Bleiburg is a reminder and summons to view the past through the eyes of faith, with our gaze fixed on the One who guides the history of people and nations.
1. The Eucharist we celebrate leads us to Calvary, where the sacrifice took place through which we were saved and redeemed. Empowered by Christ’s death and resurrection, we fearlessly address the Heavenly Father and exclaim: Jesus, save us! Christ, hear us! Bleiburg is a metaphor for the torture, persecution and death of vast multitudes of our compatriots. Therefore, every year we commemorate in prayer all the known and unknown victims who, without due process or court trials, perished in camps and grave sites: from Dravograd, Kočevski rog, Maribor and Tezno to Ogulin and Gospić, from the Macelj forests and Jazovka to Jasenovac and Glina, from Križevci and Bjelovar to Srijemska Mitrovica, Sarajevo, Foča, Zenica and Mostar. In the spirit of prayer and piety, from the very beginning it has been Church practice to pray for the deceased, both in churches and the places where they died or were buried. This year’s gathering of pilgrims from all parts of our beautiful homeland, Europe and the world is a sign of faith, prayer and respect for the victims of the collective suffering inflicted by the Yugoslav partisans after the end of the Second World War, which for decades was concealed, defended or minimized.
For all of us, dear pilgrims from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Europe and everyone in the homeland and other countries following us on radio or television, this commemoration takes us back seven decades. While some ask whether it is necessary to return constantly to the past and think about what happened a long time ago, the Lord tells us in the Bible commands that events should not be forgotten and should be commemorated every year (cf. Ex 12:14, Ex 13:10). Remembrance is an integral part of the identity of the family, community and nation. The Holy Mass, as a great commemoration and remembrance of the holy feast of love, has a particular place in the journey of memory and salvific history. It is also a sign of our Christian responsibility for the image of our homeland, which must be reflected in its statutes and laws because “unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build” (Ps 127:1). Indeed, there are those who think that the homeland is a remnant from the Romantic era. We believers in Old Testament promises and witnesses to the Easter events deem that the homeland has its theological place in our pilgrim life. Namely, since Christ entered this world and dwelt on earth, doing good, he has guided the human journey toward the heavenly homeland.
2. An excellent example of the relationship between the earthly and heavenly homeland is provided to us by our compatriot, St. Leopold Bogdan Mandić, whose feast day we celebrate today. He was born in Boka Kotorska, also known as the Bay of Croatian Saints, in Herceg-Novi, to Petar Mandić and Karolina (née Carević) Mandić, as their next to the last, eleventh, child. His ancestors were from Bosnia, from which they fled the Turks and went to Zakučac, in the former Republic of Poljica, and then settled in Boka Kotorska. St. Leopold spent his last forty years in Padua, where his “golden hand” blessed and absolved the penitent. How beautiful it is to have a friend with a “golden hand,” who understands and helps us with works and advice. It is known that he was sought after by workers and students, professors, intellectuals, soldiers and officers, nuns and monks, priests and bishops.
For centuries, people have turned to saints regarding various needs and occasions. Shrines, chapels and altars were and have remained gathering places for the faithful who seek help. In particular were the Marian shrines, the “shelters of souls, fishermen and seafarers” where “there were many votive gifts from the impoverished and pious people and many sighs were heard by the old painting of Our Lady” (Alfirević). There will be such places and human needs as long as there are life and the world, because man cannot save himself by himself but requires help and intercession from heaven, as well as the advice of good and holy people, which our Leopold ably provided. Therefore, people came to him eagerly, confessed their sins and weaknesses, and then returned reborn and with a blessing to their homes and families.
3. Let us return for a moment to the horrors, suffering and torments to which the known and unknown war victims were subjected throughout Europe, from the time of the Roman emperors of the first centuries to the revolutions in France (1789) and Russia (1917). These days, a commentator wrote that “the same story has been repeated for centuries.” Thus, he says, “the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity, with its revolutionary method, has produced seas of innocent blood beneath numerous guillotines throughout France.” This was repeated in Europe when there was a clash between the two godless ideologies of fascism and communism during the Second World War. Namely, the struggle for social equality under the banner of “class ideology” spawned the horrors of the Gulags and Goli Otoks. The idea of national freedom under the “satanic racial laws” spawned the horrors of killing and concentration camps (A. Mateljan, Sveti Duje [St. Domnius], 2018).
Let us now look at two examples. One is from the milieu of the vicious and unholy ideology of fascism and the other from the milieu of the vicious and unholy ideology of communism, which occurred approximately at the same time. The young Jewess Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz in 1943. In her diary, we read: “I believe that I can endure all the troubles of life and these times. And when the danger becomes inescapable and I do not know how to obtain freedom, I can always pray with my hands folded and on my knees.” How many such prayers rose to heaven in response to the violent deaths in the numerous execution sites throughout Europe, particularly from those 1,700 mass graves in which our compatriots perished throughout Slovenia (600), Croatia (850), Bosnia and Herzegovina (90) and Serbia (180). Such prayers were joined day and night by those of family, friends and relatives. In those dark moments of hatred, scorn and persecution, these people addressed their prayers to the Light of Life, in hopes of once again receiving a joyful embrace.
