The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blessed Aloysius Stepinac - Croatian Martyr

I spent my high school years at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY. The school was named for Aloysius Stepinac, a Croatian archbishop (He was later named a cardinal), who spent most of the post-war years either in prison or under house arrest, all thanks to the Yugoslavian Communist dictator, Josip Broz (aka, Tito).

After the war Blessed Aloysius was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis during the wartime occupation and was subjected to a show trial at which he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor. The charges, of course, were ludicrous since he had openly and strongly criticized the Nazis, for which his life was threatened. The Voice of America and the BBC both broadcast his sermons during the war to give hope to those living under Nazi occupation. Glaise von Herstenau, a German Nazi general in Zagreb, speaking of Stepinac and his sermons, stated, "If any bishop in Germany ever spoke this way, he would not descend alive from his pulpit!" And when, in 1943, Stepinac was warned by the Holy See that his life was in danger from the Nazis, he replied, "Either the Nazis will kill me now, or Communists will kill me later." And the Communists accused Archbishop Stepinac of collaboration! Of course, the left has continued to spread these lies about him despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, years later, in 1985, the prosecutor at his trial, Jakov Blazevic, admitted publicly that Cardinal Stepinac had been entirely framed, and that he had been tried only because he refused to sever the ties between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Roman Catholic Church. After his release from prison he was given a choice: permanent exile in Rome or virtual house arrest, confined to the small village of Krasic. He chose to remain in his homeland. Although he was made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII in 1953, he was not able to go to Rome to be officially elevated; nor was he ever able to function again as an archbishop.

I remember when he died, now over fifty years ago, on February 10, 1960. At the time I was a sophomore at the school named after him. His years in prison had so weakened him physically that he never fully recovered and succumbed to a blood disease attributed to the harsh conditions under which he had suffered. He was interred in the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Zagreb. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Pope Pius XII once said of Blessed Aloysius, "this Croatian Cardinal is the most important priest of the Catholic Church" -- quite a tribute to this man who was a heroic and very public example of faithfulness and courage. And just a few months ago, at a Mass celebrating the 50th anniversary of Blessed Aloysius' death, Cardinal William Lavada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called him a hero who "lived... sacrificing his own life for the truth and the unity of the Church in Croatia with the Successor of Peter."

Blessed Aloysius was also instrumental in saving hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. He knew that often the only way to save them was to issue false baptismal certificates, and in a confidential letter sent to Croatian priests, he wrote:
"The role and task of Christians is in the first place to save people. When this time of madness and wildness is over, only those will remain in our Church who converted out of their own conviction, while others, when the danger is over, will return to their faith." 

Archbishop Stepinac gave another instruction to his clergy, telling them to issue the certificate of baptism to endangered Jews and Serbs whenever they requested it. This was to be done without the usual religious requirements, and often with false names. I know of nowhere else in occupied Europe where this was done.

Prior to his beatification, Jewish organizations in Croatia issued a statement saying, "The Jews in Croatia are grateful to Cardinal Stepinac for advocating the salvation of many Jews during the Ustasha Independent State of Croatia [the puppet state of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during World War II]." The statement goes on to credit the cardinal with "success in saving from Nazi and Ustasha genocide the residents of the Lavoslav Schwartz retirement home, several groups of Jewish children and several hundreds of converted Jews in mixed marriages."

He was quite a man, this saintly archbishop and prisoner for Christ, and I am especially honored to have attended the school named for him. Read more here.

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