Will Croatia’s faithful soon get the fourth canonized saint? That’s the question which could appear on the already overcrowded desk of Pope Francis’s desk in the following weeks.
As I’ve written before, the sainthood cause of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, who served as the Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960, began in 1980, and got its first affirmation in 1998 when Pope John Paul II beatified him.
In the following years, the Vatican’s medical commission and the Congregation for the Causes of Saint’s theological consultors confirmed a miracle attributed to Stepinac’s intercession.
Despite all this, the whole process went into extra time – in 2015, Pope Francis initiated the establishment of a working group between the Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Some history is needed.
Stepinac is seen by Croatians as a national hero, but many Serbs have accused Stepinac of collaborating with the World War II-era Croatian puppet state established by the Germans, which perpetrated anti-Serb brutalities during the war.
After the war, Stepinac faced a show trial staged by Tito’s communist regime in Yugoslavia, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Popes from Pius XII have supported the innocence of Stepinac, who had, during the war, protested the actions of the Nazi-allied regime.
Since July last year, the members of the joint commission met five times to air concerns about Stepinac’s role before, during, and after World War II. Unlike the Croatian side, which had a constant line-up consisting of three bishops and two prominent historians, the Serbians made some adjustments over the course of the commission’s life.
In the beginning, the Serb side had no historians. But they quickly accepted the suggestion of Father Bernard Ardura, the president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences – who presided over the meetings – to seek help from Serbian historians.
Twelve months later, it ended up where it all started – in Rome. The grand finale was held July 12-13 at the Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where the pope lives, and it wasn’t just the temperature heating up in the Eternal City.
The reports in the Serbian press that the Orthodox part of the group would make a plea to the pope to extend the work of the commission and to open the Vatican archives cast a shadow over the final meeting. It was a predictable plot to buy some time – and an undoubted reminder of Pius XII’s sainthood cause.
The Argentinean Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the director of the Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, has pointed out on several occasions that the issue of opening the Vatican’s secret archives, which contain the enormous amount of documentation on Pope Pius XII, has been a cause for debate for decades.
As La Stampa reported in 2014, the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, said that “once the archives are opened, they are often abandoned because the individuals that insist on gaining access to them are not always prepared to devote the necessary amount of time – and it does take time – to consult all the documentation.”
What am I getting at?
First, let me point out that the whole published documentation about the cardinal’s life came from 135 different public and private archives, of which the Vatican archive is just one.
Also, the Serbian side is being disingenuous, because Ardura already offered to allow them to examine the contents of the Vatican Archives discussing Stepinac. So the delegation sent two Serbian historians to the archives with a mission to find some new evidence that would taint Stepinac’s reputation.
The historians came back to Serbia empty-handed; but they could have stayed in Belgrade. And here’s why: When the Communist party took power in Yugoslavia, the UDBA (State Security Administration) seized all the documents from Stepinac’s office and transferred them to Belgrade, including the copies of every written correspondence Stepinac had with the Vatican.
Therefore, all the complaints about inaccessible materials was a charade, because when it comes to Stepinac, there is no actual difference between the Belgrade and Vatican archives. So much about the common pursuit of truth – which was the main idea behind the working group.
After the final meeting in Rome, both sides of the commission issued a joint communiqué saying they agreed to disagree, and not mentioning any additional time for further discussion about Stepinac.
“It has come to the conclusion that various events, speeches, writings, silences, and views are still subject to different interpretations. In the case of Cardinal Stepinac, the interpretations that were predominantly given by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs remain divergent,” the statement reads.
The members did, however, express their gratitude for the cordial atmosphere in which, with full freedom of expression, they could fulfill the task entrusted to them.
To conclude, despite some recent opinions, the formal conditions for the canonization are fulfilled, and the time is ripe for a final verdict.
The fact is, during the year-long work of the commission the Serbian side didn’t bring anything to the table, except for false historical evidence based upon dubious historiography.
Moreover, with the possible proposal to the pope for extending the work of the commission and insisting on (re)opening the Vatican archives, the Serbians could try and throw a wrench in the works.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that just one letter to Pope Francis in 2014 has already led us to this process just concluded. It’s now Francis’s move, again.