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The Faithful Are Facing Challenges from the Pandemic and Earthquakes

Zagreb (IKA)

Message Issued by he Bishops of the Croatian Conference of Bishops at the Sixty-First Plenary Session of the CCB, held in Zagreb on January 18 and 19

  1. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God (2 Cor 1:3‒5)

With these words of St. Paul, dear brothers and sisters, especially those directly affected by the disease COVID-19 and the deaths of loved ones, as well as those suffering from the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in Zagreb and its surroundings, and then in Petrinja, Sisak, Glina and their surroundings, we warmly greet you with compassionate hearts filled with Christian hope at the beginning of the year 2021.

In the past year, so many dear members of our households, neighbors, friends, priests and religious have departed, including our beloved Msgr. Mile Bogović, the first bishop of Gospić-Senj. The disease  COVID-19 has significantly altered all our lives but also sparked increased human solidarity, led from the beginning by physicians, nurses and other hospital workers, who are exposing themselves to risks day and night in order to help the sick,

Everyday we witness that the pandemic has left severe consequences on every aspect of life, especially among the sick, elderly and infirm confined to solitude. Families have not been spared, either, some of whom, in addition to the economic instability that has affected everyone, are facing an increase in family problems, including violence. The entire society has been afflicted: educational institutions, social and cultural life, the economy, as well as everything else that defines the life of a community.

We should like to note that all of this has also had repercussions on the life of the Church. Liturgical and general pastoral life has been greatly limited. For a time, we could not celebrate Mass with the people and even today we do so under restricted conditions.  It has not been possible to conduct parish catechesis in the customary manner, celebrate First Communions or Confirmations. There have been limitations on the customary blessing of families and many religious gatherings. A number of our parishes have encountered new pastoral challenges and material difficulties. Nevertheless, there are also positive indicators. Many have discovered the importance of family spirituality and communal prayer. Attempts have been made via the social media to convey the message of the gospel to all those in need of encouragement, comfort, solidarity and humanitarian support, and to provide psychological and spiritual assistance.

  1. Although we had hoped that the year 2021 would restore our much needed security, a series of earthquakes first struck our capital city of Zagreb in March, and then the Banja region and Diocese of Sisak in December of last year. Parts of cities and villages were destroyed. Unfortunately, some also lost loved ones in the earthquakes. Many families were suddenly left without anything. Those who had previously lived in the safety of their own homes found shelter in halls, campers or container houses. Many churches in the Archdiocese of Zagreb and the Diocese of Sisak were destroyed or damaged, while the cathedrals in Zagreb and Sisak suffered extensive damages and had to be closed for worship.

In this tragic situation, our fellow citizens immediately understood what they had to do. In addition to the hospital emergency services, firefighters, police, military, Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, Caritas and Red Cross, numerous groups of sports fans and individuals felt that they could not remain on the sidelines but had to come to the rescue, making sacrifices and exposing themselves to numerous challenges in order to meet the needs of those who were endangered. Thus, a great act of solidarity was initiated from all the parts of our homeland and abroad. It reminded us of the experience of the Homeland War. Therefore, even this natural disaster has strengthened our community and aroused powerful feelings of solidarity in many that were manifested by concrete undertakings. As we were convinced thirty years ago that we could defend our endangered freedom with unity and solidarity, we believe today that through fellowship and solidarity, we shall be able to overcome these current misfortunes and many challenges.

Contemplating God’s love of mankind in life’s sufferings, St. John Chrysostom said the following after an earthquake in Antioch:   “[…] the fruit from the earthquake is great. Do you see the love for humanity of the Master who shakes the city and who makes the soul firm? He who rocks the foundations and strengthens our thoughts? He shows the weakness of the city and strengthens our will. Take note of his love of mankind. He wavered for a little while, he strengthens forever. The earthquake lasted for two days, in order for his generosity to remain for all time. You sorrowed for a little while but were strengthened forever. […] The Lord of all, who holds the universe in his hands, does not shake it in order to destroy it, but in order to bring us to salvation.”

