On Saturday 10 February, St Patrick’s Cathedral was filled with the music and colours of Melbourne’s Croatian Catholic community as they gathered to celebrate the feast of Blessed Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, a man who, as Archbishop of Zagreb, helped rescue thousands of Jews from the cruelty of the Nazis.
More than 1,500 people gathered at St Patrick’s for the celebration, with the Zvonimir Folklore Ensemble, a Croatian music group, forming part of the procession.
Born in 1898 to a farming family in the small village of Brezaric, Aloysius Stepinac was conscripted to fight as an Austrian officer during the First World War. (Croatia at that time was part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, which subsequently collapsed in 1918). He was taken as an Italian prisoner of war from July to December 1918, and following the end of the war, Stepinac discerned a vocation to the priesthood.
Love towards one’s nation cannot turn a man into a wild animal, which destroys everything and calls for reprisal, but it must ennoble him, so that his own nation secures respect and love of other nations.
He was ordained in 1930, and in 1934, Pope Pius XI appointed him Coadjutor Bishop of Bauer, making Stepinac the youngest bishop in the world at the time. In 1937, he was appointed Archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital.
In the years leading up to the onset of the Second World War, Stepinac saw the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the National Socialist movement. In a 1938 address to students, condemning the Third Reich, Stepinac said, ‘Love towards one’s nation cannot turn a man into a wild animal, which destroys everything and calls for reprisal, but it must ennoble him, so that his own nation secures respect and love of other nations.’
Throughout his time as Archbishop of Zagreb, Stepinac did much to help the Jewish people. Some have estimated that through his efforts, nearly 6,000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust.
When the Axis powers invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (comprised of modern-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia), Stepinac found himself in a difficult position. He was the representative of the church in Croatia, a majority Catholic country, and suddenly his government was led by Ante Pavelić and the ‘Ustase’ (Croatians loyal to Hitler).
Stepinac was forced to work mostly in secret, feeding and sheltering Jewish refugees and building networks of Catholics who could provide for those in need.
While Stepanic did his utmost to work diplomatically with the government, he was forced to work mostly in secret, feeding and sheltering Jewish refugees and building networks of Catholics who could provide for those in need. His appeal to the Vatican to welcome thousands of people fleeing their country was a landmark achievement.
His homilies and addresses—regularly critical of Nazi ideology—were also distributed widely, broadcast over radio stations and handed out as pamphlets.
After the Second World War, the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito came to power in Yugoslavia. Since Stepinac was a fierce opponent of communism also, he was arrested in 1946 and charged with being a Nazi collaborator. Nobody believed the charges, and significant public figures spoke up in his defence, including Pope Pius XII (who made him a cardinal in 1953) and Winston Churchill. It was widely recognised as nothing more than a show trial, and members of the Tito government later admitted as much.
In 1951, he was released and kept under house arrest in his hometown. In 1960, he died of illnesses that were contracted in prison.
Today, Blessed Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac is a hero of Croatian Catholicism and someone for all people to look up to.
In 1998, Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II. In his homily for the day, the Pope said:
In his human and spiritual journey Blessed Alojzije Stepinac gave his people a sort of compass to serve as an orientation. And these were its cardinal points: faith in God, respect for man, love towards all even to the offer of forgiveness, and unity with the Church guided by the Successor of Peter. He knew well that no bargains can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable. Thus he faced suffering rather than betray his conscience and not abide by the promise given to Christ and the Church.
In 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to investigate the cause for Stepinac’s canonisation, given that the Serbian Orthodox Church had questioned his wartime record. The Vatican concluded the commission by leaving the cause open, believing there was enough evidence in support of a positive interpretation of Stepinac’s actions.
He knew well that no bargains can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable. Thus he faced suffering rather than betray his conscience.
The Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral was celebrated by Fr Nicholas Pearce. During his homily, he reflected on how Blessed Aloysius, like St Paul, gave everything so that others might be saved.
‘This evening, you, the Croatian Catholic community of Melbourne, gather here and in a particular way celebrate the life of Blessed Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac. In him we see a shining example of a life set aside for the proclamation of the saving message of Christ ... In our own time and place, may we turn to Blessed Aloysius and seek his intercession. May he not just stand for us as a relic of the past but as an inspiration and intercessor for today.’
Melbourne Catholic08 November 2023
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