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Catholic Culture Solidarity

A Patriot, Not a Nationalist

by Josip Stilinovic


Profile of Cardinal Stepinac and his struggles with the Communists in Croatia.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, August/September 1998

Who is the Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac? Today, just weeks before he will be beatified, he can be seen as a man against whom the propaganda campaign never ceases. During his lifetime he was an extraordinarily influential archbishop, whose death came too slowly to suit the Communist government. Why was he so important? Why did he become so controversial? Why did he have to die?

"Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac is a martyr for the unity of the Catholic Church. He refused to let the Church become a servant of the Communist system." Thus says Dr. Juraj Batelja of Zagreb, the postulator of the cause for Stepinac's beatification. Batelja explains: He was open to cooperation with the Communist authorities, but always provided that the Church kept her freedom and that she could evangelize. When Marshal Tito began his persecution against religion as "the sin of the nation," and demanded formation of a "patriotic church" separated from Rome, Archbishop Stepinac would not accept such an offer. Consequently, very soon the process was begun through which he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor.

He was of the opinion that a church separated from Peter's successor would not have right to the Catholic name, and that it would lose her internal identity.

No less important, he was a prophet of the truth and justice, who foresaw the collapse of all systems which seek to oppose God's will and which restrict men in the exercise of their basic human rights. Archbishop Stepinac was a man who instinctively felt the need of justice in the world, and acted according to his conscience wherever and whenever human rights were being trampled. He raised his voice in the defense of human rights—and God's rights. About the strong patriotic feelings of Cardinal Stepinac, which have so often been misinterpreted. Dr. Batelja says: "He acted out of love for the Catholic Church and for his Croatian nation. Archbishop Stepinac was not a nationalist. On the contrary, he publicly stated that he was disgusted by any nationalism." Batelja points out that in his public statements of support for Croatia's right to exist as a nation, Stepinac did not raise any novel arguments, nor did he echo nationalistic slogans; he always cited international agreements and charters of human rights.

A man guided only by nationalism, Batelja adds, could not have endured all the suffering, the insults and personal attacks, which Cardinal Stepinac had to face; nor could he have preserved his own dignity, and that of the Church, with such grace. "He wouldn't have been able to grow as a spiritual genius, and to bear witness by shedding blood

for Jesus Christ, if he had not been growing steadily closer to God through daily prayers and willingness to sacrifice," he says. "From his life, it was obvious that God was close to him, that God supported him."

The priesthood: not an easy decision

Stepinac did not begin his priesthood, nor his episcopal duties, easily. Alojzije Stepinac was born in 1898, in Brezaric—near Krasic, where later in life he would live under house arrest. It is a Croatian region, noted as a fertile ground for priestly and religious vocations. (Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, the recently retired archbishop of Zagreb, came from the same region.) Alojzije was the fifth of eight children. His mother Barbara prayed fervently and fasted three times a week in hopes that her son would become a priest—a vocation for which he showed some inclination from the days of his early childhood, when he could be found at play setting up altars, rather than with the usual toys.

After secondary school in Zagreb, he was drafted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and sent to the Italian front as an officer in 1917. He saw all the cruelty of World War I, and had a few brushes with death on the front lines. In July 1918 he was captured by the Italian army, and confined at prison camps until December, when he was released and transferred as a volunteer to Greece —an experience which would later have a significant effect on his episcopal career. He also served at several garrisons of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where he had his first experiences of Serbian chauvinism. In the spring of 1919 he was demobilized.

For five years thereafter, Stepinac contemplated a priestly vocation. He apparently had some misgivings because he knew that some priests did not live up to their vows; he had also been deeply affected by the horrors of the war. From 1919 to 1924 he studied agronomy in Zagreb, participated actively in parish life, enjoyed an active social life, and even became engaged to Marija Horvat. But the wedding never took place, because after much internal struggle he discerned and answered God's call.

At the end of 1924 Stepinac enrolled as a philosophy and theology student in the Gregorian University in Rome; from that time forward, he never questioned his calling to the priesthood. In 1927 he received his doctorate in philosophy, and enrolled at the pontifical institute "Germanicum-Hungaricum" in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1930 and returned to Croatia a year later.

