IN SEARCH OF CARDINAL STEPINAC: A Complete Biography, by Fr Zvonimir Gavranovic

IN SEARCH OF CARDINAL STEPINAC: A Complete Biography, by Fr Zvonimir Gavranovic

Fr Steven Ledinich

An English language biography of Blessed Aloysius Stepinac

A Complete Biography
byFr Zvonimir Gavranovic
(Kršcanska sadašnjos, Zagreb, 2011, 594pp. ISBN: 978-9-53110-631-3. Available from Fr Gavanovic, PO Box 56, Luddenham, NSW 2745, for $40.00 +$15 p&h. Add $2 for p&h on subsequent copies)

This last century has seen the Church oppressed on many fronts, especially by totalitarian communism. In that struggle one figure looms large, namely Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, from 1937 to 1960.

Unfortunately no detailed biography had been written in English and hence knowledge of this saintly cardinal is limited in English speaking countries. However Fr Gavranovic, an Australian priest of Croatian background, has corrected this by writing this extensive and informative biography.

Blessed Aloysius was born in 1898 in Brezaric near Krašic in present day Croatia. He fought with distinction in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. After discerning a vocation to the priesthood and completing his studies in Rome, he was ordained in 1930.

After less than four years as a priest, he was made coadjutor bishop of Zagreb in 1934 and in 1937 became Archbishop of Zagreb.

Episcopal motto

He chose as his Episcopal motto: In te, Domine, speravi (In You, O Lord, have I hoped) from Psalm 30, verse 2. Indeed, Blessed Aloysius lived according to this motto during his episcopacy, placing his unshakable trust in Almighty God during the awful years of World War II and then during the time of the Communist government in Yugoslavia.

Blessed Aloysius was archbishop during the time of the formation of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) in 1941 by the Ustasha, a Croatian nationalist movement.

After the fall of the NDH after the war Blessed Aloysius was tried by the Communist government under Tito and found guilty of collaborating with the Ustasha during the war and other crimes.

He was imprisoned first for five years in the State prison of Lepoglava, and then kept under house arrest in the parish of Krašic until his death in 1960.

In recognition of his courageous defence of the rights of the Church in most difficult circumstances, Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal in 1952. In 1998 Blessed Pope John Paul II beatified Cardinal Stepinac in Croatia and declared him a martyr.

Fr Gavranovic's biography details the life of Blessed Aloysius in 30 chapters. The book is heavily based on the most comprehensive biography of him written in Croatian by Aleksa Benigar, but it supplements this source with many other references.

The book begins with Blessed Aloysius' childhood, and ends with his death under house arrest. The author deals with the most controversial years of the Blessed's life, his time as Archbishop of Zagreb during the time of the NDH under the Ustasha.

He points out that while Blessed Aloysius welcomed the formation of an independent Croatia, as did many Croatians at the time, he was not afraid to criticise and oppose the Ustasha and their leader, Ante Pavelic, when this was needed.

In the transcript of the trial, the defence attorney acting on Cardinal Stepinac's behalf notes that one of the witnesses for the prosecution, the Ustasha Commander in Chief, Kvaternik, stated that Archbishop Stepinac had constantly been "the object of Pavelic's hatred" (p. 370).

Archbishop Stepinac preached against the persecution of Jews and other peoples by the Ustasha and Nazis. In a sermon in 1942 he said: "All nations and all races have their origin from God. Each nation and each race that is found on the earth today has the right to live in a manner worthy of men and to be treated in a manner worthy of men ... That is why the Catholic Church has always condemned and condemns today all injustice and all violence whether committed in the name of theories of class, race, or nationality" (p. 368).

He also gave much practical help to persecuted peoples in Croatia.

Persecution of Church

At the end of the war and with the formation of the Communist Yugoslavia under Tito, persecution of the Catholic Church began. The Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Stepinac, issued a Pastoral Letter in 1945 condemning these various persecutions and noting that the Yugoslav army killed 243 clergy and religious, 169 were imprisoned and 89 were missing.

In 1946 Archbishop Stepinac was arrested and tried by the Communists. Fr Gavranovic, in a lengthy chapter 20, gives the transcripts of the trial, including Archbishop Stepinac's reply during the trial and his defence attorney's statement.

In that chapter, the author also quotes from Tito's deputy and Vice-President of Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas, that while Archbishop Stepinac was accused during the trial for his conduct during the war, the real reason for the trial was his post-war opposition to the Communists, and in particular his refusal to support Tito's desire for a national Catholic Church separated from the Holy See.

It was because of his opposition to communism and great fidelity to the Church that he was tried and imprisoned for14 years.

During his imprisonment his indomitable spirit was never broken. As he wrote to his priests: "Do not become disheartened! Have great trust in God, do not allow yourselves to be broken" (p. 483).

He also stated: "If it need be, it is better to die honourably, than to live shamelessly. Nor was it easy for St Thomas More or St John Fisher and see, today, they are on the altar. Had they given in, they would have lost themselves and with bearing it they became blessed. If the enemy have their methods, we have clear means. And if a certain Bishop would be sidetracked, we have here the Holy Father, who in matters of faith will never be lost" (p. 430).

Deep interior life

Fr Gavranovic's biography brings to light aspects of the deep interior life of Archbishop Stepinac, with a chapter on his Eucharistic devotion and one on his Marian devotion.

On devotion to the Holy Eucharist he wrote to his priests: "The centre of our devotion and the main subject of our love must be Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Devotion to the blessed Eucharist is the most powerful and sure means for the renewal of every parish.

"Never in any parish will the true Christian life blossom, nor will the flame of God's love burn in the hearts of people, if the human heart is not warmed by the flame of love of the blessed Heart, which continually dwells in our tabernacles under the simple appearance of bread" (p.176).

He showed his personal love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by spending a Holy Hour each day, and when under house arrest often spending many hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

He also had a great love for and trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially her Holy Rosary. Speaking about the Rosary he said: "I regard this to be the reason for the fall of priests and others because they stopped praying the Rosary. If a Parish Priest were to succeed in encouraging people in every family to pray the Rosary, much will be achieved" (p. 185)

His spiritual life was also characterised by a great love of the Church. Writing to his people about the Catholic Church he stated: "She, as you are aware, has her head in Rome and she will have it till the end of the world. Under great cost, even at the cost of your lives, remain faithful to Christ's Church whose head pastor is the successor of Peter" (p. 556).

Fr Gavranovic has done English speaking Catholics a great service by writing this biography of Archbishop Stepinac. May it have a wide readership, and may it inspire many to imitate this Blessed's example of sanctity and also ask his intercession in all their needs.

Fr Ledinich is Spiritual Director at Vianney College, seminary of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, NSW.

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