National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 20, 2003

An elderly woman attends the papal Mass in Osijek, Croatia, June 7.
-- CNS/Reuters
Pope returns to Christian identity theme

Croatians told to treasure Catholic roots, pursue postwar reconciliation

Rijeka/Dubrovnik/Osijek/Zadar, Croatia

One might be tempted to see John Paul II’s June 5-9 trip to Croatia as a sentimental journey reconnecting the Polish pope with fellow Slav Catholics who recently survived a brutal civil war. The pope has already visited this tiny nation (smaller than West Virginia) twice, so it’s understandably difficult to find anything dramatic the third time around.

This may be why media reports concentrated on side stories, such as the fact that this is John Paul’s 100th foreign journey, or the inevitable question of the pope’s health. The verdict was that he held up relatively well. (See story. )

Upon closer inspection, however, there was a deep logic to the trip that made it compelling for John Paul. Coming to Croatia afforded the pope a chance to move the ball, so to speak, on his top priorities for both Western and Eastern Europe.

In the West, the pope is currently waging a battle over the Christian identity of Europe, accusing the continent of historical amnesia about the religious crucible in which its values took shape. One area of concern is the new European Constitution, whose draft preamble acknowledges Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment as sources of European culture, but not Christianity.

John Paul wants the new arrivals into the European Union from the former Socialist bloc, especially Catholic nations such as Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Croatia, to help reawaken Europe’s Christian soul.

At that level, the pope came to tell the 4.4 million Croats, 87 percent Catholic: As you move into the European mainstream, do not check your religious tradition at the door.

In the East, the central leitmotif of John Paul’s papacy is the quest for unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Nowhere have these two traditions been at one another’s throats with greater ferocity than in the Balkans, where Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, as well as Bosnian Muslims, butchered one another during the 1991-95 war with a savagery that stunned the world.

In that context, John Paul brought the Balkans a message of fraternity and reconciliation.

Whether the pope succeeded on either front was unknown as he returned to Rome, but it’s clear that seen through John Paul’s eyes, the Croatia trip was more than a nostalgic exercise or a proof of his physical capacity to travel. It was crystallization in five days of his most important messages for Europe, this cradle of Christian civilization that the pope wants to see “breathe with both lungs,” East and West.

The importance of Croatia’s Catholic roots was a constant theme, and the pope struck it first June 5 during the welcoming ceremony at the Rijeka airport.

“Christianity greatly contributed to Croatia’s development in the past,” the pope said. “It can also continue to make an effective contribution to Croatia’s present and its future.”

John Paul urged the Croats to carry this heritage with them into the European Union.

“The rich tradition of Croatia will surely contribute to strengthening the Union as an administrative and territorial unit, and also as a cultural and spiritual reality.”

On June 8, during the pope’s Mass in Rijeka’s Delta Square, parts of the liturgy were celebrated in the Old Church Slavonic that some Croats have used since the ninth century.

John Paul returned to the theme of Catholic identity time and again.

“It is my hope,” the pope said June 6 in Dubrovnik, “that the patrimony of human and Christian values, accumulated down the centuries, will continue, with the help of God and of your patron, St. Blaise, to be the most precious treasure of the people of this country.”

This exhortation comes just one week after a drafting commission released the proposed text of the preamble for the new European Union constitution. Despite months of strong Vatican diplomatic pressure, the preamble makes no specific reference to Christianity.

The draft says that Europe was nourished by “Hellenic and Roman civilizations … [and] marked by the spiritual impulse that runs through it and whose traces are present in its patrimony, then by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment.”

An intergovernmental commission must examine the draft, then the parliament of the European Union will vote.

Asked by NCR in Dubrovnik if he believed the Vatican could still prevail, papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls responded: “The answer is an unconditional yes.”

Navarro-Valls said that some heads of state are coming around to the Vatican position, recognizing that omitting Christianity from the list of forces that have shaped European civilization is “ridiculous from a historical point of view.”

The official theme of the visit was “The Family: The Way of the Church and of Peoples.” This idea too spoke to the defense of tradition in the face of pressures to revise and reconfigure the concept of “family” in contemporary European society.

There are some signs that post-socialist Croatia is managing to hold on to its Catholic heritage. A 2001 census, for example, found that 87.83 percent of the population identified itself as Catholic, an 11 percent increase from 1991.

“The communists gave us this one gift,” a Croatian priest told NCR during the June 8 Mass in Rijeka. “Our church is strong, because it suffered.”

Other indications suggest, however, that Croatia will face the same pressures of secularization as in other parts of Europe. According to statistics from the Council of Europe, Croatia’s live birth rate in 2001 was 10.0 and the fertility rate was 1.39, both figures well below the level considered necessary to naturally maintain the population of 4.4 million.

On the issue of relations with the Orthodox, in this case the Serbs, John Paul offered a plea for reconciliation.

“After the trying times of the war, which has left the peoples of this region with deep wounds not yet completely healed, a commitment to reconciliation, solidarity and social justice calls for courage on the part of individuals inspired by faith,” the pope said June 7 in Osijek.

At the Mass in Osijek, just a few kilometers from Vukovar where destruction was nearly total, representatives of both Islam and the Serbian Orthodox church were on hand. John Paul thanked them for their presence, asking the Orthodox to carry his greetings to Metropolitan Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox church. Some of the warmest applause of the trip came in response.

Still, whether or not many Croats are ready to “forgive and forget” the war, in which 15,000 people died on Croatian soil and tens of thousands were displaced, is unclear. Bitter memories remain, even if the nationalist party of now-deceased former President Franjo Tudjman is out of power and a new center-left government is steering the country toward the West.

“People are hurt,” said Tatiana, 19, a Croatian who spoke to a reporter during the pope’s June 7 Mass in Osijek. She declined to give her last name. “They lost children, cousins, whole families. … For them it is very hard to forget.”

Another Croat, Krunoslav Thanner-Ognjenovic, who grew up in Osijek, put it this way: “We’re not angry with the Serbs, but we’re bitter because they destroyed our country.”

Inside the walled old city of Dubrovnik a map shows sites damaged during the war. It reads: “City map of the damages caused by the aggression by the Yugoslav army, Serbs and Montenegrins, 1991-92.” With those kinds of ghosts on the prowl, it’s hard to believe that many Croats will embrace a policy of “forgive and forget.”

John Paul returned to the theme on the last day of the trip.

“I remember your suffering caused by war, which is still visible on your face and in your lives,” the pope said in Zadar June 9. “I am close to those bearing the tragic consequences of the war.”

The Serbs remember the war too, of course, and hence carry their own reservations about reconciliation. This cannot help but complicate relations with the Orthodox, and indeed on June 7 news broke that Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox church, would not be in attendance when John Paul visits Bajna Luka in Bosnia June 22.

The June 5-9 trip was John Paul’s 100th out of Italy. John Paul has spent 575 days outside the Vatican on foreign travel, the equivalent of almost two years of his 25-year reign.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

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