Archbishop Antun Bauer put the young priest in charge of liturgical ceremonies for the Zagreb archdiocese. For a short time he was also a parish priest in Samobor. In 1931—the same year that Yugoslavia became a dictatorship bent on establishing a centralized rule over "Greater Serbia"—he founded Caritas, a Catholic charitable organization, in the archdiocese.

The world's youngest bishop

At the age of 32 Stepinac became the coadjutor archbishop of Zagreb. At the time he was the youngest bishop in the world. It is a common belief in Croatia today that he became archbishop of Zagreb by God's intervention.

At the time, under the terms of a concordat between the Holy See and Yugoslavia, the king could veto episcopal candidates. Moreover, if a see became vacant, the kingdom would take over management of a huge portion of Church property. Archbishop Bauer was therefore continually proposing new candidates to be his successor, but between 1930 and 1934 each new candidate was rejected by King Aleksandr. When at last the name of Alojzije Stepinac was proposed, the king must have thought that Stepinac was young and inexperienced, easy to frighten and even easier to manipulate. When the king was told that Stepinac had volunteered to fight on the Greek front during the war—at a time when the battles were being fought to create what would eventually become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia—he decided to approved his candidacy. For the king and the Serbian government, it was a critical mistake.

The newly appointed archbishop was relatively unknown in Croatia. But his people accepted him remarkably quickly; they trusted him from the outset. Just two weeks after taking up his duties he led a pilgrimage from Zagreb to the Croatian national shrine at Marija Bistrica, walking along the 20-mile route at the head of a group of 5,000 pilgrims. (It is at the same shrine, Marija Bistrica, that Pope John Paul II will preside at Stepinac's beatification in October.) During the next three years he visited each of the 208 parishes of the diocese, and was warmly welcomed by his flock.

"When Cardinal Stepinac came to Cucerje in 1937, people could not fit into the church," recalls Franjo Rustan, who was a young man in Cucerje at the time. "Many people were crying out of sheer happiness to see him. After I saw him— and that happened only because I was allowed to enter the choir through the back door—1 loved him even more."

Today, Rustan says, "I am happy that finally we can praise [Stepinac] in public. During the Communist era it was dangerous even to mention his name." And to what does he attribute the late prelate's popularity? Rustan answers, "We know that he was a saint, and that he saved Croatia from extinction."

Rustan's statement sounds at first like an exaggeration. But one of the strongest factors holding together the Croatian people was the Catholic identity which they shared. Croatian people took great pride in their Catholic culture, and their membership in the universal in Church. It is not outlandish to speculate that, if Stepinac had bowed to the Communist rulers and established a nationalist "patriotic" church, that step would have begun the process of eroding the Croatian ethnic identity, and led eventually to the absorption of the Croatian people into the "Greater Serbia" envisioned by the Yugoslav leaders.

The plague of nationalism

Before the outbreak of World War II, Stepinac was enormously active. He founded fourteen new parishes, established a committee for sacred art, supported the foundation of the first cloistered Carmelite monastery in Croatia, participated in numerous national and international Eucharistic congresses, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, initiated a complete translation of the Bible, helped to start a Catholic daily newspaper, spoke out constantly against abortion, opened a diocesan museum, and headed the preparations to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Christianity in Croatia. In 1935, when he convened a public meeting to set out his pastoral plans, 15,000 people gathered to hear him.

That same year he dared to raise his voice against Serbian terrorism directed against Croats in Yugoslavia. When he was accused of being overly sympathetic with Croatians, he replied, in a letter to the papal nuncio Archbishop Pellegrinetti: "I always felt horrible pain because of exaggerated nationalism, wherever in the world it rules. On its account man is no longer brother to another man, but becomes a wolf. Therefore, the next council of the Holy Church should condemn exaggerated nationalism first among the contemporary heresies, as the biggest plague of the human race."

In 1936 Stepinac agreed to sponsor the work of a committee aiding Jewish refugees from Hitler's regime. That was the first step in a continuing campaign. On December 16, 1938, he wrote to Zagreb's pastors asking for help for persecuted Jews. Later that year he founded Action for Aid for Jewish Refugees, placing the organization under his personal protection. He wrote to wealthy Catholics reminding them that it was their "Christian duty" to raise support for the Jewish exiles.

