Anyone who has even the slightest insight into how a canonization process works at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints knows the path is rarely uncomplicated.
Even by that standard, however, there’s a cause from Croatia that has had more than its fair share of ups and downs: Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who served as the Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960.
He’s seen by Croatians as a national hero, but derided as a Nazi sympathizer, or worse, by his critics, prominently including many Serbs, who charge Stepinac was complicit in anti-Serb brutalities in the wartime independent state of Croatia.
That’s clearly not a view shared by recent popes. St. John Paul II described Stepinac as a man who “had the strength to oppose the three great evils of his century: Fascism, Nazism, and Communism,” during a 1998 beatification Mass.
As the youngest bishop in the world at the time, Stepinac became the coadjutor Archbishop of Zagreb in 1934. Just a few years later, the Second World War loomed over Europe and Stepinac was forced to navigate the turmoil.
The record shows that he did so without aligning himself with any political party or movement, although many today unreasonably associated him with the Ustaša, a nationalist faction that arose in Croatia before and during World War II.
Of course, similar accusations are also directed at Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff, for not “doing enough“ to condemn Nazism and fascism.
Benedict XVI obviously doesn’t buy that criticism either.
During his own trip to Croatia in 2011, Benedict emphasized that “Stepinac knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming … a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of Communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests.”
According to the postulator for Stepanic’s sainthood cause, Monsignor Juraj Batelja, there are 40,000 pages of material ready to be revealed after the canonization. Each page contains testimonials from Stepinac’s contemporaries, including people who were poor, prosecuted and threatened, and whose lives were rescued thanks to Stepinac’s intervention.
Stepinac was a ‘persona non grata’ in the years of the Ustaša regime (1941-1945) and also a thorn in Yugoslavia’s side (1945-1991), whose leadership under Josip Broz Tito wanted a ‘national Church,’ independent of the Holy See.
Tito’s Communist regime arrested Stepinac on September 18, 1946, and hauled him before a politically-staged show trial. Based on extorted statements and false testimonies, Stepinac was sentenced to 16 years in prison and forced labor, and a further five years of deprivation of all civil rights.
It’s no secret that while Stepinac was serving his sentence in Lepoglava prison (1946-1951), he was systematically poisoned with the toxic substances of cadmium, chrome, lead and arsenic.
According to even the Vatican prosecutor in the cause, whose job is to try to knock down the argument for sainthood, “Stepinac’s virtues shine like the sun.” Moreover, there’s already a miracle lined up for canonization, approved by both the Vatican’s medical commission and the congregation’s theological consultors.
Despite all that, Pope Francis has decided to proceed with caution.
Recently, the pope initiated the establishment of a joint working group between the Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church to air concerns about Stepinac’s life and record, in order to eliminate all doubt on the Orthodox side about his worthiness.
To be honest, the vast majority of the Croatian public was not enthusiastic about the pope’s decision. They’re well aware of the fierce propaganda campaign against Stepinac that’s been waged by representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Serbian politicians, Serbian diplomacy and the Serbian media.
For example, a few days ago two Orthodox churches in Manhattan and Sydney and an Orthodox monastery were burned. On May 4, the New York Post quoted Orthodox who “believe the blazes … may have been set in retaliation for Pope Francis’ recent decision to postpone the canonization of Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, an infamous Nazi supporter.”
The current Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Josip Bozanić, defused the situation by saying that the pope’s decision is to be viewed as an ecumenical gesture, and a step toward the periphery – in this case, a spiritual periphery where the Church is open to discussion with everyone.
In the end, one thing is certain – nothing is predictable when it comes to Stepinac and his sainthood cause.
The same can be said for Pope Francis, whose mindset never ceases to surprise. The mixed working group is about to meet, so the following months will be crucial for the grand finale of Stepinac’s canonization.
Davor Trbušić is the Press Officer in the Archdiocese of Zagreb, and a Ph.D. Candidate in communications at the University of Zagreb.