If, a decade ago, you had asked me what it was like to be a young Catholic in Croatia, I’d have been a bit puzzled. In the small town up north where I grew up, there was no strong Catholic community – faith was perceived as old, out of touch and inadequate. In Croatia, it is a tradition for most children to go to church until they are confirmed; then they return the following Christmas, or to get married. I wasn’t too far off. But then, a decade ago, I converted, and a whole new world opened up before me.
Zagreb is a good place to practise the faith – you can find daily Mass from 7am to 7pm. So no excuse not to go! Most parishes in cities have Mass twice a day, and Confession is easily available, especially from churches next to monasteries. It’s relatively easy to find a suitable priest willing to be your spiritual director.
Mind you, Zagreb does benefit from the influx of more than 100,000 students. A few years ago, I moved to the small town of Virovitica in the north-east for a year. I wouldn’t call it grim, but the parish felt the lack of any student population. Normally, these students would lead social projects or prayer communities. This is why smaller towns depend on the proactive approach of a few families, or the personal holiness of the local priest.
In summer, young Catholics gather for summer schools, conferences on Catholic social teaching or volunteering trips. I usually spend a week or two volunteering on the island of Mljet (off Dubrovnik), with 50 others in the 20-to-35 age group. We work for several hours a day clearing weeds and non-native trees from the old olive grove.
As this takes place within a national park, we work with its management on bringing the pollinators back and increasing biodiversity. But we also have daily Mass, a time for meditation, and catechesis in small groups in the evening. There are at least 15 of these very popular programmes organised by Catholic groups.
Then there is the Mountaineering Way of the Cross, which usually takes place in October and April: hundreds of people of different ages and backgrounds walking 30-odd miles in two days. Its stations are often neglected old chapels. These hikes usually take place in the lesser known areas of Croatia, such as Gorski Kotar or Zagorje. Locals often offer refreshments along the way: tea, rakija (the national drink) and cakes. Everyone snores at night, which I can’t stand. But it is the Way of the Cross, after all.
Not everything is perfect here. A good part of the laity is still somewhat clericalised: they don’t think that they have full responsibility for their personal holiness and, in a way, the same goes for the Church in general. Decades of socialism have also left their mark: people expect everything from the state.
This poison of avoiding responsibility is transferred down to younger generations, albeit with less effect. Older well-known Catholics in politics and culture are rarely familiar with the social doctrine of the Church – and it shows. But the younger generations are different. They not only receive the sacraments more often, but also read much more about their faith. And I’m pleased to say GK Chesterton is one of our favourite writers.