Recognizing the dangers of Nazi ideology, and being aware of the racist campaign undertaken by the Nazi leaders, he warned a group of university students in March 1938:

Modern racism blames the Church for not falling on her knees in front of its idols. But is ethnicity the highest human value? It is not, because it would otherwise have to be able to fulfill all human strivings and to make man blessed on earth. And that cannot happen; that should be obvious. And eventually, at death, all racial differences disappear. Therefore, man will not be justified in God's judgment by belonging to this or that race, but by honest life and good deeds. So if love toward a nation crosses the borders of sound reason, then it is no longer love, but passion, and passion is neither of use, nor lasting. . . . That is why the Church, in the matters of ethnicity, also puts forward this principle: what you do not want to have done to yourself, do not do to others! Love for a man's own nation must not make a man into a wild animal, which tears down and provokes revenge; it must make him more noble, so that he can gain the respect and love of other nations for his nation. Therefore love toward your own nation is not contradictory to love for the whole of mankind; they complement each other. All of the nations are children of God. "Everything Archbishop Stepinac did was marked by greatness," says Father Stjepan Lackovic, who was the archbishop's personal secretary during the years of World War II. Father Lackovic, who now lives in rural New York, adds that Stepinac "had good timing: he knew? what to say and when to say it." But above all, he says, "He was 100 percent consistent, both in public and in private life."

Father Lackovic recalls that immediately after he was installed as coadjutor archbishop, Stepinac visited the Zagreb seminary, where he told the students "that there were better men, more famous men, more obedient men than he" who could have become archbishop, but promised that none would serve more faithfully. When he was appointed as the archbishop's secretary, he remembers, Father Lackovic was warned: "Do not expect any privileges or honors—only lots of hard work."

Against any injustice

As World War II arrived, and the new Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was proclaimed, Stepinac welcomed the new government, hoping it would assure Croats of their rights, after centuries of oppression. But he did not forget the other citizens. When the regime began its persecutions of ethnic minorities, he reacted. In April 1941 he lodged a protest with the Minister of the Interior of the NDH against the government's new racial laws. He called upon all priests to work for the development of the new independent state—but only on the basis of Gospel principles. In May 1941 he asked all parishes to welcome Slovenian priests exiled by Hitler's forces. Just a few days later he protested directly to the president of the NDH, Ante Pavelic, against the persecution of Orthodox Serbs. He wrote to all parish priests clarifying the regulations for conversions to the Catholic Church, since he strongly opposed forced or politically motivated conversions. At the end of the month he protested to the Minister of Interior yet again against the racial laws.

In July 1941 Stepinac begged Pavelic to improve the conditions for Serbians and Jews in concentration camps. On October 16 he spoke openly against the racial laws from the pulpit of the Zagreb cathedral, and called for an end to racial and religious persecution. At the beginning of December he pleaded with the authorities to let priests visit prisoners' camps and distribute packages from Caritas. On February 23,1942—the date of the inaugural session for the Croatian parliament—Archbishop Stepinac warned Pavelic that the parliament must enact laws that would be just and equal for all the citizens. (He also forbade any of his priests to become members of the parliament or to be involved in any political activity.) In June 1942 he condemned state censors who had vetted his speeches on human rights, and he again spoke out on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox.

When Croatian nationalists announced their new racial laws. Cardinal Stepinac stated that he would fight against them with "my whole being, as a bishop and as a man." When the laws were finally enacted—not without opposition—he never missed an opportunity to condemn them. In 1942, at a time when few other Catholic bishops in Europe dared to speak out, he said: All nations and races come from God. In essence there is only one race: God's race. Its birth certificate is in the Book of Genesis. . . . Members of that race can be of higher or lower culture, white or black, separated by oceans, live at the North or South Pole, but indeed they remain one race, which comes from God and should serve God. . . . Every nation and every race, as it is reflected today on Earth, has the right to live with dignity and to receive decent treatment. In 1943 he made the same point once again: "Racial differences cannot be the cause of destruction. The Church would fall short of her mission, if she didn't raise her voice in defense of all victims of injustice, without racial distinctions." And later that year he was even more explicit: "We cannot allow the innocent to be killed. . . . We always preach the holy principles of God's law, no matter whether Croats, Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox, or others are involved."

