Bl. Aloysius Stepinac, Cardinal Martyr


Today the Balkan countries are living up to their reputation for turbulence. On October 3, 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Croatia, one of the more stable republics carved out of post-Communist Yugoslavia, to beatify Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, the late archbishop of Zagreb. Cardinal Stepinac (pronounced StepEEnutz) was a notable figure in World War II and in the Cold War that followed. His Roman Catholic heroism in the face of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, made him a controversial yet admirable figure.

Stepinac was a native of westward looking Croatia. He was born May 8, 1898, the son of a prosperous farmer of Brezaric, not far from Zagreb. When scarcely an adult, he was swept off into World War 1. As a second lieutenant, he served the pro-German army of Austria-Hungary in its Italian campaign. Taken prisoner, he was ultimately released, but he then volunteered to fight in Serbia (an eastern Balkan state mostly Greek Orthodox in religion) against the government of Austria-Hungary.

Demobilized in 1919, Aloysius, now a citizen of the new political entity of Yugoslavia, resumed his education, studying agriculture in Zagreb. While he was active as a student in church affairs, he also socialized. Indeed, he became engaged to a certain Marija Horvat. However, he was still attracted to the priesthood, and in 1924 he reached a decision. Breaking off the engagement, he went to Rome as a candidate for the diocesan priesthood of the Archdiocese of Zagreb. (Could his mother have bolstered his move? She had long been fasting three days a week that he would choose that path, convinced that this fifth of her eight children had the makings of a good priest.)

Father Stepinac, ordained to the priesthood in Rome on October 26, 1930, returned home the following year, having won doctorates in both philosophy and theology. Appointed to parochial work, he quickly set about a round of church activities inspired by Pope Pius XI, the “Pope of Catholic Action”. Obviously endowed with talent and leadership, he made a deep impression on the aging Archbishop Bauer of Zagreb, who soon asked the Pope to make Father Aloysius his coadjutor archbishop with right of succession.

The Pope consented. Stepinac was the youngest Catholic bishop in the world when he was consecrated on June 24, 1934. Archbishop Bauer died in 1937, and Stepinac automatically succeeded. Actually, he had been administering the archdiocese since 1934. As residential archbishop he continued his dynamic program: founding parishes, introducing religious orders, initiating a Croatian version of the Bible, fostering patriotic celebrations, and promoting pilgrimages.

Unfortunately the outbreak of World War in 1939 obliged him to scale back many of these efforts. The war was inspired by totalitarianism and totalitarianism was the fruit of exaggerated nationalism. Archbishop Stepinac had already experienced this wild nationalism in Italy, and had reached the conclusion that it was “the biggest plague of the human race,” in that it fostered interracial hatred rather than interracial love. He saw this plague spreading in his own Balkan states. In 1935, for example, he felt it necessary to protest the Serbian mistreatment of Croatians.

Hitlerian Nazism was the most ideological of extremist nationalisms. Adolf Hitler wanted to purge the European world of ethnic minorities, the “non- Aryans”, he called them. Chief of these “debased” ethnic groups, he said, were the Jews. Time would show that, incredibly, he planned to slay the whole Jewish nation. Archbishop Stepinac, on the other hand, advocated a firmly Christian stance: every national and ethnic group should be treated justly. Ethnicity, he said, is not the highest value. “Love for a man’s own nation should not make man into a wild animal!” Therefore, after 1935, when the Jews in Hitlerian Germany began to seek refuge elsewhere, the Archbishop of Zagreb welcomed them into Croatia. He sponsored a special Croatian organization charged with the care of Jewish refugees. He instructed his pastors to help the cause, and reminded prosperous Croats they had a Christian duty to assist the persecuted. In an address to university students, he belittled ideological ethnicity. Nor were his ideas merely personal. The courageous Pope Pius XI had expressed the same views in encyclical letters on Italian Fascism (Non abbiamo bisogno. July 5, 1931); Nazism (Mit Brennender Sorge. March 1937); and atheistic Communism (Divini Redemptoris. March 10, 1937). Stepinac proved a real leader against totalism: forthright, insistent, unwavering. He won the praise of the Jewish people, but fanatical Yugoslav nationalists, of course, despised him.

