Saturday 20th October 2018

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Catholic Heroes… Blessed Ivan Merz

May 17, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Our Lord paid the laborers the same wage whether they worked from early morning or began in the afternoon. The rewards were the same (Matthew, chapter 20). So too are the rewards for serving the Lord with zeal and perseverance. St. Augustine, converting at the age of 33, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Francis of Assisi — all come to mind. Likewise, Ivan Merz, a Croatian, converted later in life and served the Lord faithfully.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, as it is now called, was filled with political and cultural tensions during the early
20th century, with multiple countries striving to control it. In addition, the region held several different religious groups, and varying ethnicities. The underlying discontent came to a head when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, leading to World War I.
Ivan’s own family portrayed the area’s multiculturalism since his mother was Jewish. He was born on December 16, 1896 in Banja Luka and baptized on February 2, 1897. When Franz Ferdinand was killed, Ivan was 18 years old and his parents persuaded him to enlist in the military academy. He did as they agreed, entering the Wiener Neustadt Academy. The academy was filled with immorality and corruption, so Ivan left after four months.
He went to Vienna in 1915 where he began his studies at the university. However, war began, so Ivan was drafted to serve in the army and sent to the Italian front where he served from 1917 to 1919.
The horrors of war led to his conversion as he poured out his heart in his journal. What he wrote is so universally applicable that it is worth quoting extensively:
“Never forget God! Always desire to be united with Him. Begin each day in the first place with meditation and prayer, possibly close to the Blessed Sacrament or during Mass. During this time, plans for the day are made, one’s defects are put under examination, and grace is implored for the strength to overcome all weakness. It would be something terrible if this was has no meaning for me!…I must begin a life regenerated in the spirit of this new understanding of Catholicism. The Lord alone can help me, as man can do nothing on his own.”
He then made a vow of perpetual chastity.
When he completed his time in the army, Ivan went back to Vienna to complete his studies. He stayed in the Faculty of Philosophy until October 1920 when he left to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he stayed until 1922, preparing for his doctoral dissertation.
He finished his studies back in Zagreb, Croatia, where he completed his thesis on The Influence of Liturgy on the French Writers. It was approved and he received his doctorate in 1923.
Even though he had spent so many years studying and completing his doctorate, Ivan did not stop learning. Now that he was a professor in Zagreb at the archiepiscopal gymnasium where he taught French literature, he became a model instructor, respected by both his peers and his students.
During his spare time, he gathered Church documents to study, in order to better understand the teachings of the Church and his responsibilities as a layman. His philosophical and theological yearnings led him to more study outside of class, but this did not mean he was a recluse.
Ivan was especially dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the youth. Hoping to provide opportunities for them to grow in the faith and in holiness, he started the League of Young Croatian Catholics and the Croatian League of Eagles with the motto: Sacrifice Eucharist Apostolate. Both leagues were organized under the umbrella of the Croatian Catholic Action Movement.
To understand Ivan’s motivations, it is necessary to review the first encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio. This came out just as Ivan was completing his doctorate. This encyclical is well worth reading in its entirety, as it applies as much today as it did nearly one hundred years ago.
Although World War I had ended, Pope Pius XI grieved the lack of peace in the world. Internal discords, threats of aggression, nations disgruntled over the settlements, discontent would lead to more and worse conflicts, he prophetically warned. In addition, he decried the increasing sensuality in mankind.
He lamented that secular society was leaving God out of the equation. Pius insisted that the need for spiritual peace and the justice of peace was a matter of love. Surpassing all human understanding was the sanctity of life and love and peace that only God can give.
He also encouraged Catholic organizations to increase their efforts to spread their work in order to increase the peace of Christ and thus bring peace to the world. Bishops and priests were urged to mobilize the laity to participate in this work.
Having read and studied this great letter, Ivan took it to heart and began doing just as the Pope suggested. Thus he hoped to form a group of front-line apostles whose primary goal was holiness. This yearning would overflow into his hope for liturgical renewal. He thus became the first promoter of it in Croatia.
Blessed with a keen intellect and abundant charity, Ivan began training the laity to love Christ and His Church. He understood the need to bring the peace of Christ to the people of Croatia. This would best be done by a reverent liturgy and well-catechized members of the Church.
He made great use of his organizational skills and experience as a teacher to guide the youth. He also instilled in them a love of the office of the Vicar of Christ and obedience to the long-held teachings of the Church.
Although faced with many difficulties and disagreements because of misunderstandings, Ivan remained meek and gentle. His deep and intimate prayer life helped him remain calm in adversity. He embraced his cross, knowing well that the most effective way to save souls was by suffering willingly for the greater glory of God.
Ivan welcomed the sufferings which he joyfully endured, offering them up for the success of his apostolates. Just before he died, he offered his life for the youth of Croatia. He died on May 12, 1928.
Ivan’s cause for canonization was opened in 1958 and on June 22, 2003, Pope St. John Paul II beatified the Croatian layman in Banja Luka, his hometown in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Basilica of the Heart of Jesus in Zagreb has a shrine dedicated to Ivan Merz.
Dear Blessed Ivan, the world is filled with conflict and we need your help in imploring God’s mercy. May we work actively to spread the peace of Christ, for there will be no peace in the world without peace in nations, none in nations where there is none in our communities, and there can be none in our communities unless we have peace in our families. And peace within families cannot happen unless we have peace in ourselves which comes with a deep prayer life and union with God. 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.)

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