In 1943 Stepinac condemned the existence of the prison camp at Jasenovac, and when he became convinced that seven priests had been taken to Jasenovac for execution, he condemned this "shame, blot, and crime, which cries out to heaven for vengeance." Pleading the case for Jews, he said that the Christian character of Croatia could be protected only be showing respect for the rights of Jews and other minorities. He also pleaded for mercy on behalf of convicted Communists, and succeeded in having a death sentence commuted to a term of life imprisonment for one Communist Party member.

None of these public statements made the archbishop popular with the nationalist government. There is some real evidence to support a widespread belief that some Ustasha members plotted to kill Stepinac in order to silence his voice.

Resistance against Communism

Stepinac spoke out against injustice without partiality. So in March 1943 he condemned the Allied strategy of bombing civilian targets in Zagreb. In May 1943 he traveled to Rome bringing evidence of atrocities committed by German Nazis, Italian Fascists, Serbian Chetniks, Croatian Ustasha members, and assorted Communists. By 1945, a Serbian-dominated Communist regime had taken control in Yugoslavia. More than 150,000 people in Croatia were executed—most of them war prisoners, who died during a long march from the Slovenian border to Macedonia that became known as "the way of the Cross." Archbishop Stepinac again spoke out, explaining that true peace had not really been established. Serbian radio broadcasts immediately condemned him as a war criminal. On March 24,1945, after the release of a pastoral letter that named Catholic priests who had been executed by Communist partisans. Archbishop Stepinac was arrested for the first time. He was released after three weeks, and three days later met with Josip Broz—better known as Tito, the president of the People's Republic of Yugoslavia. Tito demanded that Stepinac proclaim a separation of the Church in Croatia from Rome. Stepinac flatly refused.

Fearful that the Communists might round up all Catholic activists for imprisonment or even execution, in July 1945 Archbishop Stepinac dissolved all Catholic associations rather than surrendering their membership lists to government authorities. In September of that year he issued a new pastoral letter on the persecution of the Church in Yugoslavia, stating that since the end of World War II there had been 243 Catholic priests executed, 169 imprisoned, and 89 were missing.

In November 1945, as he helped open a new parish in the Zagreb suburbs, Stepinac was the object of a failed assassination attempt. From that time forward, he only moved about within the city limits. Communist activists organized demonstrations against him constantly, and signatures were collected on a petition calling for his execution. The propaganda campaign had begun in earnest.

Trial, jail, and suffering

Early in the morning of January 12,1946, Archbishop Stepinac was arrested for the second time—this time not to be released until his death.

The trial was a farce. The testimony of witnesses was falsified in court reports. Witnesses were threatened. Judges delivered long monologues, and provided the "appropriate" answers to their own questions. The courtroom was packed with Communist agitators, whose vocal demonstrations were heavily covered by the government-controlled media; only five Church representatives were allowed to be present. Alongside the legal trial a media campaign began, with the government portraying the case as a test of "non-patriotic" elements within the Church.

In his final statement. Archbishop Stepinac insisted that his conflict was not with the "people of Yugoslavia"—as the prosecution had insisted—but with the Communist regime. He said he would rather die than make compromises with godless authority.

On October II, 1946, Archbishop Stepinac was convicted, and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor and 5 additional years of deprivation of his rights as a citizen.

He was sent first to the prison camp at Lepoglava. Although the sentence had stipulated hard labor, his jailers did not dare force the archbishop to work; for other Croatian prisoners Stepinac was a symbol of national pride, and any discipline against him might have provoked a general uprising. Instead they kept him in a small cell, almost completely isolated from the outside world. Not wanting this living symbol of Croatian spiritual resistance to survive, they gradually began to poison him.

By 1951 the archbishop was very ill. He was transferred to a rectory in Krasic, where he was held under tight house arrest. For years no one from outside Krasic was allowed into the village; the Yugoslavian authorities—now in conflict with the Soviet Union, and seeking better ties with the West—wanted to keep him out of sight.

Letters from the captivity

From Krasic, in the years before he died, Stepinac wrote more than 5,000 personal letters. Most of them were confiscated by the Communist secret service, and many others were destroyed by the recipients, at Stepinac's request. But five letters did get through to the United States, to the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, who had succeeded in making a rare visit to Stepinac in 1959, and revealed that the archbishop had been poisoned.