The Nazis extended their control into the Balkans in 1941. Croatia had long wanted to be independent again, so on April 10, 1941, it proclaimed its freedom from Serbia, which had assumed oppressive jurisdiction over the various Yugoslav states. Stepinac was an utterly nonpolitical man but he was also a Croatian patriot. He went along with the Croatian independence movement at the start, out of love of country. To lead their new government, the Croats chose Ante Pavelic, head of a patriotic Croatian movement called the Ustasha. Unfortunately, the Ustasha party was fascist in form, and soon demonstrated allegiance to Nazism. When this nationalistic trend became evident, the Archbishop began to denounce publicly its excesses. For instance, posing as super-Roman Catholics, the Ustasha sought to force the Greek Orthodox Serbians who dwelt in Croatia, to be rebaptized! Stepinac instructed his priests how to counter this campaign. True to his principles he rejected any “ethnic cleansing”, demanding fair treatment for all: “Croats, Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox and others.” He protested to Pavelic against the mistreatment of Jews and Serbs in a Croatian concentration camp. By his persistence he even got the sentence of one particular Communist reduced from death to life imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Serbian Communists were increasing their control of all the Balkan countries. Under their pressure, Pavelic, by now a bitter enemy of the Archbishop, abandoned Croatia. Taking over the Croat state, the Serbian Communists slew 150,000 of its citizens. Stepinac promptly circulated a pastoral letter in which he listed the Catholic priests who had been executed by the Communists in the takeover. For this action he was arrested on March 24, 1945. Josip Broz, who as leader of the Yugoslav Communists had assumed the name “Marshal Tito”, interviewed Stepinac on September 8, 1945. He told him that he would not have to worry if he declared the Catholic Church in Croatia independent of the pope. The Archbishop refused pointblank to be the agent of a national schism. Tito did not forget that refusal.

Knowing that Croatian Catholicism would suffer from his loyalty to the pope, Stepinac quickly dissolved all Catholic organizations so as not to have to hand over to Tito their membership lists. In a follow-up pastoral letter in September he announced that since the end of World War II, 243 Catholic priests had been executed, 169 imprisoned, and 89 had “disappeared”. Having antagonized by his frankness both the Croatian Fascists and the German Nazis, he would now infuriate the Yugoslav Communists. In November 1945 an attempt was made on his life in the suburbs of Zagreb. Thereafter he restricted his movements to the city itself, but the Communist government launched a vast campaign to destroy his character and pave the way for his execution as a public enemy.

The Archbishop was arrested for the second and last time on January 12, 1956. Now he was given a public “show-trial”, Communist-style. The charge was his treasonable betrayal of Yugoslavia by supporting the Ustasha Fascists. He was, of course, judged “guilty”, sentenced to 16 years of hard labor and deprived of his citizen’s rights for 21 years. Allowed to respond to the verdict, Stepinac declared that his conscience was clear. He had acted, he said, not against the people of Yugoslavia but against its Communist regime. He would rather die, he declared, than compromise with godless authority.

Prisoner Stepinac was first remanded to the prison camp of Lepoglava. His jailers did not dare to enforce the penalty of hard labor. The Archbishop was a symbol of Croatian national pride, and they feared that any show of brutality against him might prompt his Croatian fellow prisoners to revolt. Instead, they kept him in an isolated cell, practically in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, in a secret effort to rid the government of such a brave antagonist, the prison officials sought to kill him by administering small doses of poison.

By 1951, the prisoner was very ill: not, apparently, from the poison but from “Vasques’ disease”, a rare ailment characterized by overproduction of red corpuscles. His guards therefore transferred him to a rectory in Kosic, not far from his birthplace. Even so, he was kept in rigorous house arrest. The Vasques’ disease required that he be bled regularly. At one point he joked, “I have already shed 26 liters of my blood for the Church!”

Stepinac accommodated himself patiently to this restrictive regime. In addition to maintaining a regular devotional life he carried on a vast personal correspondence. His jailers confiscated a large percentage of his 5000 letters, but a significant number reached their addresses and provide us with a reflection of his attitude. His mood was uniformly peaceful and forgiving. The fall of Communism, he held, was inevitable. He prayed constantly for his guards. Content with his status as a prisoner was something to be accepted as a duty; he knew that the Communist government could take his life at any time, but he remained, as he said, “without a trace of hatred or revenge to anyone, but also without fear.”

