February 10th marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Blessed Croatian Archbishop Aloysius (Alojzije) Stepinac (1898-1960). If Stepinac could be described in one sentence, it might sound like this: Stepinac was a man whose actions were opposed to the destructive tendencies of both fascist and communist regimes and whose heart was burned by his enemies in order for it not to become a Catholic relic. The prism through which Croatian Catholics view Pope Francis’s ambivalent relationship towards his predecessor’s spiritual patrimony is less related to issues like universal priestly celibacy or sex abuse in the Church, and much more so with the delayed canonization of the most significant man of faith in 20th-century Croatia.
On his return from last year’s visit to Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia, the Holy Father was asked about Stepinac’s canonization, a man whom St. John Paul II declared Blessed in 1998. Francis replied: “The canonization of Stepinac is a historic case. He is a virtuous man for this Church, which has proclaimed him Blessed, you can pray [through his intercession]. But at a certain moment of the canonization process there are unclear points, historic points, and I should sign the canonization, it is my responsibility, I prayed, I reflected, I asked advice, and I saw that I should ask Irinej, a great patriarch, for help. We made a historic commission together and we worked together, and both Irinej and I are interested in the truth. Who is helped by a declaration of sanctity if the truth is not clear? We know that [Stepinac] was a good man, but to make this step I looked for the help of Irinej and they are studying. First of all the commission was set up and gave its opinion. They are studying other sources, deepening some points so that the truth is clear. I am not afraid of the truth, I am not afraid. I am afraid of the judgment of God.”
Before depicting Stepinac’s life and the Pope’s ambivalent attitude toward his canonization, it is necessary to clarify the circumstances surrounding this response.
The first point is related to ecumenism. Francis, as a pope committed to dialogue with non-Catholic Christian communities, seeks to make amends with the Moscow Patriarch Kirill and contribute to Christian unity by building good relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which serves as a kind of a link to the Russian Orthodox Church.
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