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What is actual profile of the Catholic Church in Croatia? Or where is the Croatian Church? It isn’t the question of our geographical knowledge. The question here is that of cultural orientation, ecclesiastical vigor and civilization’s profile. Are Croatia and her Church “somewhere” between West and East, in a certain “vacuum”, in geographical and cultural sense?
When I enter the conversation with the Westerners about the hot theme “Balkan”, I am customized to meet the stereotypes which create the average baggage of ignorance and confusion of Westerners regarding the territory of Southeast Europe.
Let us pass to the point. Shortly what is Balkan?
The concept of Balkan doesn't have any clear meaning. The geographical area "Balkans" as common political "topos" comes as appendix of the so-called "Turkish question" from the 19.th century. (Balkan is a mountain in Bulgaria, which later awarded the peninsula the name.) Is it one unit or no? If yes, where are the criterions and therefore its borders? The journalists and often also the experts have many problems with this complicated concept, that isn’t actually so difficult to differentiate at all.
There are three elements, the basic factors of the unit, that determine the qualities, the culture, that tradition and the social and psychological heritage of the Balkans:
These three elements are one unit and it is impossible to take one of them in consideration separately from another two. The other individual elements are relatively and not crucial, and contribute nothing essential to this complex (for example the languages) the ethnic origin etc.
Vice-versa, if one of countries or peoples of this tradition doesn't contain one of these elements as its constitutive part of his identity, it doesn't have the other either.
The general knowledge tells us that Croatia has no these common elements of the Balkan tradition (for instance the orthodox tradition, present more in its political heritage than the cultural one among Serb minority, is a recent matter and without influence on the mainstream of Croatian culture; unfortunately more influence it has had on political life).
So Croatia isn’t a land of mixture, of the multiethnicity, mish mash languages and the “bridge” of the different cultures. She is partly at the margin of one world, the world of Latin civilization. Only her eastern neighborhood is not more that of the same tradition (another 3 neighbors are: Hungary, Slovenia and Italy). To be on the margin means often to be more aware of its values and forces but also of its inner fragility within it and in relations towards the neighborhood. In conversation with the people from Western Europe I can still hear questions like: Surely you use the Cyrillic alphabet? Which calendar is in use in Croatia, perhaps the Julian? You have excellent Slavic liturgies, surely like the Russians and Greeks!
In his historic development the Christianity (and its culture) in Croatia has some specific characteristics: Croats are the only “barbaric” people who have arrived to the Mediterranean world, accepted Christianity but wasn’t latinised, but it preserved its authentic identity. The spread of Christianity was a long process without general conversion forced by the will of the ruler. As the first among Slavic peoples Croats accepted Christian faith, beginning since the seventh century. The role of St. Cyrillus and Metodius are not crucial for the history of Christianisation among the Croats. So the common features of so-called Slavic religiosity (for instance depicted magnificently in the works of Dostojevsky and other predominantly Russian writers) aren’t typical for the Croats. The early phase of Christianity among the Croats were signed by the missionary activities of the Benedictine type of monastic life and with original “paleocroatian” liturgy; the only exception of the use of one vernacular language in the liturgy in whole Latin Catholicism. I say “Latin”, i.e. it isn’t an Eastern Church entered in unity with the Holy See (so-called Greek-Catholics), but the part of Church of Latin rite celebrated in (now already old) Croatian language.
It is necessary to distinguish three historic (and still today actual) type of Croatian Catholicism. They are significantly different, so already in this point is evident that any generalization of Croatian Catholicism is simply wrong.
Very often, especially in the West it could be heard about the Croats as the Catholic nation, as the infinitely devout to the Pope and Roman Church; immediately after as the Church infected by nationalistic feeling, even as the “national Croatian Church“.
