionally. But we are also idealistic, insofar as we are striving to provide the ideal Catholic education in full conformance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae [“From the Heart of the Church,” the apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II regarding Catholic colleges and universities]: that is, to provide a moral education that will develop the whole personality of our students in accordance with the teachings of the Church. Educating minds and forming souls for the future of Croatia—this is the heart our mission.

CUC expects to have 200 full-time students enrolled in the fall of 2012, a number that is growing larger by the year as CUC expands its academic offerings. And CUC just received a $20,000 grant toward its library from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Dr. Declan Murphy, director of the Collection for Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe for the USCCB, will be visiting CUC in October.

To view a documentary about CUC posted to YouTube, click here.

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About Matthew A. Rarey 10 Articles
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.