[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]
September 29, 1999
What is more, Pope John Paul II beatified him on the First Saturday of the month of October, 1998, in the National Marian Sanctuary of Marija Bistrica (Croatia): "The Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb, one of the most prominent figures of the Catholic Church, after having undergone the atrocities of the Communist system in his mind and body, is forevermore entrusted to the memory of his countrymen with the dazzling emblems of martyrdom
"Through his human and spiritual journey, Blessed Aloïs Stepinac gave his people a sort of compass with which they could orient themselves. The cardinal points of this compass are: faith in God, respect for man, the love of all, even to the point of forgiveness, and unity with the Church under the guidance of the Successor of Peter. He knew very well that one could not engage in bargaining when speaking of the truth, because the truth is not an item which can be bargained for. Hence, he would prefer to confront suffering rather than betray his conscience and fail before the words given to Christ and the Church" (Beatification Homily, October 3, 1998)
The example of a saint
Sent to middle school at Zagreb, Aloïs exhibited a strong will despite a discreet and reserved temperament. In 1917, he was called up to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army. Returning home in June 1919, after a brief captivity in Italy, the young man underwent an interior crisis. Disgusted by the immorality which surrounded him in the army, he began studies in agriculture which were soon interrupted. A marriage proposal did not work out. In March 1924, a priest who knew him well published a magazine article on Saint Clement-Marie Hofbauer and sent it to him along with a long letter. Touched by the example of this saint, the young man decided to consecrate his life to God and entered the "Germanicum" Seminary in Rome. One of his fellow seminarians would say of him: "He burned with love for the Church and was totally faithful to the Holy Father."
Aloïs Stepinac completed his doctorate in philosophy, and then in theology, at the Gregorian University of Rome, and he received priestly ordination on October 26, 1930. Returning to Croatia, he found the country devastated and exploited by Serbia. His desire was to be a country priest, but the Archbishop of Zagreb kept him on as a master of ceremonies, then as notary of the archiepiscopal curia. He accepted, saying: "I don't know if I will stay here or not. But it doesn't matter to me; all roads in the service of God lead to Heaven." Important missions were entrusted to him, such as bringing peace to conflicts that had erupted in certain parishes. He initiated charitable works in the poor sections of Zagreb and organized soup kitchens.
In 1934, Archbishop Bauer fell gravely ill and requested a coadjutor from the Holy See. He proposed the name of Aloïs Stepinac, who tried in vain to avoid this duty, because of his age (36 years) and of his lack of priestly experience. On May 29, he was named coadjutor. He went on foot to the Marian sanctuary of Marija Bistrica, 36 km from Zagreb, to entrust his difficult ministry to Mary. Indeed, the Croatian bishops had to fight ceaselessly for recognition of the rights of the Catholic Church (freedom of the schools, freedom of association, authority of the Church over Catholic marriages, etc.). On December 7, 1937, Archbishop Bauer passed away and Bishop Stepinac succeeded him as Archbishop of Zagreb. The prelate recommended that his priests consecrate the best of themselves to their interior life. Among his official actions before the war, he published an open letter to all doctors denouncing the "white plague": the development of contraception and abortion. In addition, he founded a daily Catholic newspaper to combat against the influence of the irreligious press.
The archbishop held religious life in great esteem and felt that its development was indispensable. Monasteries should become "fortresses of Christ," and protect the diocese with the spiritual weapons of prayer, renunciation and sacrifice.
"The fruit of an immense selfishness"
On April 10, 1941, after the invasion of Yugoslavia by the German armies, the Croatian nationalists (also known as the Oustachis) proclaimed an independent State at Zagreb. Along with positive developments (full freedom for the Catholic Church, fostering good morals, etc.), the new regime did itself no honor by discriminating against citizens of the Orthodox faith, Jews and Gypsies. Without outright condemnation of the Croatian State recognized "de facto" by the Holy See, Archbishop Stepinac showed the greatest reserve. He presented himself as the spokesman for the oppressed and persecuted; he denounced the violent acts of the Oustachis and condemned racial theories, as well as persecutions against the Jewish and Serb minorities.
