Pope Benedict XVI has concluded his two-day trip to Croatia. Tracey McClure was
in Croatia with the Pope, and sent us this report...
It was a whirlwind
two day trip with meetings with families, young people, Croatia’s civil, political,
cultural, religious and academic leaders, and religious from this formerly war torn
Pope Benedict said farewell Sunday evening to a Croatia sad to see
him go: a country whose 4.4 million people are almost all Catholic, whose close relationship
to the Holy See goes back centuries. Those relations reinforced in modern times by
Pope John Paul II who twenty years ago ensured the Holy See was the first state to
recognize Croatia’s independence at the start of a brutal war that saw the break up
of the former Yugoslav Republic.
And in taking his leave of President Ivo
Josipovic at Zagreb’s Pleso airport, the Pope said his brief visit was graced with
encounters that left a deep impression on his mind and heart – encounters that made
him “feel part of” the Croatian people and their history.
The biggest of
those encounters of course was the 400,000 strong mass at Zagreb’s racecourse Sunday
to celebrate the first National Day for Croatian Catholic Families – the main pastoral
purpose of this trip. The Pope came to reaffirm them in their faith, to encourage
them to stand up with courage as witnesses to Christ and to the values of true Christian
conscience in their daily lives.
Saying today’s society urgently needs the
witness of “exemplary Christian families” to counter modern forms of aggressive secularism,
Pope Benedict invited families to become “small churches” in which to live unity,
communion and prayer and witness this love to others.
That’s a real challenge
here, just as it is in any western country today – “especially Europe” the Pope was
quick to say here. And he admitted it will require commitment and sacrifice.
Croatia, one in nearly five marriages ends in divorce, and many think cohabitation
without marriage is ok. The Pope called on families to “be courageous” and not give
in to the secularized mindset that says living together is “a preparation or even
a substitute for marriage.” It is possible he exclaimed, “to love without reserve,”
and urged young people not to be afraid to commit to another person.
for Croatia’s Catholics once hesitant to express their views under intolerant Communist
regimes, Krk Archbishop Zupan forcefully vindicated “the inalienable right to live
and publicly express” their Catholic values.
Abortion has been legal since
the Communist period, something the Archbishop demanded change, calling on political
leaders here to review the 1978 legislation and to promote a mentality in defence
Some 50,000 young people braved bad weather to hear the Pope at Saturday
evening’s vigil tell them Jesus was their friend, a friend to trust in and rely on,
who won’t let them down, even in hard times. He warned them against “enticing promises
of easy success” and “lifestyles based more on appearances and material things than
on inner depth.” To Croatia’s young people, he held up the figure of Croatian
Blessed Ivan Merz, a young man to live during the trying times of WWI who gave himself
wholly over to Christ, and whose “astonishing and moving acts of charity and goodness”
the Pope was asking them to imitate.
In a moving liturgy of vespers in Zagreb’s
Cathedral, Pope Benedict spoke to men and women religious, seminarians and lay people,
urging them to take up the example of the capital’s very own Blessed Cardinal Aloysius
Stepinac at whose tomb the Pope prayed following the liturgy.
called him “a fearless pastor” of the “terrible period of communist persecution” in
which Croatian Catholics, particularly the clergy, were oppressed and suffered “systematic
abuse aimed at destroying the Catholic Church.”
Pope Benedict called on the
faithful here to be the “moral conscience of society, ” looking to Blessed Stepinac
for inspiration though the challenges of today’s world are so different from those
of the last century, more insidious and less obvious.
And that’s why the Pope
talked about the need to rediscover “conscience” at the National Theater on Saturday
– one of the other big events of this trip. Conscience grounded in truth and good,
he reminded some 700 intellectual and religious elite there, is fundamental to a free
and just society, for the quality of its social, civil and democratic life. And, he
warned that if prevailing attempts to exclude religion and morality from the social
conscience succeed, the current crisis in the West will continue and “Europe is destined
to collapse in on itself,” an invitation for discernment and a conversion of hearts.
reached out to other Christian churches and leaders of the Jewish and Muslim faiths,
remarking that religion is not separate from society and in communion, there are opportunities
to seek peace, the common good, justice and reconciliation.
to the EU was another major theme of this trip, something President Josipovic spoke
of again in his farewell speech to the Pope, acknowledging the Pope’s challenge to
“preserve” and “promote” Croatia’s particularly Christian spiritual, moral and cultural
values within the EU just months away from its membership in the Union.
perhaps I’ll remember most those words by Cardinal Stepinac which Pope Benedict recalled
at Sunday Vespers: “mediocrity” in faith is one of “the greatest evils of our time.”
“Either we are Catholic or we are not.” And judging from the enthusiasm and dynamism
of Croatia’s faithful on this trip, they are anything but “mediocre”…. In the Croatian
capital, I’m Tracey McClure