By CAROLE BRESLIN
Croatia, the crossroads of Europe where people traverse the continent from north to south and east to west, has been a land of turmoil for centuries, with many nations seeking to control its destiny. In World War I and World War II, a fiery Croatian loved this small land with all his heart and fought for the Croatians to be free from the tyranny of both the Nazis and the Communists. Blessed Aloysius Stepinac came from humble beginnings, but came to be a significant figure on the world stage.
Aloysius Viktor Stepinac was born on May 8, 1898 to Josip Stepinac and his second wife Barbara Penic. He was the fifth of nine children (plus three children from Josip’s first wife). Josip managed a vineyard in the village of Brezaric near Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. As has happened with so many priests, Aloysius’ mother prayed from the moment of his birth that he would become a priest. Josip, however, wanted his son to work in the vineyard.
At eight years of age, Aloysius moved with his family to Krasic where he finished his primary education in 1908. In 1909, he went to the Archdiocese of Zagreb for further study. He lived in the archdiocesan orphanage until he graduated from high school. Under the auspices of the archbishop, he began studies in theology as he discerned his vocation.
However, before he could pursue his preparations for the priesthood, World War I broke out and he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. He still managed to continue his studies since he was sent to reserve officers school in Rijeka. Then, after six months of training, he was sent to the front in Italy, leading the Bosnian soldiers in 1917.
In July 1918, Aloysius was captured by the Italians, who held him prisoner. The Austro-Hungarian Army told his parents he had been killed and were thus much surprised when he was released by the Italians on December 6, 1918, and returned home.
He then joined the Yugoslav Legion engaged on the Salonika Front. Finally, with the end of the war Aloysius was released from the army as a second lieutenant.
He spent only one semester at the University of Zagreb before his father pressured him to return home and help him manage the vineyard and “find a wife.” Aloysius did become engaged, but soon broke it off. After some divergences, Aloysius at age 26 entered the Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum in Rome to study for the priesthood.
The Americans then gave him a scholarship, enabling him to get doctorates in both philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. By this time, Aloysius could also speak five languages.
Archbishop Giuseppe Palica ordained Aloysius on October 26, 1930 and Fr. Stepinac celebrated his first Mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. His greatest desire was to serve his native people as a parish priest, but his bishop had other plans for the young man.
When Aloysius returned to Krasic on July 1, 1931, Archbishop Antun Bauer of Zagreb called him to be his liturgical master of ceremonies. While Aloysius served in this position, he also founded the archdiocesan branch of Caritas, a Catholic charity, and began the Caritas magazine, as well as managing the parishes of Samobar and Sveti Ivan Selina.
Less than three years later on May 28, 1934, Fr. Aloysius was appointed coadjutor bishop under Bauer. Evidently, Aloysius was the eighth candidate selected for the position since both the Pope and the king had to agree on the nominee. Perhaps the king finally agreed to Aloysius since he had served in the military.
Fr. Stepinac, the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church, wasted no time. Within a month he led 15,000 pilgrims to the Black Madonna shrine in Bistrica before beginning his mission for the Croatian people.
The conflict between the Church and the state deteriorated with more imprisonments, murders, and repression. King Alexander was assassinated in October 1934. The four Croatian bishops then petitioned his successor to address the Croatian desire for self-determination.
The Church had remained outside the realm of political influence, but Fr. Stepinac was staunch in his desire to organize the Croatian Catholic Church in order to have some say in the destiny of the Croatian people. His attempts did not meet with much success and the government even used his name to sway elections, telling the people that he backed candidates he did not support.
The Serbian Orthodox Church also persecuted the Catholics and persuaded the government to side with them against the Catholic Church. Because of discrimination in hiring practices and access to education, many Catholics “converted” to the Serbian Orthodox Church to improve their future prospects during the period between the wars.
Fr. Stepinac also took up the fight against Freemasonry — which ruled Yugoslavian politicians — and Nazism and Communism as he championed the cause of the Catholic Croatians. He wrote and preached extensively against the race laws aimed at suppressing the Jews, saying:
“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, they remain first and foremost the race created by God, according to the precepts of the 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.”
After the war, Fr. Stepinac tangled with President Tito who insisted that the Croatian Catholics should separate themselves from the Vatican. Stepinac rejected the demand and Tito wrote to the Vatican to get Stepinac replaced. When the Vatican refused, Tito tried to get the agitating priest to leave Yugoslavia which Fr. Stepinac also refused. Since the priest would not bow to Tito’s demands, the president had him arrested on false charges. He was found guilty on October 11, 1946 and was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor.
While he was serving his sentence, someone began poisoning him with arsenic, resulting in permanent damage to his health. The governments around the world cried out for justice for Stepinac, but the only way Tito would release him would be for Stepinac to leave the country or be placed under house arrest. On December 5, 1951, Fr. Stepinac was put under house arrest.
On November 29, 1952, the Pope named Aloysius Stepinac a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The priest’s health continued to decline but he still fought against Communism and for the Croatian people. On February 10, 1960, Fr. Stepinac died from thrombosis.
After years of international outcry about the sham trial of Fr. Stepinac, the Zagreb County Court finally annulled the priest’s guilty verdict on July 22, 2016.
He was beatified on October 3, 1998 in Croatia by Pope St. John Paul II. His feast is on February 10.
Dear Fr. Stepinac, our dear Church is attacked from within and from without. Pray for our Church and obtain for us the grace to fight tirelessly for Truth to prevail in every nation on the face of the Earth. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)