February 10th marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Blessed Croatian Archbishop Aloysius (Alojzije) Stepinac (1898-1960). If Stepinac could be described in one sentence, it might sound like this: Stepinac was a man whose actions were opposed to the destructive tendencies of both fascist and communist regimes and whose heart was burned by his enemies in order for it not to become a Catholic relic. The prism through which Croatian Catholics view Pope Francis’s ambivalent relationship towards his predecessor’s spiritual patrimony is less related to issues like universal priestly celibacy or sex abuse in the Church, and much more so with the delayed canonization of the most significant man of faith in 20th-century Croatia.
On his return from last year’s visit to Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia, the Holy Father was asked about Stepinac’s canonization, a man whom St. John Paul II declared Blessed in 1998. Francis replied: “The canonization of Stepinac is a historic case. He is a virtuous man for this Church, which has proclaimed him Blessed, you can pray [through his intercession]. But at a certain moment of the canonization process there are unclear points, historic points, and I should sign the canonization, it is my responsibility, I prayed, I reflected, I asked advice, and I saw that I should ask Irinej, a great patriarch, for help. We made a historic commission together and we worked together, and both Irinej and I are interested in the truth. Who is helped by a declaration of sanctity if the truth is not clear? We know that [Stepinac] was a good man, but to make this step I looked for the help of Irinej and they are studying. First of all the commission was set up and gave its opinion. They are studying other sources, deepening some points so that the truth is clear. I am not afraid of the truth, I am not afraid. I am afraid of the judgment of God.”
Before depicting Stepinac’s life and the Pope’s ambivalent attitude toward his canonization, it is necessary to clarify the circumstances surrounding this response.
The first point is related to ecumenism. Francis, as a pope committed to dialogue with non-Catholic Christian communities, seeks to make amends with the Moscow Patriarch Kirill and contribute to Christian unity by building good relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which serves as a kind of a link to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The second point is related to the Serbian Patriarch Irinej, whom the Pope calls “great.” This “great” patriarch, like many of his predecessors, is a politician as much as he is a priest. Known for his nationalist statements justifying Serbian imperialism—a transgenerational project which underlies every 20th-century Balkan war—Irinej’s observations about Stepinac, who “did not want to hear the children’s cry” in concentration camps, are a first-class manipulation. The inaccuracies of Irinej’s statements about Stepinac and other historical phenomena were reported to Francis by the Episcopal Conference of Croatia before the Pope called him “great,” which makes Francis’s statement quite problematic.
The beginning of Pope Francis’s hesitation regarding Stepinac’s canonization process—which, at the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, seemed completed—goes back to 2014 and 2015, when Irinej sent two letters to Francis, protesting the Stepinac case. Drawing on sources that have been repeatedly disputed by relevant scholars in Croatia and around the world, Irinej perpetuated allegations fabricated by the Yugoslav communist government after World War II to remove Stepinac from the public as a symbol of Christianity and Croatian patriotism. According to Irinej’s allegations, Stepinac is guilty of co-operation with the Croatian Ustaša regime, which operated as part of the Axis Force from 1941 to 1945, remaining Hitler’s ally until the end of the war, and which persecuted the Serbian, Jewish, Roma, and politically-opposed Croat populations through mass and individual crimes.
The historical irony is not only that Stepinac was not guilty of the crimes he was accused of—on the contrary, he was not a persecutor (or even a supporter of the persecution) of the Serbian, Jewish and Roma populations, but their savior. Relevant research in both the Croatian and English languages—including Stepinac: His Life & Time by Robin Harris and When Courage Prevailed: The Rescue and Survival of the Jews in the Independent State of Croatia 1941-1945 by Esther Gitman—shows that books on the subject written in communist Yugoslavia do not reflect the truth about the Croatian cardinal.
As the world’s youngest archbishop, Stepinac took over the leadership of the Archdiocese of Zagreb in 1937, in the final stages of the first, monarchist Yugoslavia, which eventually disintegrated due to a disproportionate Serbian domination in and beyond politics, as well as other unresolved national issues. When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Stepinac welcomed the formation of the Independent State of Croatia. Yet he differentiated between the pro-fascist Ustaša regime, of which he was a critic, from the Croatian state, which he felt was entitled to independence.
In both dictatorships that besieged Croatia after the collapse of monarchist Yugoslavia (which itself was a dictatorship) Stepinac acted—in spite of the ideologies of death—in accordance with universal Christian values. The first dictatorship was conducted from Hitler’s pagan Reich and the second, which brought Croatia back into Yugoslavia, from Stalin’s atheist Soviet empire. These two dictatorships represent the last two acts of Stepinac’s life, in which he became, as Benedict XVI stated, “a living image of Christ”—first as a savior of the innocent and later as a martyr for the faith.
During World War II, Stepinac saved countless families and individuals of Jewish faith and Serbian nationality. The methods of Stepinac’s rescue work varied, from interventions with state leaders to giving shelter to the persecuted. Stepinac’s instruction that all persecuted Orthodox who wanted to save themselves by converting to Catholicism should be allowed to do so, saying they would be free to return to their original faith after the war, was turned upside down by communist propaganda, which accused Stepinac of forcibly baptizing Orthodox believers. Although there is no definitive list of his merciful deeds, Stepinac undoubtedly saved hundreds, or—according to Juraj Batelja, the Church’s postulator of the Stepinac cause—even thousands of people.
