News Analysis

Why a papal press conference ‘upset the faithful’ in Croatia

Pope Francis talks to journalists (Getty Images)

Croatians are ‘agitated’ by papal comments about a war-time Blessed

When the Pope mentioned the projected canonisation of a communist-era cardinal, the reactions demonstrated the passions still surrounding the recent past in Eastern Europe.

Francis was asked during his flight back from Bulgaria about the case of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960), who led Croatia’s Catholic Church during the Second World War and subsequent communist takeover, and was beatified in 1998 despite objections from Serbian Orthodox leaders.

He confirmed that Catholics could pray to Stepinac, a “man of virtue”, but said “unclear historical points” had also emerged during his canonisation process, about which he had sought help from Serbia’s 88-year-old Orthodox Patriarch Irinej.

However, the Pontiff’s remarks were challenged by Archbishop Želimir Puljić, president of Croatia’s bishops’ conference, who said they had “agitated the public and upset the faithful” by raising doubts about Stepinac’s sanctity and setting a precedent for involving other churches in Catholic canonisations.

Stepinac was Archbishop of Zagreb when independent Croatia’s fascist Ustasha Party was in power under Ante Pavelić. Accused of collaborating in war crimes by Josip Broz Tito’s communist regime, he was sentenced to 16 years’ hard labour after a 1946 show-trial, but released into house arrest on health grounds five years later.

Pope Francis said that he and Patriarch Irinej were “only interested in the truth”, adding that he was relying on Orthodox help to clarify it.

However, Archbishop Puljić said the cardinal had been the target of “false prejudices”, adding that 49,000 pages of documentation had demonstrated how he opposed the actions of the Pavelić regime, personally saving thousands of Serbian detainees and protecting Serbian Orthodox objects and properties.

He added that Patriarch Irinej and other Serbian leaders appeared to have derived information from an anti-Catholic pamphlet, Magnum Crimen, published in 1948 by Viktor Novak, a historian and ex-priest at Serbia’s communist-controlled Belgrade University.