The same words which the crowd chanted at St. John Paul II’s funeral in St. Peter’s Square in 2005, appeared last Friday on a three-yards-high banner along the Zagreb Cathedral’s facade. It was a very clear message by the Croatian faithful sent to pope Francis, on the ocassion of the feast of Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.
Inside the cathedral, even 57 years after Stepinac’s death, more than 5,000 people expecting his canonization in the foreseeable future gathered around his tomb.
The Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Josip Bozanić, used his homily to warn about the evident blindness of those who are unable to face the truth about Stepinac, who are constantly repeating lies heard at a politically-staged show trial in 1946 and who are slandering him, the Catholic Church and the Croatian people. In fact, the current archbishop said what everyone already knew: This canonization process isn’t solely a matter of the Catholic Church – it’s been a political question from its beginning.
Earlier that week, in the Croatian city of Osijek, a statue of Stepinac was presented to the public. As expected, Serbian authorities including the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, didn’t miss the opportunity to protest about paying tribute to “the war criminal in the time of the fascist NDH regime.”
[Note: The reference is to the Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or independent state of Croatia, established during WWII under the Ustaše, with the protection of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.]
Dačić claimed that unveiling the statue of Stepinac is a reminder to the Serbs that crimes against them during the Second World War were allowed to go unpunished. That rhetoric certainly wasn’t new, but this time, for the very first time, feigned ignorance wasn’t an option for Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Davor Ivo Stier. He promptly responded to Dačić, characterizing his statement as an attack in the manner of a Communist apparatchik and canceled his request for a bilateral meeting.
Obviously, it’s a turning point in Croatia’s foreign policy towards Serbia.
It was also quite an introduction to a third meeting of a joint working group between the Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church held in Novi Sad, Serbia, at the beginning of this week. This time, the joint commission discussed Stepinac’s role with the fascist NDH regime between 1941 and 1945.
As far as the Serbs are concerned, that part of Stepinac’s life is the most controversial. Their claims that Stepinac was a collaborator of the regime were the main arguments contained in a letter of the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej sent to Pope Francis back in 2014. That letter not only led to the establishment of the working group, but it also postponed the canonization.
As a contribution to the atmosphere, Serbian headlines announced new findings and arguments not favorable to Stepinac. But as always, inflated headlines were all that were left after the meeting. Both sides had a cordial and friendly conversation. The Croatian side delivered a presentation that was very well received by the Serbian side, whose team introduced a new member of the commission, historian Milan Koljanin.
One can say that slight progress has been made, but is it enough? Let’s take a close-up look at some of the obstacles between the Croatian and Serbian sides which are still left to overcome.
First of all, the Serbs are constantly complaining about a very tight relationship between Stepinac and the leader of the NDH, Ante Pavelić. Yes, Stepinac worked with the new Croatian state, which was born after Greater Serbian hegemony in the first Yugoslavia between the two world wars, but Stepinac always had a low view of Pavelić.
As his view of Pavelić grew worse and worse, his protests to NDH leadership over persecutions of the Jews and Serbs became sharper and louder. Consequently, Stepinac turned himself into a target. The Nazis and fascists threated him, saying that they will not hesitate to “shoot him like a dog in the street.” Stepinac didn’t step back.
Secondly, there’s always that shabby argument that Stepinac in his public statements didn’t condemn the decisions and laws of the regime, and that he could have done much more for the victims of war. As for the first part of the claim, during the NDH regime, the secular and even ecclesiastical press was exposed to censure and self-censorship. That’s the reason why Stepinac’s words often couldn’t reach people outside of the church.
As for the second part of the claim, the postulator for Stepinac’s cause, Monsignor Juraj Batelja, has concluded that Stepinac saved more than 27,000 Serbian children, war orphans, women and men. Many of those people were ready to testify back in 1946, but the Communist court didn’t let them.
Finally, some have charged Stepinac with supporting forced conversions to Catholicism under the Ustaše. Yet Stepinac’s responses to the state program were loud and clear: “Only those may be received into the Catholic Church who are converted without any constraint, of their own, completely free will.”
There’s plenty more that can be said in Stepinac’s favor but let’s leave it here for now.
The question now is how to convince the Serbian side that there are no hidden secrets, no new facts, which are going to come out about Stepinac. The Croatian people often lose their patience in pointless debates trying to prove that Stepinac’s sainthood is a matter of a common sense, which it is.
“My conscience is clean, and the future will show that I was right,” were Stepinac’s words at his politically-staged show trial. There’s no doubt today that the work of the commission on Stepinac is leading the international community to a greater knowledge and understanding of the saintly life of the Croatian cardinal.
In that regard, these words of Cardinal Stepinac were prophetic.
Davor Trbušić is the Press Officer in the Archdiocese of Zagreb, and a Ph.D. Candidate in communications at the University of Zagreb.