As time went on, Marshal Tito, having rejected the control of Soviet Communism, was courting support from the Western powers. He therefore wanted Stepinac to be forgotten. But Pope Pius XII had a unique way of bringing him back into the headlines. In 1952, he announced his intention to bestow the cardinalate on Stepinac and several other high churchmen at a rite scheduled for January 12, 1953. Tito, infuriated by the news, broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Archbishop was not permitted, of course, to attend the papal consistory of January 12, but his very absence was another indictment of the Serbian Communist dictator. Cardinal Stepinac was thereafter listed among the cardinals in the Vatican directory, but described as “impeded” in the exercise of the archiepiscopal office. (Prisoner Stepinac at least had the satisfaction of receiving the red robe of his Roman office in 1954, through an intriguing secret operation of devoted American and Croatian friends. Presumably he never wore it while alive.)

In 1957 Cardinal Stepinac wrote a “Spiritual Testament”. In it he explicitly forgave all his persecutors. Two years later, the government expressed a desire to interrogate him once more. In 1946, he replied, the regime had deprived an innocent man of his civic personality. The State could still kill his physical personality if it chose, but he would still harbor no hatred against it. But no more interviews!

Aloysius Stepinac died of his blood ailment on February 19, 1960. His last words were the prayer, “Thy will be done.” Now the Communists, concerned that his body might show traces of the attempt to poison him, had his internal organs destroyed. They also intensified their campaign to blacken his reputation as a Fascist conspirator and enemy of his people. They feared that any effort to canonize him would put them in a bad light, as indeed it would have. They did grant permission for his burial in the Zagreb cathedral.

Once he was entombed in the cathedral, Cardinal Stepinac’s remains became a focus of pilgrimages for Croatians who had venerated him as a saint while yet alive. Although the Communists were still in power, the local church authorities began secretly to collect documentation relative to eventual beatification and canonization.

Russian Communism collapsed in 1989. On January 2, 1990, the Yugoslav Communist Party gave up its constitutional authority to rule the country. Croatia once more declared its independence on June 25, 1991. One of the earliest actions taken by the newly elected Croatian parliament was to pass a law annulling all Communist-type trials that had taken place during the Tito regime. This legislation cancelled the 1946 judgment against Stepinac and the penalties it had imposed upon him. The Parliament went further. It declared that the only reason for his conviction had been his refusal to lead the Croatian Catholic Church into schism from Rome.

The cause for the Cardinal’s sainthood could now proceed without interruption. His body was examined by experts from the Vatican, and traces of poison were found in the bones. The archives of the totalitarian states, now open for study, gave further information. Nazi records showed that Hitler had wanted pro-Nazi Ante Pavelic to get rid of Stepinac because of his opposition to the liquidation of the Jews. Yugoslav Communist records indicated that Marshal Tito had branded the Archbishop as an “enemy of the State” because of his “excessive influence” over the common people. It turned out that the only thing that prevented his actual assassination was the veto of a Croatian Communist ringleader.

That was enough for the Holy See. On November 11, 1997, Pope John Paul II accepted the judgment of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, that Aloysius Stepinac deserved the title “martyr” for having accepted death in a forgiving spirit rather than reject the primacy of Peter over the universal Church. (Death by imprisonment has often been accepted by the Holy See as a type of martyrdom.)

The Pope decided to beatify Stepinac on October 3, 1998. This in itself was a courageous decision. The Serbian “Black Legend” about the Archbishop as “pro-Fascist” had been circulated so long that many Yugoslavs believed it true. When the forthcoming beatification was announced, the Croatian bishops had to field widespread questions about the fitness of beatifying a political “criminal”. The hierarchy patiently refuted this calumny by pointing out that Stepinac had indeed been a distinguished patriot, yet a nonpolitical defender of the human rights of all, an opponent of every brand of totalitarianism. Meanwhile the Jews of Croatia firmly rejected the accusation of the Cardinal as pro-Nazi, praising him for his efforts to defend their people and other minorities persecuted in Croatia under the Swastika.

Addressing the enthusiastic thousands who attended the beatification in Croatia on October 3, Pope John Paul praised Stepinac for his evenhanded opposition to the excesses of fascism, nazism and communism. His life, said the Pope, should serve as a compass to Christians faced by comparable political crises.

There were many Catholic martyrs and confessors during the hot war and the cold war, and we may be sure that more of them will be added to the calendar of the saints. We have given such extensive coverage to the cause of Blessed Aloysius Stepinac because he was called on to stand fast against all Europe’s totalist ideologies: the Fascist, the Nazi, and the Communist.

--Father Robert F. McNamara