During the centuries of the hard struggle for survival, since the invasion of the Turks in the XV-XVII century on the territories settled by Croats followed with fight for national unity under the crown of the Habsburgs up to the dramatic entrance in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, later called Yugoslavia, in 1918, the Croatian space was divided among different political centers, all of them outside Croatia. The Church with her sensus for tradition and historical continuity was custodians of the collective memory of the generations of the people who fought for the defense of something greater than only one kingdom or nation. So the fight for the frontiers of the Christendom paid by enormous human, economic and cultural losses was remembered in the Church as the common moral and religious treasury of this people.
This values were the fundament for the national resurgence in the 19. century, helped and guided not only by the members of lower clergy, but also by the bishops, often not of Croatian origin. An essential part of Croatian bishops who strongly shaped national profile are of foreign origin (Haulik, Strossmayer, Stadler, Mahnić etc.). This is an important element that can explain the defensive and cultural character of the Croatian nationalism (and Croatian Catholicism) before the First World War. The characteristic element in this phase was a strong feeling of brotherhood with other south Slavic people; the Jugoslavic movement was born in Croatia, decisively helped by Church, it had a strong cultural and even ecumenical orientation, but was misunderstood by the Orthodox Church and Serbian politicians as an tentative for “catholic unitization”. On their turn they developed, under the same name of “jugoslavism”, the idea of territorial enlargement of Serbia on the expenses of nearby people.
Especially by the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 Croats were put practically in the opposite side of their millennium’s position. Succeeding in the resistance against Turks now it become a part of a state deep-rooted in violent “Byzantine” and oriental intolerance reinforced by the feeling of be awarded for its aggressivity (the beginning of the First World War was signed by the murder of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; the “terrorist” action helped by Serbian secret service). The strange creation of Yugoslavia, consisted by some Latin European nations (Slovenes, Croats, and important German and Hungarian minority), and other people of Byzantine and Islamic culture, was intensively “balkanized” instead of proceeding towards Europe. Whole Croatian European tradition and national identity were threatened, official politic of “jugoslavism” were under of influence of anti-Catholic and mason circles, stressing the elements strange to the whole historical and spiritual profile of the Croatians. The Catholic hierarchy was habituated since the Habsburgian times to pay a genuine (often unreserved) respect for the monarch and high state structures, but gradually the systematic anti-Catholic policy of the Belgrade’s regime force to realization that the “Yugoslav dream” is a pure fraud.
Two examples for the illustration: From the twenties on the regime openly helped the foundation and growth of the so-called “Croatian Catholic Church”, community of Old-Catholic provenance, encouraging certain number of Roman Catholics to join that Church (by the way, the main “sin” of the archbishop Stepinac on the famous trial was his refusal to break off the relations with Vatican and to install himself for the head of Croatian Church – just to underline the continuity of one policy). Many Catholics, state employees, policemen, diplomats etc. were under pressure to convert directly to Orthodoxy. Estimation: 200 000 Catholics (of 6 millions in the country) “converted” (after the WW II many returned to Catholicism, almost nobody practiced the new faith – the clear proof of the ”authenticity” of their conversion).
The destruction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941 many Croats saw as the end of a bad experiment. The horrific events of the WWII, led to the re-foundation of the Jugoslavism, this time on the social and atheistic base, but even stronger in its anti-catholicism. The regime of Tito was praised even in the West, but under his rule, Catholic Croatians experienced massacre and persecution in very Stalinist manner. More than 500 priest and religious were killed at the end and especially after the war (almost 20% of all Croatian clergy), hundreds were condemned to prisons. Still today the sum of the year spend in prison by the living members of some Franciscan provinces is a few centuries.
But what is the sense of this story. Simply to give the frame of one dramatic time in which one people had fought for its survival. The Catholic Church followed the people in its struggle to find the exit(s) from such unsupportable position. Some of these attempts failed: those based on political right compromised itself tragically with the nazi and fascist ideological imports; the left idea of an liberation through the communist revolution had similar lasting effects, with the difference that the base for Croatian independency was again lost. Gradually the hierarchy realized that the Croatian independency, in spite of all sacrifices, is the only condition for civilized life and sustainable political stability in Croatia. This is exactly what was said by archbishop Alojzije Stepinac during the communist process in 1946, when he was accused for the “crime” of principal supporting of Croatian independency: “I would be an rascal when I haven’t had felt the striving of my people to have its own state.” In these terms the Church support of the Croatian struggle for independency was in its very core a service for the real needs of the people.
