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Pope Halts Canonization Process in Move “Without Historical Precedent”

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This item popped up on the blog Pray Tell: 

The Pope has halted the canonization process for Aloysius Stepinac, the Croation Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960.  Pope John Paul II had beatified the fiercely anti-communist archbishop, who spent many years in prison and under house arrest in Communist Yugoslavia, in 1998. The archbishop’s actions during World War II, however, especially his ties to the Nazi-aligned, murderous Ustaše regime, have raised criticism not only from the Serbian Orthodox Church but also from other victim groups.

Pope Francis has now halted the all-but-complete process of canonization for Stepinac and established a commission of Catholic and Serbian Orthodox experts instead, which will look more closely into the archbishop’s actions during World War II.

It appears this is being done out of deference to the Serbian Orthodox Church and Jewish groups who had raised concerns about the archbishop’s life and had wanted a more thorough investigation before he was beatified.

Pray Tell quotes a German-language website that calls this move an “unexpected ecumenical step, without any historical precedent.”

The archbishop’s Wikipedia entry has more background: 

He was tried by the communist Yugoslav government after the war and convicted of treason and collaboration with the Ustaše regime. He served his 16-year sentence first in prison, then confined to his home village of Krašić. He was made a cardinal in 1953. In 1998 he was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope John Paul II. His record during World War II and his subsequent martyrdom and beatification remain controversial.

…The trial was depicted in the West as a typical communist “show trial”, biased against the archbishop; however, some claim the trial was “carried out with proper legal procedure”. In a verdict that polarized public opinion both in Yugoslavia and beyond, the Yugoslav authorities found him guilty on the charge of high treason (for collaboration with the fascist Ustaše regime), as well as complicity in the forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but was released to house arrest after five, with his movements confined to his home parish of Krašić.

After foreign and domestic pressure, Stepinac was released from Lepoglava prison. In 1952 he was appointed cardinal by Pope Pius XII. He was unable to participate in the 1958 conclave. Stepinac died of polycythemia in 1960 while still under confinement in his parish. On October 3, 1998, Pope John Paul II declared him a martyr and beatified him before 500,000 Croatians in Marija Bistrica near Zagreb.

Stella Alexander, author of The Triple Myth, a sympathetic biography of Stepinac, writes about him that “Two things stand out. He feared Communism above all (especially above fascism); and he found it hard to grasp that anything beyond the boundaries of Croatia, always excepting the Holy See, was quite real. … He lived in the midst of apocalyptic events, bearing responsibilities which he had not sought. … In the end one is left feeling that he was not quite great enough for his role. Given his limitations he behaved very well, certainly much better than most of his own people, and he grew in spiritual stature during the course of his long ordeal.”

Archbishop Stepanic’s defenders at the time of his trial included Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing, Winston Churchill, and the American Jewish Committee. The New York Times editorialized: “Archbishop Stepinac was sentenced and will be incarcerated as part of the campaign against his church, guilty only of being the enemy of Communism.”

But controversy followed him, even after his death:

Pope John Paul had earlier determined that where a candidate for sainthood had been martyred, his/her cause could be advanced without the normal requirement for evidence of a miraculous intercession by the candidate. Accordingly, he beatified the late cardinal after saying these words: One of the outstanding figures of the Catholic Church, having endured in his own body and his own spirit the atrocities of the Communist system, is now entrusted to the memory of his fellow countrymen with the radiant badge of martyrdom.

On the other hand, many non-Catholics have remained unconvinced about Stepinac’s martyrdom and about his saintly qualities in general. The beatification re-ignited old controversies between Catholicism and Communism and between Serbs and Croats. The Jewish community in Croatia, some members of which had been helped by Stepinac during World War II, did not oppose his beatification but the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked for it to be deferred until the wartime conduct of Stepinac had been further investigated. The Vatican had no reaction, though some Croats expressed irritation.

Read more.

Worth noting: The subject of the archbishop came up during a recent meeting between the pope and Serbia’s president. The pope reportedly told the president: “There is no rush to make Stepinac a saint,” and there were discussions about setting up a committee to investigate his life.

In Crotia, meantime, his legacy is inescapable: 119 streets carry his name, making it one of the most common street names in the country. He’s also been honored outside his homeland; there’s at least one high school, in suburban New York City, named for him.

Photos: Wikipedia

Deacon Greg Kandra
Headlines and Homilies
Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. For nearly three decades, he was a writer and producer for CBS News, where he contributed to a variety of programs and was honored with every major award in broadcasting. Deacon Greg now serves as Multimedia Editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA.) He and his wife live in Forest Hills, New York.
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