The Croatian government pressed the Orthodox to convert to the Catholic religion. Archbishop Stepinac sent his clergy a confidential note: "When people of the Jewish or Orthodox faiths come to you in danger of death, and they wish to convert to Catholicism, take them in1 in order to save their lives. Do not seek from them any particular religious knowledge because the Orthodox are already Christians like us, and the Jewish faith is the root of Christianity. The role and the duty of Christians is above all to save people. When these days of lies and savagery will have finished, those who have converted out of conviction will be able to remain members of our Church while the others will be able to return to theirs, once the danger is passed." Indeed, the Church teaches the freedom of the act of faith: "One of the key truths in Catholic teaching is that man's response to God by faith ought to be free, and that therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will" (Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae, 10).
Throughout the war, the Archbishop of Zagreb showered the benevolence of his acts of charity on the unfortunate, no matter who they were. He distributed entire wagon loads of food to refugees, personally cared for orphans whose parents had been interred or who had fled to the countryside, and saved 6,700 children from famine and death, the majority of whose parents were Orthodox.
The president of the Jewish community in the United States, Louis Breier, would say of him, on October 13, 1946: "This great personality of the Church was accused of collaboration with the Nazis. We Jews deny it. We know, since his actions beginning in 1934, that he has always been a true friend of the Jews who, during those years, suffered the persecution of Hitler and his henchmen. Aloïs Stepinac is one of those men, rare in Europe, who rose up against the Nazi tyranny, just at the moment when it was the most dangerous to do so It is thanks to him that the law on the `yellow armbands' was withdrawn After His Holiness Pope Pius XII, Archbishop Stepinac was the greatest defender of the persecuted Jews in Europe."
When the bells fell silent
Meanwhile the dictatorship was put in place, taking no heed of the solemn declaration of the federal government of Yugoslavia according to which freedom of conscience and religion, as well as private property, would be respected. In a pastoral letter of September 20, 1945, the Catholic bishops of Yugoslavia noted that 243 priests had been killed since the end of the war and that 258 more had been imprisoned or had disappeared. Then, remarking on the paralysis of the seminaries, the ravages occurring among the youth by the atheist propaganda and the immorality favored by the State, they solemnly condemned "the materialist and impious spirit that is spreading in our country."
In October 1945, during a pastoral visit, Archbishop Stepinac's car was assaulted by Communists and the windows broken with rocks. The day before the attack, the militia had threatened the prelate with reprisals if he went through with this visit. The Archbishop remarked, "In any event, we only die once; let them do what they want, but I will never stop preaching the truth; I fear no one, except God, and my duty remains the same: to save souls."
"My conscience is clear and at peace"
On September 18, 1946, at 5 o'clock in the morning, the militia entered the Archbishop's residence and rushed to the chapel where the prelate was in prayer. Summoned to follow the police, he answered: "If you lust for my blood, here I am." On September 30 a trial began, which Pope Pius XII would qualify as "tristissimo" (lamentable). Strengthened by a forthright and pure conscience, Archbishop Stepinac did not weaken before the judges. Perfectly calm, ensured of the protection of the "Advocate of Croatia, the most faithful of Mothers," the Blessed Virgin Mary, he listened, on October 11, to the unjust sentence pronounced against him, condemning him to imprisonment and forced labor for sixteen years, "for crimes against the people and the State." On October 7, 1998, Pope John Paul II would say, "The reason for the persecution he underwent and the sham trial staged against him was his refusal to separate from the Pope and the Apostolic See and take on the leadership of a `national Croatian Church.' He would prefer to remain faithful to the Successor of Peter. That is why he was slandered and then condemned."
Incarcerated in Lepoglava, Archbishop Stepinac shared in the miserable fate of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. Numerous guards humiliated him, entering his cell at any time, insults coming out of their mouths. The packages of food that he received were exposed several days in the heat or spoiled in order to make them inedible. The Archbishop remained silent. He transformed his prison cell into a monk's cell of prayer, work and holy penance. They took everything from him "except one thing: the possibility of raising his arms towards Heaven like Moses" (cf. Ex 17: 11). He had the good fortune of being able to celebrate Mass on a makeshift altar. On the last page of his calendar for 1946 he wrote: "Everything for the greater glory of God; including my prison."