For many reasons, after the WW II, in international circles the idea of Croatian independency was met with considerable refutation; politically it invites to change the untouchable East-West block-settlement; ideologically it weakens the experiment of Titoism (dear to the leftists in Europe), and even in the ecumenical camp it was often seen as the point were the relations with the Orthodoxy would be aggravated!? All together it was enough to create the suspicious attitudes towards the Croatian question and against the Catholic tacitly (Yugoslavia was a police-state) support of this idea. With certain bitterness Croatian Catholics record, in the sixties, the massive public support and sympathy for the struggle for freedom of different countries, and the sympathy for the theology of liberation understood as the evangelic service for the poor people in their struggle for the justice and freedom. Very often the same “evangelic option” for the Croatian freedom, often from the same “Che Gevarians”, was denounced as the nationalism and the step backwards.
Now the democratic world recognizes the crucial role of John Paul II, and the Polish Church for the fall of the Berlin wall and the oppressive regime of communism. Nothing more and nothing less did the Church in Croatia, but the suspicions still remain. Having the sense for all this, pope John Paul II recognized the specific and correct role of the Catholic Church among the Croats and was (and is) a strong supporter of such position of the Church. The free Chruch of the free people. This was his desire that during his visit Croatia in 1998 he proclaimed blessed the Cardinal Stepinac, honoring so all martyrs of fidelity for the principles of Church and evangelical engagement for brothers.
Today the Catholic Church among the Croats is organized in two Bishop-conferences; of Croatia and of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have regular annual meetings. There is a solidarity between these two conferences (and countries), although the contacts are more intense at the level of personal ties and interests, than at the level of regularly institutionalized cooperation. Due to the very different political and social situation in these two countries, in reality it is very difficult to create the common “policy” concerning the range of different questions, so there is no many common statements or declarations.
We don’t need identified all Croatian people with the Catholicism. The heritage of long anti-chrisitanisation bound with modern consumism and individualism left its traces. Although 89% of population is Catholic, there is a strong liberal, anticlerical and even anti-Catholic tendency present among the, once privileged, class of the state employees, professional “revolutionaries”, intellectuals with the “mission” etc. After the arrival of democracy this class became strongly “proeuropean” and “democratic”, importing uncritically all what is liberal, including the modern anti-catholicism, especially that of Anglo-Saxon provenance. They are present in media, some cultural institution, in educational system and in different social associations and bodies.
The activity of the Catholic Church in Croatia is concentrated predominantly in the pastoral field. There are few Catholic schools, no hospitals or sanatoriums. This is an effect of nationalization of the Church’s property after the second WW, which destroyed some important enterprises in the field of educational or healthy care. In these terms Church doesn’t play the economic role as the employer although the huge part of cultural activities and the conservations and building of sacral objects were (and are) paid from Church’s resources. Another reason is a lack of continuity in such apostolate; the Church also doesn’t like to open catholic institutions only with that name, without adequate personal and programs. The caritative role is developed, especially during the war; the Church organized the variety of different help-program for victims of war and refugees, helping all in need regardless of religion and nationality. Essential was the enormous financial help of Europe’s national Caritas-associations, especially those from Austria and Germany, also Switzerland.
The actual relations with state are regulated with few bilateral agreements and Concordat with Holy See. The influence of the German type of church-state relations is evident: religious teaching is facultative in the schools till the end of 12-year educational program. In the primary school about 90% of all children frequent catholic instructions, in the high schools about 65 % (the alternative is teaching of ethic). The church schools are recognized by the state, the faculties of theology make part of the state universities. The Church received annual financial aid from the state for the “social utile activities”, but the biggest part of financing the Church rely still on the direct donation of the catholics. There are two catholic radio station, many weekly and monthly magazines (no daily). There are many catholic professional associations, but generally in the low organizational level. The sense of creating the lobby isn’t enough developed, and the maintaining the activities of such association is still based on the amateur enthusiasm. On the other side the amateurism is a nice and cohesive face of the Croatian Catholicism. Especially in the parishes thousands of people are offering their time and energy helping in many activities.
