On October 3, 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac at the national shrine of Marija Bistrica in front of 500,000 Croats.1 The next step was canonization. On February 10, 2014, the memorial of Blessed Stepinac, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, announced that the canonization was possible in the year 2015 during the Eucharistic celebration over which he presided at St. Jerome’s church in Rome.2 What looked like a sure thing in 1998, however, never happened, and why it never happened has become an object of intense speculation and discussion ever since.
The Croats, as we have come to expect, blamed the Serbs, largely because Pope Francis convoked “a commission of Catholic and Orthodox leaders,” under the presidency of a representative of the Holy See, to examine the wartime record of Blessed Aloysius. Pope Francis established the commission in “May 2016 after receiving a letter from the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej, who stated his opposition to the cardinal’s canonization.”3 Instead of coming to an agreement on the life of one of the most heroic figures in the post-World War II Church in eastern Europe, the commission concluded its work within the foreseen time frame of one year, it terminated its investigation in the summer of 2017 without reaching any results “agreeing to disagree about the Croatian cardinal’s cause for canonization.”4
When Pope Francis was asked about Stepinac on his return from Bulgaria on March 17, 2019,5 he replied:
The canonization of Stepinac is a historic case. He is a virtuous man for this Church, which has proclaimed him Blessed, you can pray [through his intercession]. But at a certain moment of the canonization process there are unclear points, historic points, and I should sign the canonization, it is my responsibility, I prayed, I reflected, I asked advice, and I saw that I should ask Irinej, a great patriarch, for help. We made a historic commission together and we worked together, and both Irinej and I are interested in the truth. Who is helped by a declaration of sanctity if the truth is not clear? We know that [Stepinac] was a good man, but to make this step I looked for the help of Irinej and they are studying. First of all, the commission was set up and gave its opinion. They are studying other sources, deepening some points so that the truth is clear. I am not afraid of the truth, I am not afraid. I am afraid of the judgment of God.6
As in so many instances lately, Pope Francis once again spread confusion in the very act of making a clarification. If Stepinac’s life is an example of heroic virtue, as Pope John Paul II claimed, what’s holding back the canonization? Or is he, as the pope says, “a virtuous man for this church” alone? And if so, what does that mean? At what point did his status become unclear after his beatification? Shouldn’t the committee which approved his beatification have looked into unclear, historic points before beatifying him? Or are we talking about the difference between John Paul II, who like Stepinac lived under both Nazi and Communist rule, and Francis, who experienced neither? According to Matija Stahan, the Serbs presented no new evidence and Irinej made use of sources that have “perpetuated allegations fabricated by the Yugoslav government after World War II to remove Stepinac from the public as a symbol of Christianity and Croatian patriotism.”7 As proof that Stepinac was not guilty of the crimes which Patriarch Irinej laid at his feet, Stahan cites evidence from Stepinac: His life and Time by Robin Harris, who refers to the campaign to defame Stepinac as the “project”:
That project—as Stepinac himself well understood—meant that, in practice, the Yugoslav Communist Party and elements within the Serbian Orthodox Church, which otherwise had nothing in common, shared a joint goal. This consisted of demonizing the Catholic Church (to which nearly all Croats belonged) and the Croatian nation (which numerically, culturally and economically was, alone, in a position to challenge Serbian supremacy). The existence of this unholy and unspoken combination helps explain why the black legend against Stepinac was so persistent and its promotion so effective.8
The bland tone we have come to expect from press releases issued by official Vatican commissions failed to allay the outrage and betrayal Catholic Croats felt at the hand of the Vatican. Catholics had been suspicious of the commission from its inception. In 2016, Professor Ronald J. Rychlak, who has written about Pope Pius XII, whose canonization had been stalled by the Vatican for lack of a miracle—even though he had been proclaimed “venerabilis” in 2009—announced that the Serbian case against Stepinac was “a false narrative created by Soviet agents.”9
Stepinac’s sermons were “prohibited … from being published, because they were so strong against the Ustashe,” Rychlak said. Instead, his words were secretly printed and circulated and occasionally broadcast over the radio. He also severely condemned the Ustashe’s destruction of Zagreb’s main synagogue in 1941 and in an October 1943 homily, the archbishop condemned notions of racial superiority.
Robin Harris’s 2016 biography of Stepinac joined the chorus of outrage which Rychlak articulated in the same year. Stepinac, according to Harris, was the victim of a Serbian-Communist conspiracy. His show trial was Serbian payback for the show trial of Draza Mihailovic, the Serbian leader of the guerilla group known as the Chetniks, to whom Harris attributes war crimes of the same magnitude as those committed by the Ustashe, the Croatian fascist state. “The stoking of hatred against the Catholic Church remained a means of keeping the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serb nationalists sympathetic to the regime. Tito, under pressure from the Americans, would later justify his reluctance to free Stepinac by referring directly to Serbian Orthodox sensitivities.”10 According to Harris, the controversy which surrounded the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac in 2016 can be laid directly at the feet of the Communists, who “had systematically played on Serbian desires for revenge by knowingly exaggerating Catholic Croat misdeeds.”11
Serbian nationalism may be responsible for slandering Stepinac’s memory in the former Yugoslavia, but Harris attributes the ongoing animus against Stepinac abroad which stalled his canonization to “propaganda from Communist circles.”12 “Lenin’s imitators in Yugoslavia,” Harris continues “have, indeed, found plenty of ‘useful idiots’ in the West, though the idiocy is often concealed behind a veil of erudition.”13
It is worth noting that Harris wrote these lines 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and 36 years after the death of Tito. To say that “Lenin’s imitators” were hard at work in the West stalling Stepinac’s canonization in 2017 is nothing short of preposterous, but the fact that Harris made the claim is a significant lead and needs to be examined more closely in order to discover the true identity of the group which is hiding behind the cover of a now defunct communism.
Harris spends a lot of time defending Stepinac’s actions during the war by rebutting the allegations of writers like John Cornwell, who claimed that “priests, invariably Franciscans, took a leading part in the massacres”14 of Serbs at concentration camps like Jasenovac, where a renegade Franciscan who came to be known as Brother Satan engaged in the slaughter, but only after he had been excommunicated by the Church as soon as they found out what he was doing.