For all that time, Stepinac was critical of the regime to the point that the German ambassador to Croatia stated that a German bishop acting like Stepinac would end up behind bars. Some sources even state that German advisers of Ustaša leader Pavelić suggested Stepinac’s liquidation. Stepinac put himself in danger not only by opposing the dictatorship by acts, but also by recalling the value of Catholic doctrine.
Thus, in 1942, in a diocesan letter he proclaimed: “All men and all races are children of God; all without distinction. Those who are Gypsies, Black, European, or Aryan all have the same rights. For this reason, the Catholic Church had always condemned, and continues to condemn, all injustice and all violence committed in the name of theories of class, race, or nationality. It is not permissible to persecute Gypsies or Jews because they are thought to be an inferior race.”
Stepinac gave a series of speeches against what he saw as modern paganism. In 1943, he declared: “We affirm then that all peoples and races descend from God. In fact, there exists but one race… The members of this race can be white or black, they can be separated by oceans or live on the opposing poles, but they remain first and foremost the race created by God, according to the precepts of natural law and positive Divine law as it is written in the hearts and minds of humans or revealed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the sovereign of all peoples.”
During communist Yugoslavia, which—following the model of the Soviet Union—carried out terror against the civilian and intellectual class as well as Churchmen, Stepinac was soon arrested and in 1946 underwent a typical communist show trial in which he was sentenced to 16 years in prison as an alleged associate of the pro-fascist Croatian authorities. “The trial was not based on justice, but it was an outrage on justice,” said Winston Churchill, while Fulton Sheen observed, “Stepinac appeared in court as the spiritual leader of the Croatian people and came out of the courtroom as the leader of his people and an example to the world.” Under house arrest in his native Krašić, Stepinac was made cardinal by proclamation in 1952. He died in 1960, and to this day it remains unknown whether he died of systemic poisoning by Yugoslav authorities.
Wanting to preempt the veneration of Stepinac as a saint, the communist secret service destroyed his heart. Their attempts, however, were without any success, because the reputation that Stepinac has acquired among Croatian believers since his death, to this day, is equivalent to that of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church.
The beatification at the Croatian Marian Shrine, Marija Bistrica, in 1998 only confirmed the historical truth which St. John Paul II summarized on that occasion: “The person of the new Beatus sums up, so to speak, the whole tragedy which befell the Croatian people and Europe in the course of this century marked by the three great evils of fascism, national socialism and communism. He is now in the joy of heaven, surrounded by all those who, like him, fought the good fight, purifying their faith in the crucible of suffering.”
In addition to being a symbol of oppression by a communist dictatorship, Stepinac is also a symbol of Catholic orthodoxy. Precisely because Yugoslav authorities were aware of his opposition to the anti-human and anti-God ideology internalized by the Independent State of Croatia, Stepinac’s persecution did not erupt immediately after the communists came to power, despite the confiscation of most of the Church’s property, the killings of more than 600 Catholic priests and nuns, and Stepinac’s short-term arrest shortly after the revolution.
The real persecution came only after Stepinac rejected Marshal Tito’s Mephistophelic offer to separate the Catholic Church in Croatia from the Vatican and transform it into the national and autocephalous “Croatian Catholic Church.” Such a Church would not only have broken away from the rock upon which Jesus has built His Church, but it would also have been a blow to the Croatian liberation movement, since the Yugoslav regime would easily have controlled it. Like in Poland, the Catholic Church in Croatia was one of the key institutions for preserving the national spirit and overthrowing the anti-human and anti-God communist rule. As Stepinac said: “Communism is born of lies, of lies lives, and of lies will die. The Lord is in no hurry, but He is never late.”
Ultimately, we remain faced with a series of paradoxes.
The first paradox is tied up with Stepinac’s status in Croatian-Serbian and Catholic-Orthodox relations. Under normal circumstances, the Croatian cardinal would not be a cause of animosity but an occasion for bringing the Croatian and Serbian, as well as the Catholic and Orthodox, sides closer. One side, however, does not want that. This is evidenced by the fate of the committee, composed of Croatian and Serbian churchmen and historians, about which the Pope spoke in the quote above. The commission ended its work three years ago and the opposing parties remained in their original beliefs, despite the fact that the Serbian part of the commission could not offer any authentic documents or new historical evidence for Stepinac’s alleged guilt.
Furthermore, is there anything more ironic than the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has often operated in the service of Serbian expansionist politics, has uncritically taken over the falsehoods about Stepinac spread by a regime to which they were diametrically opposed—that is, ungodly Yugoslav communism?
Finally, all the formal prerequisites for declaring Stepinac holy—including a miracle confirmed by Vatican—are over. For years, everything has been waiting for the pope’s signature. When the process will end is anyone’s guess. Francis does not seem eager to finish it, showing his tendency to compromise the Church’s spiritual and historical inheritance by making concessions to non-Catholics: Muslims who migrate to the West, the communist Chinese government, progressive elites, and—in Stepinac’s case—Serbian Orthodox Christians. The inclusion of a non-Catholic religious leader in the process of proclaiming a Catholic saint is virtually unprecedented. Francis, however, seems to have initiated an unprecedented number of precedents.
In a closing statement at the 1946 trial, Stepinac said: “My conscience is clear, and the future will show that I was right.” Sixty years after his death and 22 years after his beatification, history has unequivocally proclaimed Stepinac’s innocence. We can only pray that the Vatican will do the same.