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Martyrs of Communism: Blessed Aloysius Stepinac

Before, during, and after World War II, few men besides Aloysius Stepinac showed themselves more willing to stand up to two powerful mass murderers and publicly speak against their dangerous and downright evil ideologies.

Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac on trial in September 1946. (Wikipedia)

When Aloysius Stepinac was brought into court on September 30, 1946, everyone knew it was a mere show trial.

Granted, there were many well-deserved trials of suspected war criminals after World War II. Granted, some members of the Fascist Ustaša government of Yugoslavia (who were also on trial with him) fully deserved to be held accountable for atrocities committed before and during the war. But the Yugoslav government under Josip Tito was less interested in finding war criminals than it was in destroying all political opposition and stifling dissent. And Aloysius Stepinac, as the Catholic archbishop of Zagreb, had become an intolerable impediment to Tito’s efforts to make Yugoslavia into a Communist country.

The Western world watched this very public trial of a Catholic archbishop, just as it watched the similar arrests and trials of Communist governments against cardinals Stefan Wyszynski of Poland, Jozsef Mindszenty of Hungary, Josef Beran of Czechoslovakia, and Josyf Slipyi of Ukraine. Everyone recognized that Stepinac’s trial was pure propaganda, and everyone realized that a declaration of guilt against him was a foregone conclusion. That didn’t keep people like Winston Churchill and the archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, for example, from publicly protesting his innocence. Pope Pius XII later even formally excommunicated any Catholics associated with Stepinac’s condemnation.

But why did the Communists put Stepinac on trial in the first place? Who was this man they hated so much?

Aloysius Stepinac was born in 1898 in a small village, was conscripted into the army during World War I, considered marriage after the war was over, but entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. He also received doctorates in theology and philosophy and was soon ordained a coadjutor bishop. He was only thirty-six years old, which made him the youngest bishop in the Church at the time.

To understand Aloysius, it helps to understand his people. The modern nations of Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are all crowded near the Adriatic Sea, most of them facing the coast of Italy. The peoples of this region have an ancient history, but the boundary lines of their nations have often been subject to meddling from other, larger nations over the centuries. After World War I, King Alexander I tried to unite the ethnic groups of the area by declaring himself the ruler of a new kingdom of Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes, which became known as Yugoslavia.

Aloysius’ family were Croatians. There were and still are people of many religions and other ethnic groups present in modern Croatia, but Croatians and Slovenes are typically Catholic, and Serbs are typically Orthodox. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that forcibly combining multiple ethnic groups and religions into one country would create conflict. King Alexander’s heavy-handed leadership was one of the reasons that he was assassinated by a Croatian group called Ustaša in 1934, the same year that Aloysius was consecrated a bishop.

Just a few years later in 1937, Aloysius was named archbishop of Zagreb, a position he held until his death. From that time forward, he forcefully, repeatedly, and publicly denounced both the National Socialist ideology of Germany and the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union. He explained the errors of materialism and the lack of respect for human dignity inherent in those world views, as well as the dangers to morality which follow from its explicit atheism. Aloysius also condemned Nazi eugenic policies, declaring that “all peoples and races descend from God”. He continued to speak out against Nazism during World War II, so much so that the German ambassador to Croatia remarked that if a German bishop had spoken like that, he would be put in prison.

As the Catholic archbishop, Aloysius devoted himself to strengthening the faith of his flock, particularly by encouraging Catholic organizations and Catholic devotions. As a public leader of a predominantly Croatian city, Aloysius also defended the rights of Croats against repressive practices. But he spoke out against the persecution of Jews and other minorities and helped Croatian Jews escape from the Nazis as well. The relationship between Croats and Serbs is notoriously complicated, with many acts of violence on both sides over the years. But when the Ustaša government tried to force Orthodox believers to become Catholic, the archbishop privately told his priests to allow the Orthodox to convert, with the promise that they could return to Orthodoxy after the repression had ended if they wished. Whether the Orthodox believed him or not, at least he tried.

Showing very clearly that the Communists understood what kind of man they were dealing with, as soon as they took control of Yugoslavia after World War II, they put Aloysius under house arrest. They then released him, perhaps hoping they had scared him into submission. But Aloysius continued to publicly protest the atheistic ideology and the political actions of the new Communist government, such as the suppression of the press and the repression of church marriages in favor of civil marriages, along with other practices that were being forcibly imposed upon his people. The Communists even offered to create a national Catholic Church (independent of the Vatican, of course) and put Aloysius in charge of it. Unsurprisingly, he said no.

