Letter #6: The Stepinac Case

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January 21, 2016, Thursday — The Stepinac Case

“We are afraid that there are too many open questions and wounds which Cardinal Stepinac symbolizes. His canonization, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history… We ask you to remove the question of the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac from the agenda, and to leave it to the infallible judgment of God.”—Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej, in a 2015 letter to Pope Francis

“Both Catholic and Orthodox priests were persecuted under communism, and therefore the Catholic Church can consider Stepinac to be a martyr, but before he is declared a saint we should see why he was silent when so many crimes were committed in the Second World War.”—Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, in a meeting with Pope Francis in Rome in September 2015

“I agree with the remonstrance that Stepinac did not do everything. Who can say that he has done everything in his life? This can only be said by the One, who on the cross uttered ‘It is finished.’ Every other person is limited and sinful.”—Croatian Catholic Archbishop Marin Barišić of Split-Makarska, in an interview yesterday on the proposed canonization of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac; the canonization has been opposed by Serbian Orthodox

“The cardinal is a saint, the Pope (Francis) is keeping his canonization in pectore [“in his breast,” i.e., in secret] and intends to declare it to everyone loudly and clearly when certain problems, controversial for some, are resolved.”—Archbishop Barišić, in the same interview

Can Catholics and Orthodox Agree on the Life and Work of Cardinal Stepinac?

An important story on Catholic-Orthodox relations is playing out on the margins of the public discourse of most of the West, as it is being followed primarily by those with a special interest in the history of the former Yugoslavia (in this case, of Croatia and Serbia).

It is the question of the canonization of Blessed Cardinal Aloysius Viktor Stepinac (1898-1960), the Croatian Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960. These years included the rule of the Croatian Ustaše over the State of Croatia from 1941 to 1945, during World War II.

The story is important because Pope Francis, at the request of the Serbian Orthodox, has created a commission to study the life and work of Stepinac, in order to come to a better mutual understanding of Stepinac’s words and actions.

If this commission can produce good fruits, it will be a remarkable witness to the possibility of better Catholic-Orthodox relations.

(Photo of Blessed Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, died 1960)

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Stepinac’s Life Story

After serving as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front during World War I, Stepinac was ordained in 1930, and in 1931 became liturgical master of ceremonies to the Archbishop of Zagreb.

He established the archdiocesan branch of the charity Caritas later that year, and was appointed coadjutor bishop to the see of Zagreb in 1934.

When Archbishop Antun Bauer died on December 7, 1937, Stepinac succeeded him as the Archbishop of Zagreb.

During World War II, on 6 April 1941, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and established the Ustaše-led government.

As archbishop of the puppet state’s capital, Stepinac had close associations with the Ustaše leaders during the German occupation.

However, despite initially welcoming the Independent State of Croatia, Stepinac subsequently condemned the Germany-aligned state’s atrocities against Jews and Serbs.

He objected to the persecution of Jews, helped Jews and others to escape, and criticized Ustaše atrocities in front of Zagreb Cathedral in 1943.

Despite this, Stepinac never broke publicly with the Ustaše regime.

After the war, he publicly condemned the new Yugoslav government and its actions during World War II, especially the murders of priests by Communist militants.

Yugoslav authorities indicted the archbishop on multiple counts of war crimes and collaboration with the enemy during wartime.

The trial was depicted in the West as a typical communist “show trial.”

The Yugoslav authorities found him guilty on the charge of high treason (for collaboration with the fascist Ustaše regime), as well as complicity in the forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism.

He was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but was released to house arrest after five, with his movements confined to his home parish of Krašić.

In 1952, he was appointed cardinal by Pope Pius XII, but he was unable to participate in the 1958 conclave.

Stepinac died of polycythemia in 1960 while still under confinement in his parish.

On October 3, 1998, Pope John Paul II declared him a martyr and beatified him before 500,000 Croatians in Marija Bistrica near Zagreb.

Stella Alexander, author of The Triple Myth, a sympathetic biography of Stepinac, writes about him: “Two things stand out. He feared Communism above all (especially above fascism); and he found it hard to grasp that anything beyond the boundaries of Croatia, always excepting the Holy See, was quite real… He lived in the midst of apocalyptic events, bearing responsibilities which he had not sought… In the end one is left feeling that he was not quite great enough for his role. Given his limitations he behaved very well, certainly much better than most of his own people, and he grew in spiritual stature during the course of his long ordeal.”

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Archbishop Barišić: The sainthood of Cardinal Stepinac is not in question (link)

Split, (IKA) – Archbishop Marin Barišić of Split-Makarska stated that the canonization of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac has not been called into question, regardless of the objections voiced by the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose delegation recently visited Pope Francis.

In response to a journalist’s question following the presentation of a new book by Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy, on January 20 at the Archdiocesan Ordinariate in Split, the archbishop said that Pope Francis had proposed the formation of a joint commission composed of representatives of the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church in order to consider the role of Cardinal Stepinac.

As reported by HINA, Msgr. Barišić said: “I should compare this with cases when the Pope appoints a cardinal and then, owing to certain circumstances, does not publicly reveal his name but appoints him in pectore and, when circumstances permit, declares his appointment. The Pope is doing something similar here. The cardinal is a saint, the Pope is keeping his canonization in pectore and intends to declare it to everyone loudly and clearly when certain problems, controversial for some, are resolved.”

