RADIO VATICANA REPORT: 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 region. (IMAGE SOURCE: RADIO VATICANA)
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.
In 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.
Speaking 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 of life.
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.
Pope Benedict 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.
He 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.
Croatia’s accession 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.
But 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”….