Let’s return to the internal life of the Catholic Church in Croatia. It isn’t dilettante Church, sometimes too serious. Some difficulties, potentially scandals are not dominant feature in the life of Church, although there are tendencies in the medias to treat them in the “western” style. The practical believers have learned something from the time of communist propaganda, so they are cautious about the critical treatments of the Church’s life. But the practical Catholics are not the majority.
The spirituality is still sacramental. The Eucharistic frequency varies in different regions between 10-50%, in Bosnia and Herzegovina is higher. The ecclesiastical understanding of the parish as the local Church in some regions is strong; but the passivity and indifferentism are also present in many regions. The number of vocations for priestly and male religious life is relatively stable (it depends on the regions); the female vocations are decreasing. The role of lay people have increased almost instantly after the introduction of religious instruction in the schools, a couple of thousand of them are there engaged. There is no “conflict” between clergy and laity; they are still united against secularism. Generally, polarization in different blocks isn’t articulated; so many changes in the last 12 years haven’t offered the due time for the maturation of different positions. It doesn’t mean that different opinions aren’t present (the epidemic of criticism is well known Croatian illness), but the polemic are concentrated more about real topics. The question of ordination of married and of women are considered as non-Catholic as too abstract and sterile. The cooperation between religious orders and secular clergy is insufficient; there is a certain atomization of initiatives and projects based exclusively on one specific religious order or congregation (for example the press: there are a few magazines for general catholic public edited by dioceses or religious orders covering the same region).
Some council’s changes happened here without hesitations, the introduction of the vernacular language in the liturgies, what had its precedence in the use of the glagolitic liturgy in some dioceses since the early Middle age. As it was said earlier the ecumenical efforts have its tradition since 19., and romantically even earlier (the pioneer of ecumenism with the orthodox Russians in 17 century was an Croatian Dominican Juraj Križanić). The ecumenical culture is relatively high and oriented to the essential. Every practical catholic know for example that the sacraments spend by the Orthodox Church are the true sacraments, that this Church isn’t heretical, but separated etc. (You know that still many orthodox theologians, especially from the Serbian Orthodox Church deny the validity of the Catholic sacraments). It doesn’t sound encouraging but the orthodox community simply has very low degree of the religious (and ecumenical) culture; in these terms catholics haven’t partners for dialog. The religious tensions were always the echo of the political pressure. With the traditional protestant communities the dialog is stabile and friendly, although the small number of protestant in Croatia can’t offer much occasion for real ecumenism in the “base”.
What can be said instead of a conclusion? The Catholic Church in Croatia lives a time of deep changing. There are reasons for pessimism and lack of self-confidence. Personally I see the hope for this Church in her experience of endurance, her desire to be “Catholic”, in sense of to be devout both to the mystery of redemption and to the addressee of this redemption – the people. The history has offered Croats many occasions to experience the cross, to recognize the unique redemptive force of Christ’s cross. In their search for the sense of their past and present Croatian Catholics are again finding themselves in front of Veronica’s scarf in St. Peter in Rome, like the Croat pilgrim in 1300 poetically caught by Dante:
“Qualè colui che forse di Croazia
viene a veder la Veronica nostra
ma per l’antica fama non sen sazia
ma dice nel pensier fin che si mostra:
‘Signor mio, Gesù Cristo, Dio Verace
Or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?”
p. Ivica Musa SJ
Pisano za švicarski mjesečnik Choisir
 These common elements of their story and tradition have Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, besides Transylvania, Turkey and Moldavia. Bosnia and Hercegovina became somewhat later, in the Turkish time, "balkanized".