"To suffer and work for the Church"
To visitors discouraged by the misdeeds of Communism, Archbishop Stepinac responded: "We must not despair, because even if Communism leaves its trace on our people, and if our hands are tied by this perfidious ideology and if some of us have failed, we are nevertheless better off than the people of the West, saturated with material goods, but suffocating in immorality and practical atheism. Thank God that my people have remained faithful to God and to the respect owed to the Blessed Virgin!"
During this time, the Yugoslav government was searching, at any cost, to cause a rupture between the Croatian Catholics and Rome and to found a schismatic national church, with a view to uniting the Croatians to the Serbian Orthodox Church. An "association of Saints Cyril and Methodus," bringing together "patriot priests," devoted to the regime, was created to this end. The year 1953 was marred by government-sponsored violence. By means of extensive use of mail, the shut-in Archbishop encouraged priests and the faithful, exhorted the undecided and brought back the wandering sheep. More than one priest admitted: "If he hadn't been there, who knows how we would have turned?" One of Tito's principal henchmen, Milovan Djilas, would later admit: "If Stepinac had decided to yield and proclaim a Croatian Church independent of Rome, as we desired, we would have loaded him with honors!"
"It is the spirit that conquers, not matter "
The generosity of the Cardinal for those poorer than himself was without limit. The parish priest from Krasic said, "He only has what is absolutely necessary for clothing; he gives away everything. He just gave away two pairs of shoes to the poor." Humble, Archbishop Stepinac regretted all the publicity that existed about him. Hearing one day that a foreign magazine had published a papal statement: "The Cardinal of Croatia is the greatest prelate of the Catholic Church," he lowered his head and murmured: "God alone is great!"
At the end of 1952, he had to have an operation on his leg, then, the following year, he was diagnosed with a blood disease due, according to his doctors, to the mistreatment that he had endured. Medical treatment was given to him, but he refused to seek treatment in a foreign country, which would have been necessary; as a good shepherd, he desired to stay with his flock. Meanwhile, the methods of the Communist regime did not soften. In November 1952, Tito had decided to break diplomatic relations with the Vatican and, at the same time, gave orders to the police to stop all visits to Krasic. The prelate's guards (there were no less than 30 in 1954) insulted and poked fun at him in all possible manner. The long enquiry carried out for his beatification would come to the conclusion, in 1994, that his death was a consequence of fourteen years of isolation, of constant physical and moral pressures, and of sufferings of every sort. Thus "he was forevermore entrusted to the memory of his countrymen with the dazzling emblems of martyrdom " (John Paul II, October 3, 1998).
To conquer evil by good
During the beatification of Cardinal Stepinac, Pope John Paul II would say, "To forgive and to reconcile with one another, that means to purify our memory of hate, of rancor, of the desire for vengeance; that means to recognize that even he who has done evil is a brother; that means to not let ourselves be conquered by evil, but to conquer evil with good (cf. Rom 12: 21)."
In 1958, the sufferings of the Cardinal became almost intolerable, but the most painful thing for him was to no longer have the strength to celebrate Mass. On February 10, 1960, he passed away at Krasic, saying these words: "Fiat voluntas tua!" (Thy will be done!)
"In te Domine speravi" (In You, Lord, I have hoped). Such was his motto. In one of his sermons he confided the secret of his hope: "Someone could ask: `And what is our hope based on?' I answer: on faith in God, because God does not lie. On divine omniscience from which nothing escapes. On the omnipotence of God who is forever Master of all." On October 7, 1998, Pope John Paul II observed the triumph of his invincible hope: "We recognize, in the beatification of Cardinal Stepinac, the victory of the Gospel of Christ over totalitarian ideologies; the victory of the laws of God and of conscience over violence and harrassment; the victory of forgiveness and reconciliation over hate and vengeance."
If we are filled with a deep gratitude towards the Holy Father for this beatification, we thank above all our Lord for having made shine in our eyes such a light and for having given us the example of Blessed Aloïs Stepinac. We pray to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and to Saint Joseph for you, your deceased and for all your intentions.
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