Pontiff Offers Cardinal Stepinac As Model of Fortitude

Says Blessed Was Ready to Die Before He Would Betray Christ

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ZAGREB, Croatia, JUNE 5, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI is encouraging the faithful of Croatia to look to Blessed Alojzije Stepinac -- who was "ready to die rather than to betray Christ" -- as a model "of apostolic zeal and Christian fortitude."

The Holy Father prayed today at the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898–1960) at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Stephen in Zagreb, on the last day of his two-day trip to the country.

During a celebration of vespers with bishops, priests, religious and seminarians at the cathedral, the Pope reflected on the life of the cardinal, who was the archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 to 1960. The cardinal defied Hitler during World War II to save Jews and then was persecuted by the communist regime of Josip Tito and died a martyr.

Benedict XVI called Blessed Stepinac "a fearless pastor and an example of apostolic zeal and Christian fortitude, whose heroic life continues today to illuminate the faithful of the dioceses of Croatia, sustaining the faith and life of the Church in this land."

"The merits of this unforgettable bishop are derived essentially from his faith," he said. "In his life, he always had his gaze fixed on Jesus, to whom he was always conformed, to the point of becoming a living image of Christ, and of Christ suffering.

"Precisely because of his strong Christian conscience, he knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming, in a time of Nazi and Fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests."

"Yes, he became an advocate for God on this earth, since he tenaciously defended the truth and man's right to live with God."

"Christian martyrdom," the Pope said, "is in fact the highest measure of holiness, but it is so always and only thanks to Christ, by his gift, as a response to his oblation which we receive in the Eucharist. Blessed Alojzije Stepinac responded with his priesthood, with the episcopate, with the sacrifice of his life: a unique 'yes' united to that of Christ. His martyrdom signals the culmination of the violence perpetrated against the Church during the terrible period of communist persecution."

Always united

Benedict XVI noted that during the life of Cardinal Stepinac, "Croatian Catholics, and in particular the clergy, were objects of oppression and systematic abuse, aimed at destroying the Catholic Church, beginning with its highest authority in this place."

The Pontiff said that the "particularly difficult period was characterized by a generation of bishops, priests and religious who were ready to die rather than to betray Christ, the Church and the Pope. The people saw that the priests never lost faith, hope and charity, and thus they remained always united.

"This unity explains what is humanly inexplicable: that such a hardened regime could not make the Church bow down."

"Today too," he continued, "the Church in Croatia is called to be united, to meet the challenges of a changed social context, identifying with missionary fervor new ways of evangelization, especially in the service of younger generations."

Benedict XVI then called on the bishops to "work in fruitful cooperation among yourselves and in communion with the Successor of Peter," and to "strive for reconciliation among separated Christians and between Christians and Muslims, following the footsteps of Christ who is our peace."

He urged the prelates to offer the priests of their dioceses "clear spiritual, doctrinal and pastoral directions" so that they remain united among themselves and faithful to Christ.

"One of the greatest evils of our time is mediocrity in the questions of faith," the Pope said, quoting Cardinal Stepinac. "Let us not deceive ourselves… Either we are Catholic or we are not. If we are, this must be seen in every area of our life"

The Pope also encouraged priests "remain vigilant in prayer and in your spiritual lives, in order to perform your ministry fruitfully," and to "persevere in communion with your Bishops and in mutual cooperation."

To the consecrated men and women present, he counseled them to make "God himself [...] your only treasure: let yourselves be formed by him, thus making visible to the men and women of today -- a thirst for true values -- the holiness, truth, and love of our heavenly Father."

In addressing those youth who are preparing to follow a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life, the Pontiff recalled that a vocation "is a call that asks to be confirmed every day with a response of love."

Benedict XVI ended with a message to the Church in Croatia: "With courage and humility take up the task of being the moral conscience of society, 'salt of the earth' and 'light of the world.' Be always faithful to Christ and to the message of the Gospel, in a society which seeks to relativize and secularize every area of life."

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Full text: www.zenit.org/article-32764?l=english