In connection with objections from the Serbian Orthodox Church concerning the role of Cardinal Stepinac, Archbishop Barišić said that no man is perfect. “I agree with the remonstrance that Stepinac did not do everything. Who can say that he has done everything in his life? This can only be said by the One, who on the cross uttered ‘It is finished.’ Every other person is limited and sinful.”

Archbishop Barišić cautioned that in connection with Cardinal Stepinac, it is necessary to be reasonable and fair, not reducing the issue to politics, but to remain at the evangelical, human and spiritual level.

Speaking about the recent meeting of the Serbian Orthodox Church delegation with Pope Francis, he said that on this occasion it is likely that the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church also presented some names for the mixed commission to discuss the role of Cardinal Stepinac during the period in which he lived.

Msgr. Barišić pointed out that he was pleased that Pope Francis is open and broadminded.

Concerning the Pope’s meeting with the delegation from the Serbian Orthodox Church, Msgr. Barišić said that “a way of mercy and sensitivity to the questions and needs of others is to want to hear what the problem is and what the problem is for them… I believe that it can be a gain for everyone if the bridge is re-established because we need this bridge, we do not need walls, but in the present situation I should like for us, the bishops in the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, to be more like clerics and less like politicians, lest we reduce faith and the gospel to politics,” added Archbishop Barišić.

He explained how it is necessary to build a bridge that will afford a place to truth and justice, adding that in this case, the bridge that will be built between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church would be stable and lasting.

The Pope’s meeting with the delegation from the Serbian Orthodox Church will contribute to greater candor in the meetings between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia.

He recalled that the last meeting between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church took place in 2002 in Osijek, and that in 2003 the Serbian Orthodox Church was supposed to be the host but the meeting was not held.

“I should have preferred that we had met more often on the terrain and then the meeting between the delegation of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Holy Father would have had greater significance and efficacy,” said Archbishop Barišić.

He added that he fears that “it is not good to avoid meetings on the terrain” but he hopes that the meeting between the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Holy Father, as well as last year’s visit by a delegation from the Serbian Orthodox Church to Split, will “yield fruits.”

“The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has begun and I believe it will contribute to the maturation to those of us in the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church,” concluded Archbishop Barišić.

Pope Francis and Serbian Orthodox Church Discuss Canonization of Croatian Cardinal Stepinac (link)

By Vedran Pavlic, 17 Jan 2016

Cardinal Stepinac on the way to sainthood?

Pope Francis met yesterday (January 16) at the Vatican with a delegation of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate.

The news was confirmed by the Press Office of the Holy See.

It has not been announced who was in the delegation nor what was discussed, but it is believed that members of the delegation of the Serbian Orthodox Church were those representatives who will also be members of the interreligious committee to analyze the actions of Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac during the Second World War, reports Vecernji List on January 17, 2016.

It is certain that they have discussed the work of the joint commission of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church which should discuss the actions of Stepinac, who is expected to be canonized in the future.

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, has recently written to Pope Francis and asked him to receive the Serbian delegation.

According to media reports, Irinej asked the Pope to “remove the question of the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac from the agenda, and to leave it to the infallible judgment of God.”

He reportedly said that Stepinac “wholeheartedly supported the creation of the Independent State of Croatia, lavished praise on its leadership and took part in the creation of an atmosphere of intolerance in that country, which was a copy of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.”

“We are afraid that there are too many open questions and wounds which Cardinal Stepinac symbolizes. His canonization, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history,” said the Patriarch’s letter.

In September 2015, Pope Francis discussed the issue with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, who later announced that he said to the Pope “that both Catholic and Orthodox priests were persecuted under communism, and therefore the Catholic Church can consider Stepinac to be a martyr, but before he is declared a saint we should see why he was silent when so many crimes were committed in the Second World War.”

During their meeting in May 2015, Pope Francis told Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović that he had decided to establish the interreligious committee. The canonization of Cardinal Stepinac is not in question, said Pope Francis at the time, but no one knows when the decision could be made official.

The Catholic-Orthodox commission should eliminate all doubts of the Serbian Orthodox Church about Stepinac. since the Pope does not want the canonization to be understood as an act against it or against the Serbian people.

It is not known when the Commission might end its work. Of course, the opinion of the Serbian Orthodox Church will not prevent the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac, but the commission’s goal is to avoid causing any further divisions between Catholics and Orthodox faithful.

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Comments

  1. TonyG says

    Who, exactly, is Sterbian President Nikolic to pronounce on who may and who may not be declared a martyr or a saint in the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church does not tell him who may or may not be a Serbian resident, nor should She. Likewise, I would suggest that President Nikolic keep his mouth closed on whether he allows the Church to declare someone a saint…in HER Church.

    I would add that this “controversy” is so much like countless other activities where those in Serbia have taken it upon themselves to bully, shamelessly, others. One should not forget that THE FIRST major city in all of Europe to declare itself “Judenfrei,” that is, “Jew Free” – with banners in the streets proclaiming itself thus, was Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia. Not Germany, not Croatia, not Italy. Belgrade.

  2. TonyG says

    I should add another example of this bullying. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic stated that “wherever there is even one Serbian grave, there is Serbia.” That there is a Serbian cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, would not alter his view.