Catholic World News News Feature

In Europe's Jerusalem January 03, 2002

When Pope John Paul II finally visited war-torn Sarajevo in April, after months of planning and years of expectation, it was a "dream come true" for Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the city's archbishop, who had received the red hat himself from the same Pontiff in 1994.

Cardinal Puljic points out that as he came into a tense political situation, the Pope carefully avoided saying anything to suggest that the current regime--the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as established by the Dayton accords, with the prospect of domination of eventual domination by Muslims or Serbs--is a permanent fixture in the region. Rather, the Holy Father spoke of a "state of citizens," in which everyone would enjoy equal rights.

It is not difficult to understand the cardinal's emphasis on the papal visit, as a pivot on which the future of the Church might turn. The years of war in Bosnia-Herzegovnia have taken their toll. Before the war began--when the region was disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Diocese of Banja Luka could boast 120,000 Catholics in 47 parishes. Today at least half of those parishes have disappeared, leaving no more than 50,000 Catholic faithful. The Diocese of Trebinje-Mrkanj once included 14,000 faithful; more than 3,000 are now in exile. And in Sarajevo itself, only 200,000 Catholics remain, out of more than 525,000 living in the city before the war.

In that context, what difference could the Pope's appearance make? Cardinal Puljic responded, in an exclusive interview with Catholic World Report.

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How did you, personally, perceive the effects of the Pope's visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina and its impact on the local Church?

Cardinal Vinko Puljic: The pastoral visit by the Holy Father to Sarajevo on April 12 and 13 was something which I experienced with a great deal of happiness and joy. It was the fulfillment of a desire, the realization of something which I had awaited for a long time.

Personally, I am more than satisfied by the support which the Holy Father received, the program which he carried out, and the messages which he delivered to our local Church--as well as his total support for our persistent struggle to survive and to remain in these areas, and our fight for equal rights.

At the same time, the Pope's visit gave us an opportunity to represent the local Church to the entire world--a world which had, for the most part, ignored our existence.

I am still going over every detail of the Pope's visit in my heart, and putting together my impressions. All of this is not only a memory, but a challenge for further work.

How do you think the visit was experienced by ordinary Catholics?

Puljic: All of the people who encountered the Holy Father--whether it was in the stadium (where the weather was not working on our side), or on the streets of Sarajevo, or on their television screens--spoke of a big, beautiful, historic meeting. We have been strengthened in both our faith and our hope.

The congratulations we received, and the joy we felt, came not only from Catholics, but from other inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many diplomatic, political, cultural, and other representatives expressed their congratulations, their positive judgments, and their admiration of the events surrounding the Pope's visit.

Were you concerned about the Pope's safety? Were there new fears introduced by the discovery of land mines under the bridge on his route?

Puljic: I was not particularly worried, because I had the impression that the church and state committees preparing for the visit had cooperated very smoothly and that they had a clear perspective on the whole matter.

I am sorry that, in the minds of many journalists, the discovery of these mines was more important than the arrival of the Holy Father, and the message he delivered.

Although some agents on the international scene wanted to prevent the Pope from passing through Sarajevo on his "Popemobile," that plan was not abandoned. So many of the city's citizens had the chance to greet the Holy Father on the streets of Sarajevo.

During those moments I did not feel any fear. I was deeply conscious of how many people had prayed for a successful visit by the Holy Father. And I was also aware of the many people who were in charge of the security for the visit, knowing that they took their jobs seriously.

Keep in mind that we have lived for four years under exceptionally difficult and dangerous conditions, with people killed on the streets every day. In this period after the war, I was not surprised to learn that mines had been set, because there were many people who were opposed to the Pope's visit.

In any case, there were many people of good will who longed for the Pope's visit,. and happily saw it as the arrival of a messenger of peace--a visit with implications far beyond the immediate impact of his statements.

Among the Holy Father's words, which ones had special meaning for you?

Puljic: I myself, like all the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be taking into account all the addresses which the Pope delivered--at the stadium, in the cathedral, and in his remarks to us, the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he spoke to us at the archbishop's residence in Sarajevo. All of his messages are crystal clear, and it is difficult to differentiate among them because they all form a single unity. His basic messages call for peace, pardon, reconciliation, and the defense of the human person in every context.

How important were the Holy Father's meetings with the representatives of other religious groups, and the awards which he bestowed on representatives of groups representing the different religious communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Puljic: It was very important for the Holy Father to meet with the other religious representatives, because the Catholic Church has a special role in this region. She is the bridge which allows dialogue and cooperation among the different religious communities.

As this millennium draws to an end and the next one begins, the Pope speaks clearly about the need for dialogue. That is exactly the plan which we consider essential to the work of the Church here in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the same time, our work entails a challenge to rebuild an atmosphere of trust, in which collaboration is possible. As for the Pope John XXIII peace prizes, which were awarded to Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox agencies, it is clear to everyone here that these agencies deserved the recognition. They have all helped to ease the suffering of people harmed by the warfare in our darkest days. By giving these awards, the Holy Father encouraged these good people, giving them a reason not to grow tired but to continue doing good. Can Bosnia-Herzegovnia survive as an independent sovereign state? Can Croats, Muslims and Serbs live together in harmony here?

Puljic: I do not see why one state could not survive in which different people might live together in their own homeland. Any other solution would amount to an institutional legalization of injustice.

If people cannot live on their own land, and in their own homes, then I ask-- where is the culture of Europe headed? Can Europe survive, if it offers a stamp of legitimacy for injustice? There should first be a general commitment to build up equality, and then we should be able to find the way to make it work.

What does the Pope's visit mean for the future of the local Church? Or is there a future?

Puljic: The Holy Father's visit encouraged us in faith and hope. Now it's up to us to do what we ought to do. The Church is God's creation, and that is why I have hard time believing that God would step back in the face of all these injustices and political games.

This is also the right time for an examination of conscience among all those who could and should have supported the survival of the local Church, but did not do so, because they were only acting as disinterested observers in a series of tragic events. [AUTHOR ID] Josip Stilinovic, a journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia, accompanied Pope John Paul on his mission to Sarajevo.