4. This was well depicted in the moving Letter to an Unborn Child, written by Ivanka Škrabec, wife of a member of the Slovenian Home Guard, who was murdered by the partisans on June 3, 1942, together with the child in her womb (Roman Leljak, Buried Alive: Abyss of Communist Crimes, 2018). One evening, they took her to a grove and ordered her to dig her own grave. She pleaded with them to let her live for a few more months, until she could give birth to the child she was expecting with particular joy and blessed longing. The child was the fruit of the Christian love she shared with her husband, Franco. The perverse commander responded that “such a hag did not even deserve a bullet,” so he ferociously strangled her and threw her into the hole she had dug. Before her death, this martyr wrote the following moving words to her unborn child:
“In a few hours my life will end, O, my gentle angel. How I long to see your smiling face, which would cheer me. O, my child, my tender white flower! I will never see your tiny white hands. Sleep peacefully next to my heart that loves you so. When I felt you in my body for the first time, I dreamed of bringing you into God’s presence, to wash you with baptismal water. Alas, I shall soon wash you with my blood, with your mother’s blood, full of love, you will be baptized. … And then in heaven, my gentle angel, I shall see your face and you will see your mother. Then, for the first time, you will utter ‘Mama.'”
Thank you, Ivanka, for this magnificent testimony by an honorable woman and mother. Thank you immensely for liberating your heart from hatred toward those who tortured and strangled you. Thank you for encouraging us to view the Bleiburg tragedy through other and different eyes, the eyes of faith and caution, the eyes of hope and trust. Therefore, Bleiburg is a reminder and summons to view the past through the eyes of faith, with our gaze fixed on the One who guides the history of people and nations.
5. The times we live in require new people, creators of a new world, a new and different Croatia and Europe. It is up to engaged Christians who hope, believe and love, who are permeated by the spirit of the gospel and are worthy to live and witness peace, love and tolerance. Confronted by the experience of intolerance, owing to which Croatia and Europe burned in the flames of hatred and contempt during the twentieth century, today’s followers of the cross of Christ and those who commemorate the Way of the Cross of our martyred brethren feel called to bear witness and proclaim a utopia of peace, love, forgiveness and trust, in order for our Lord to preserve us from “plague, hunger, war and evil times,” and bestow upon our homeland lasting stability and the yearned for peace and freedom, which our courageous defenders achieved for us.
We are grateful to God for the fathers and mothers because for centuries they were steadfast and faithful to their roots and history, and were proud in their Christian and Croatian name. We rejoice in the many young people who have discovered Christ as their only and true friend, to whom they can entrust their concerns and problems. I recently sensed this at the Cibona basketball arena, at a concert entitled See with the Heart, where young people sang for two and a half hours to Jesus, Mary and the Holy Spirit. Jesus helps us to see with the heart, which is why he was born and became a man, in order to save and redeem us. He also left us with his Word and the Eucharist, as our viaticum and food. The Eucharist, which we celebrate for our martyred brethren, “fills the soul with grace and is a pledge of future glory.” It enables us to see things through different eyes, the eyes of the heart and faith, so that already here we anticipate a new heaven and a new earth. It announces to us the Easter light, by which we become able “to see the promise of future hope with our hearts.” It also reveals that the numerous casualties and sacrifices for freedom only acquire their full meaning if we unite them with the Calvary sacrifice of the Son of God, who saved and freed us through his passion, death and resurrection, and also established the Church in which he continues to live among us through the Eucharist.
6. Jesus is, therefore, among us, our viaticum and eternal food that we need for our journey in this ephemeral world. The grace of the cross and redemption is renewed during every Mass. The new life of God flows through us that Christ earned for us through his passion, death and resurrection. Therefore, today at Bleiburg, to him, the only Redeemer and Savior of mankind, we pray and implore: Come Lord Jesus! Come to us and feed us with your Word and your Body. Come to the Croatian people and all the nations of this old Christian continent of Europe. Come to all our families who rejoice in the Third Encounter of Croatian Catholic Families, to be held this September in Solin.
Repeat to us what you said to your disciples in the Cenacle of the Last Supper: “You are my friends.” Our friendship with you in good and bad days has been a source of certitude. May it remain a pledge of our future, so that we may be and remain faithful to your gospel and always prepared to serve you, our brethren, the Church and the homeland, in the spirit of the old hymn and prayer by the Jesuit Petar Perica, whom the partisans killed on October 25, 1944, one year before Bleiburg, together with a group of sixty intellectuals from Dubrovnik, on the little island of Daksa. He wrote this song almost 120 years ago, in 1900, for the consecration of Croatian youth to the Heart of Jesus: “Jesus Christ, we consecrate ourselves and our home to your heart! Body and soul, I am eternally yours, fighting the battle for the venerable cross! Glory to you, O King, glory to you, O Christ. Before you, everything is ash, dust. As long as we are yours, who can harm us? You are our strength, love and fear.” Amen.
† Želimir Puljić, Archbishop of Zadar
President of Croatian Bishops’ Conference
Bleiburg, May 12, 2018