We know, brothers and sisters, that the needs transcend our possibilities. We are often overcome by a sense of helplessness in the face of such demanding tasks. Therefore, together with our good will and willingness, we turn to the Almighty because “[u]nless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build.” (Ps 127:1). This encourages all of us not to rely solely upon ourselves and our powers but to place our trust in the Lord, in whatever situation we find ourselves. He will help us if we pray to him and allow him rebuild and restore what has been destroyed.

  1. Faced with the experience of severe suffering and illness, we are called to look to the example of the biblical Job, who, having suddenly lost everything he had, throws himself on the ground, bows down and says: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away! Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Job’s example encourages us to accept everything that happens with trust in God, because after great losses and sufferings, he received comfort, blessings and happiness, even in this life (cf. Job 42:10‒17).

In trying to under disease and natural catastrophes, we reach with great respect and openness for the valuable treasures of science, thought synthesis and expert answers, translated into concrete systems and  measures for providing assistance. Nevertheless, in seeking the meaning of human suffering, in seeking an answer to our question why, we look toward Jesus Christ. In his suffering exclamation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:47), all the sufferings and pains of mankind are expressed and condensed. The cry from the cross and resurrection are the culmination of Christ’s incarnation and identification with every person in his suffering. In Christ’s resurrection is the answer to all our present pains and anxieties. Through the Spirit of the Defender and Comforter that has been bestowed upon us, we are closely united to the Lord and our whole life, even now on our earthly path, is strengthened and inspired by the power, meaning and treasure of Christ’s cross and resurrection. This is God’s salvific love, in which the prospect of the transformative power of the resurrection and fullness of immortal life is opened in each of us, for every person.

  1. The time ahead requires shared and personal responsibility and care in promoting the safeguarding of life, as well as the well-being of each individual and society as a whole. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the well-being of society depends upon the well-being of each individual and family. As for the issue of vaccination, which in recent weeks has been a focus of public attention, Pope Francis recently expressed his thoughts on having received the vaccine for “ethical reasons,” i.e., so as not to gamble with “his own health and life, as well as with the health and lives of others.” Given the specific moral dilemmas, the Holy See has recently issued several clarification that protect freedom of conscience and personal responsibility in deciding whether to receive the vaccine.

The present and future times will require prudence in the work of the Church, including liturgical life and pastoral activities. Therefore, we always take care to preserve our own identity and our religious life. Due to the limitations on our gatherings, which we hope will be lifted as soon as possible, let us develop various forms of activities in small groups, let us use the new means of communication in evangelization and catechesis, and especially let us devote even greater attention to promoting families as home churches.

Moreover, we invite you to continue to contribute to the manifestation of the face of goodness and solidarity, especially toward those in the areas threatened by earthquakes. We continue, according to our abilities, to participate in various initiatives for providing assistance to the suffering population and the construction and repair of homes, schools, hospitals, churches, cultural and other facilities essential for life. The willingness to help and many acts of love testify to who we are and what we should always be: witnesses of a new hope and new life, and witnesses of the resurrection.

Dear brothers and sisters, in Sunday Eucharistic celebrations, in daily and persevering prayer, let us continue to find the deepest inspiration and strength for our own confrontation with difficulties and for effective love toward our neighbors.

We commend the entire homeland and all its citizens, especially the Archdiocese of Zagreb and the Diocese of Sisak, wounded by earthquakes, and all the victims of the coronavirus pandemic and destructive earthquakes, to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Most Faithful Advocate; St. Joseph, the patron saint of the Church and homeland; Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, who was the spiritual pastor in the areas currently affected by the earthquakes, as well as all our patron saints. May the Good Father reward all those who have done and continue to do good a hundredfold.

Zagreb, January 19, 2021

Your Bishops