Stepinac wrote to Mestrovic that he did not want to leave Croatia for medical treatment abroad, because there were no guarantees he would be allowed back into the country. And if he applied for permission to go abroad, he reasoned, the Communist regime would have asked him first to confess his guilt. Stepinac also described in his letters to Mestrovic how his premises in Zagreb had been ransacked in a search for his diaries.

However, the most striking words in the archbishop's letters are his references to his guards, for whom he prayed constantly. He recognized that his persecutors could take his life, but added that he knows his duty, and will do that duty to the end—"without a trace of hatred or revenge to anyone, but also without fear."

In his letters Stepinac also foretells the fall of Communism "with absolute certainty." He writes that people cannot be won over by a system whose main strength comes from intimidation, torture, spying, interrogations, fines, prisons—in short, terror.

In 1952, when Pope Pius XII announced that Stepinac would be elevated to the College of Cardinals, the Yugoslav regime was so disturbed that it broke off relations with the Holy See. Nevertheless, he was formally raised to the rank of cardinal early in 1953.

Meanwhile, however, Stepinac's health was deteriorating. He suffered from "Vasques disease," which causes an overproduction of red blood cells. To ease the condition, physicians bled him regularly. Cardinal Stepinac joked that he had "already shed 27 liters of blood" for the Church.

In 1957 Cardinal Stepinac wrote his "Spiritual Testament." In it he explicitly forgave all of his persecutors. At the end of 1959, when the Communist authorities announced that they wanted to interrogate him again, he answered that his conviction in 1946 had been the legal assassination of an innocent man, but that they could also finish him off physically, if they so desired; he wouldn't hate them for that, either.

Influence from beyond the grave

Cardinal Stepinac died on February 10, 1960. His last words were "Thy will be done!" The Communists, clearly fearful that his body would yield evidence to support the reports of poisoning, destroyed his internal organs.

As soon as Stepinac's body was laid to rest in the cathedral of Zagreb—after Church officials painstakingly extracted permission from the government for the burial—pilgrims began flocking to the grave. For the Catholic faithful, the cardinal offered hope and comfort that eventually the Communist era would end.

For the Communists, too, the significance of Cardinal Stepinac's life endured long after his death. The Yugoslavian authorities were amazingly dedicated, persistent, and ready to spend money in the campaign to discredit this man's reputation. New evidence was invented, facts were twisted out of context, and stories were circulated for years after his death. The propaganda campaign continued, unabated, through the last days of the Communist regime. Indeed, that campaign continues to this day, through the echoes of the defamatory stories that the Yugoslavian government once spread throughout the world.

For years, students in Yugoslavia's schools were told about all sorts of ugly allegations concerning Cardinal Stepinac. Students who joined in the insults were judged to be showing their aptness for participation in the Communist regime. Young men inducted into the Yugoslavian army were exposed to even more lurid stories, while the secret service watched their reactions in hope of identifying the "enemies of the regime." (Incidentally, Croatians who refused induction into the army, which they considered an occupation force, risked a prison term of 10 years or more.)

It was in strict secrecy, therefore, that the Archdiocese of Zagreb opened the cause for the cardinal's beatification in 1980, nearly a full decade before the fall of Communism in Croatia. That campaign became public when Croatia finally won independence, and the newly elected Croatian parliament rehabilitated Cardinal Stepinac by annulling the results of all Bolshevik-style trials under the former Yugoslav Communist regime. The parliament specifically stated that the only reason for the cardinal's conviction was Stepinac's refusal to lead a schism.

In June 1996 the remains of Cardinal Stepinac were exhumed and experts from the Vatican found traces of poison in Stepinac's bones. That finding cleared the way for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to declare Stepinac a martyr, on November II, 1997.

"Stepinac's importance lies in resisting all tyrannies without distinction," says Don Zivko Kustic, editor-in-chief of the Croatian Catholic News Agency. He adds that the cardinal resisted an intense Communist campaign "to separate Croatian Catholics from Rome, just as the Communists did in China and Czechoslovakia with disastrous results."

Pope John Paul II—who understands Communism so well—refers to Cardinal Stepinac as "the bulwark of the Church among the Croats" who "resisted the yoke of Communism in the name of human rights and Christian dignity." •

Josip Stilinovic, a journalist based in Zagreb, writes regularly for Catholic World Report.

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