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Archbishop Želimir Puljić, President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops: The Involvement of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Stepinac's Canonization Represents a Precedent in the Catholic Church

Zadar (IKA)

A copy of the letter recently written by the Croatian Catholic bishops to Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej was also sent to Pope Francis, said Archbishop Želimir Puljić of Zadar, the President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, in reference to a comment made about Stepinac's canonization by Pope Francis while he was returning from a visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

On Wednesday, May 8, following an interview for the Croatian Catholic Network, Archbishop Puljić also issued a comment for Croatian Catholic Radio on a statement made by Pope Francis “that was disturbing to the public.” Archbishop Puljić called the decision to consult the Serbian Orthodox Church regarding the canonization of a beatified Catholic, in this case Stepinac, a precedent: “This is, indeed, a precedent. I have never heard that a Church became involved [in the process of canonization] and that a pope took this into consideration. Consequently, this is a precedent! However, it shows two things. One is that, they [from the Serbian Orthodox Church], wanted to use to this precedent to block [the canonization], although this is not solely directed against Stepinac but goes further. This is already politics. I do not like it. Stepinac was processed by the Congregation as a holy man. Moreover, a miracle was confirmed. Who is going to speak against Heaven now? Nevertheless, politics became involved with the sentence: ‘He [Stepinac] did not do enough, he could have done more.’ Stepinac was brave, acted contrary to his own interests and risked his life,” stated Msgr. Puljić.

Since Pope Francis emphasizes the need to establish the historical facts and refers to Patriarch Irinej in a positive sense, a journalist mentioned to Archbishop Puljić noted that part of modern history was recorded a recent letter sent to Patriarch Irinej by the Croatian bishops, which contains documented facts that dispute many statements issued by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch as defamation of the Catholic Church among the Croats and the Croatian nation. “The letter we wrote to Patriarch Irinej is our commentary on some of the inappropriate statements issued by the Serbian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Irinej himself. We considered it to be correct and honest. We did not make it public for several months but then, having received no response, we released it for publication. We had already sent it to the Vatican, so that the Vatican knows about this letter. I believe that regarding our relationships, it is not necessary to handle them with kid gloves. It is necessary to speak clearly! We care about ecumenism and try to cultivate good relations with the Orthodox, particularly the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia and outside its borders. Nevertheless, in this context we are not happy when Stepinac is placed in some sort of a political climate. Stepinac did what he could at the time. Stepinac was such a critic of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) that perhaps not even Serbs were as critical of its leader. And poor Stepinac suffered because of this. He loved his country. He welcomed the creation of a Croatian state but he did not support the regime. He spoke very harshly against some of the actions taken by the regime at the time. I think that Stepinac intervened over thirty times and sought an audience with Pavelić. Pavelić never came to the cathedral chapter (Kaptol). Critics who do not like Stepinac and do not like the Croatian state say: ‘He could have done more, he was close to Pavelić.’ That is not true! He was a genuine shepherd at the right time! We are grateful to God for Stepinac and proud of him, despite misguided prejudices,” said Archbishop Puljić.

The President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops mentioned the book Magnum Crimen by Viktor Novak, which “unfortunately, is still used as a basic text for critics of the Croatian state, Stepinac and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately! This is not a book; it is a pamphlet. In a conversation with me, Patriarch Irinej referred to this book. I had asked him where had he had found some information. The Patriarch said: ‘In Magnum Crimen.’ However, Magnum Crimen is a pamphlet against the Catholic Church. There are hundreds of pages about Stepinac’s undertakings on the behalf of children, Orthodox, Jews, all documented. Numerous critics of the Croatian state during that time and the Church in Croatia follow that line of thinking. Stepinac was highly critical toward the Ustasha regime and what the regime was doing. He was one of the small number of bishops in all the fascist countries in Europe who had the courage to speak out against the racial laws: ‘There are no racial laws. There are God’s laws.’ The German ambassador commented: ‘If a bishop in Germany had said that, he would have been imprisoned the next day.’ Stepinac also dared to speak clearly against the actions of the regime at the time, in defense of the person and in defense of every nation, every people. He said: ‘There are no races but there is the nation of God.’ In this context, Stepinac is truly the pride of Croatia, the Croatian nation and the Catholic Church! We are truly proud of him. If there will ever be a gathering of all the martyrs from the time of the totalitarian regimes of fascism, Nazism and communism, I am certain that Stepinac would deserve be at the forefront of such martyrs, as their standard-bearer,” said Archbishop Puljić.

The President of the Croatian Conference of bishops said: “There is nothing wrong with seeking the truth because the Pope said that he cares about the truth and wants to arrive at the truth, together with the Patriarch. That is what everyone truly wants. However, in the case of Stepinac and what the Congregation has already done and concluded, there is nothing controversial that, in my opinion, would call the issue of his saintliness and canonization into question.”

“I should like to mention something that is not customary, which is the involvement of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a different church, and the Patriarch himself in the canonization process of the Catholic Church. It is inappropriate, I must say, and it is not customary. I should even dare to say that it is petty politics. Thus, Stepinac is being placed in an unfair position. Stepinac was a believer, bishop and cardinal. He was an official of the Catholic Church and, as such, merited first the title of beatus and is now in the process of being proclaimed a saint. I know that the Pope’s statement stirred up the public and provoked our faithful. Therefore, on my behalf and on behalf of all my fellow bishops, I urge people to be patient and calm. The date and act of the proclamation of his sainthood are in the Pope’s hands. On several occasions, Pope Francis has said: ‘Stepinac’s sainthood is not in question.’ However, the Pope cares very much about ecumenism, discussion, and, thus, he praised the Patriarch in this discussion. This means that he cares about the Orthodox Church. We also care. And Stepinac cared! Thus, all of us care about unity. We have to understand this in context. Despite opposition and objections, we are confident and see in the field that Stepinac’s sanctity is venerated among the faithful, like no other saint. In this context, there is a positive aspect to this waiting because through crooked lines and ill-intentioned critics, God writes in his own way,” said Msgr. Puljić.

He expressed his agreement with what Bishop Ratko Perić wrote in his most recent book, Nada koja ne postiđuje (Unabashed Hope), that Stepinac is a phenomenon. “We must accept the fact that Stepinac is a phenomenon, a phenomenon in various aspects, various areas, from his ordination and beatification and now in the dispute over the date of the proclamation of his sainthood. Before this multifaceted phenomenon, there is nothing else for us to do but to say thank God for this worthy and strong knight who was present among us when we needed him the most! We also need him now! He is in heaven and, therefore, we pray to him, venerate him and love him,” concluded the President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, Archbishop Želimir Puljić of Zadar.