As with all other visits of the first hierarch of the Roman Catholic Church and head of the Vatican, the smallest – but not the most insignificant – independent country of the world, the two day pilgrimage of Pope Benedict XVI to Croatia, on May 4-5, 2011 was given great media coverage worldwide. This visit was given no lesser attention in our [Serbian] media with the motto, “Together in Christ.”
Many of the messages which the first hierarch of Rome, as a prime theologian, delivered in Zagreb are universal and can apply to the entire Christian world — such as, firstly, those messages which encourage Christian families to resist the spirit of secularization and to nurture the holiness of life, marriage and family. Also significant are the messages addressed to the youth who are at an age when they are seeking the meaning of life.
However, two messages delivered in two days are remembered as controversial, and not only among the Serbian public.
The Pope delivered the first such message while still on the plane en route to Croatia in an informal conversation with journalists. Namely, recalling the earlier archbishops of Zagreb, he stated: “The late Cardinal Franjo Seper, the late Cardinals Franjo Kuharic and Josip Bozanic, would always say that Croatia is not in the Balkans but in Central Europe; therefore it would be logical, just and necessary that Croatia enter the European Union where it belongs historically and culturally.” Thinking about this statement, while not entering into the argument of whether Croatia is in the Balkans or in Central Europe, we wish to believe that his distinguished declaration did not intend to place Southeast Europe – once the central area of the Roman Empire and later Rumelia (translation: Roman land, Europe, the mainly Christian part of the Ottoman Empire), today known by its Turkish name Balkans – somewhere outside of Europe, nor to return to the beginning of the 16th century when his predecessor Leo X labeled Croatia as the antemurale christianitatis (“the bulwark of Christianity”). It mustn't be forgotten that that “bulwark” in those times was guarded, besides by the Zrini and Frankopans, also by the many Serbs living on the frontiers. Today, after five centuries of a historical presence there, they are suddenly no longer there, or [those who remain] endure as the remnant of those people who were either slaughtered or banished.
From our side, we Balkanites, we Serbs, do not see Europe in this narrow horizon of East and Central Europe, nor in the wider span from the Atlantic to the Urals, but we see it as a continent with a civilization from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Canaries to the Kuril Islands, for this is a single spiritual space, which has the same Christian roots and shares the same valuable ideals. We who belong to the Orthodox people of the Balkans love not only our own fatherland, but the entire Balkans, our wider Byzantine-Slavic but also Western Christian, as well as Muslim, homeland – Romani, aware that it gave Europe its two foundations of civilization, Hellenism and Christianity. We note that classic Hellenistic culture, for centuries the greatest in Europe, is, by definition, primarily a Balkan culture, just as are those oldest known cultures of Europe, of Lepen and Vincan, and that young Christianity in Europe also entered into the Balkans (specifically in Philippi, near modern day Kavala in Greece).
We recall also the anthropological formulation of the late Pope John Paul II that there is no Europe without both lungs, of which one is called Orthodox or Eastern Christian, mostly Greek-Slavic...
Although the expectations of many Roman Catholic faithful, mostly of Croatia, that Aloysius Stepinac, the Archishop of Zagreb during World War II, would be canonized and recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on this visit was not met, an added controversy, and a painful dilemma in our midst, was caused by the Pope's words – also spoken en route to Zagreb – that Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac “was opposed to the Ustasha regime” and that he “defended the right of humanity to oppose that regime by defending Serbs, Jews, Roma.” He repeated something similar in a homily delivered at the cathedral in Zagreb, saying that Cardinal Stepinac “during the Nazi and Fascist dictatorship became a defender of the Jews, Orthodox and all those persecuted.” Since Stepinac was a military vicar of the “Independent State” of Croatia – or, according to others, he appointed military vicars – and was a member of the Parliament of the Independent State of Croatia, while, bearing in mind the physical and spiritual genocide on Serbs, Jews and Gypsies known worldwide, we must point out that, in light of historical facts, this dimension of Stepinac's personality is at the least one-sidedly exaggerated or, more likely, forcibly constructed, overemphasizing cases of his commitment to individual Serbs or Jews (among which, by some miracle, there is no mention of the names of three Orthodox bishops and more than two hundred Orthodox priests killed by the Ustashe), while concealing or underestimating his ideological motivations and public statements of animosity towards Orthodoxy, “Byzantium”, Judaism, Serbdom and others.
In the end, we note with gratitude, in spite of all of the above, the Pope's invitation to Roman Catholic bishops and clergy to be continually committed to the reconciliation of divided Christians, as well as reconciliation among Christians and Muslims. May the hands of reconciliation always be extended, as in the act of creation, depicted by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Sistine Chapel. God is the Reconciler of the past with the future. God is our East, and West, and North, and South. God is our all.
Bishop Irinej of Backa