For that reason, he was arrested in 1946, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. He was imprisoned for five years before his sentence was commuted. At that time, he was given the option of leaving the country for Rome or living under house arrest in his home parish of Krašić. He chose Krašić, refusing to leave his people.

In 1953, Pope Pius XII named him a cardinal to show his great respect for Stepinac’s sacrifices; Yugoslavia angrily responded by severing all diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Seven years later, Aloysius died. Prison life had certainly contributed to his death, but a post-mortem performed years later apparently revealed arsenic in his bones. It is not surprising that the Communist leaders of Yugoslavia would want one of their most implacable enemies to die slowly, rather than becoming known as a martyr, which would only lead to violence.

Stepinac’s canonization process—the effort to recognize him as a saint, not merely a blessed—is stymied by political opposition due to Croat/Serb relations, and it must be acknowledged that Stepinac’s links with the Ustaša government are controversial. Some say he should have done more to stop the Ustaša’s genocidal acts against Serbs. But before, during, and after World War II, few men besides Aloysius Stepinac showed themselves more willing to stand up to two powerful mass murderers—Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—and publicly speak against their dangerous and downright evil ideologies. One could argue that he did as much as he could, as diplomatically as he could, before they got around to killing him. Which they ultimately did.

On February 10, we can honor Blessed Aloysius Stepinac as a holy man who loved Christ and the Church and who displayed a heroic level of virtue, merely because he saw himself as a shepherd trying to protect his sheep from wolves. And we can pray for more leaders like him.

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About Dawn Beutner 102 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at


  1. SAINT Aloysius Stepanic, pray for us. Pray, especially, for the leaders of our Church – our Popes and Bishops – that they may have the same courage as you to stand up in witness against atheistic secular materialism.

  2. A touch of dyslexia, happens to me sometimes. The photo identifies Stepinac with the right spelling of his name I think: S T E P I N A C .

    I have no-one to help with it or proof-read what I write, too. You have CWR and I say it’s their fault the incorrect spelling got past them.

    In the end, they WILL HAVE to be just toward Stepinac and canonize him. Their sticking point is a revisionism and of course it’s wrong.

    Stepinac already faced the events heroically and in the grace of God.

    If the ones objecting can’t take the lesson it would mean that the canonization process must over-ride them.

    Stepinac has to be known for his moment in which he was acting.

    Thank you for a well-written article.

    ‘ The statement by Pope Francis regarding the canonisation of Cardinal Stepinac made in early May 2019, in which he said he had sought advice and help of the “great” Serbian Patriarch Irenaeus on the issue, elicited a formal reaction from Archbishop Želimir Puljić, President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, in which he stated that the involvement of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Stepinac’s canonisation represented a precedent in the Catholic Church. In an interview that was published on the official information web site of the Catholic Church in Croatia on 24 May, the Bishop Emeritus of Gospić-Senj, Mile Bogović, called such move on the part of the Pope ″not good for the Church″.

    Statements on the canonisation issue made by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on a visit to Croatia in September 2020, were interpreted by Croatian commentators and prelates as a clear indication that there would be no progress under this Pope. ‘

    • No, I can’t blame Beutner or her article for anything concerning the Ustaše. Think about it carefully, it’s the same for Stepinac.

      There is a strangeness in the hold-up of the canonization. Some Orthodox want to say he is implicated in handing them over; and some Catholics want to access that to showcase that a true saintliness would have done it differently. The one and the both are dishonest.

      Stepinac embraced the Orthodox and led them against Communism and the poisoning of the nation’s new-found independence.

      It seems to me there is a lesson for Ukraine in our time. Ukraine has become independent and some Catholics want to force upon Orthodox, a crippling nationalism, an enforced unity, a one-sided westernism, instead of making natural unity and the diversity flourish.

      In the process they invoke a “dread fear of Communism” that the Ukraine Orthodox supposedly could be protecting, that doesn’t exist; and a most irrational rejection of Ukraine’s most benign neighbor, Russia. To the extent that they war on their own people in the east and set up a propaganda on the carnage they inflict on them.

  3. Isn’t it amazing that everything Francis touches
    turns gold to dross? He seems to be a Reverse
    Rumpelstiltskin. Is it really he? Or someone who
    advises him?

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Martyr of Communism: Blessed Aloysius Stepanic – Via Nova Media
  2. Martyr du communisme : le bienheureux Aloysius Stepanic
  3. Martyr of Communism: Blessed Aloysius Stepinac – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  4. VVEEKEND EDITION – Big Pulpit

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