ZAGREB, Croatia — During his 33-hour visit, Pope Benedict addressed Croatian civil society, met with young people at a prayer vigil, addressed families at a Mass for more than 400,000 in the capital city of Zagreb, and prayed at the tomb of the great Croatian hero and martyr, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, just before his departure.
Europe is doomed if it doesn’t rediscover the true meaning of conscience, warned Pope Benedict XVI on the first day of his visit to Croatia, June 4.
“If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself,” the Pope told a gathering of members from Croatia’s civil society in the capital of Zagreb.
“If, on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings — in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny — then there is hope for the future.”
Several hundred key figures from the world of Croatian politics, academia, culture, arts and sports gathered at the country’s national theater to hear the Pope. His speech echoed his prior warnings against the “dictatorship of relativism.”
He told the assembled dignitaries that many of the “great achievements of the modern age,” such as “the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society,” would be undone unless “reason and freedom” were kept rooted in “their transcendent foundation” of God.
To make his point, the Pope drew upon the life and work of Father Ruder Josip Boskovic, an early 18th-century Croatian Jesuit, who was a great theologian, physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet.
Boskovic, said the Pope, was a clear example of “the happy symbiosis of faith and scholarship,” in which “there is study of multiple branches of knowledge, but there is also a passion for unity” and where learning is both “diversified and capable of synthesis.”
This forming of consciences rooted in faith and reason is where “the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society,” said the Pope, stressing that this formation should begin in the home, the parish and the school.
In this way, children “learn what it means for a community to be built upon gift, not upon economic interests or ideology, but upon love,” and so society is transformed for the better.
Pope Benedict explained that the impact of living in this selfless way, when “learnt in infancy and adolescence, is then lived out in every area of life, in games, in sport, in interpersonal relations, in art, in voluntary service to the poor and the suffering.”
And once this way of life has taken root, “it can be applied to the most complex areas of political and economic life so as to build up a polis that is welcoming and hospitable, but at the same time not empty, not falsely neutral, but rich in humanity, with a strongly ethical dimension.”
At a prayer vigil in Zagreb’s Ban Josip Jalacic Square later on June 4, the Pope told more than 50,000 young people, “If you are rooted in Christ, you will fully become the person you are meant to be.”
He also challenged the young people: “The Lord Jesus is not a teacher who deceives his disciples: He tells us clearly that walking by his side calls for commitment and personal sacrifice, but it is worth the effort!”
The Pope was greeted in rock star-like fashion by crowds waving both Croatian and Vatican flags. Very noticeable among the crowd were scores of young priests and nuns.
Although the event often had the feel of a rally, it was also interspersed with periods of silent prayer. It included personal testimonies, Scripture readings and a musical accompaniment, which ranged from the traditional Croat to contemporary hymns.
“This time of youth is given to you by the Lord to enable you to discover life’s meaning!” said the Pope as he asked the young people the same question that Jesus Christ asked the youngest of his apostles, John, when he first met him: “What are you looking for?”
“Young friends, these words, this question reaches beyond time and space. ... Jesus speaks to you today, through the Gospel and his Holy Spirit. He is your contemporary! He seeks you even before you seek him!”
The Pope said that while Jesus Christ fully respects their freedom, he offers himself to young people as “the authentic and decisive response” to “the longing deep within your hearts, to your desire for a life worth living.”
“Let him take you by the hand! Let him become more and more your friend and companion along life’s journey. Put your trust in him, and he will never disappoint you!” he urged.
The Pope told them that this was the only way to find true happiness, “even amid difficulties, trials and disappointments” and “even when it means swimming against the tide.”
He concluded by holding up the example of Blessed Ivan Merz, an early 20th-century Bosnian-Croat layman and academic. Merz was the creator of Christian movement for young people called “The Croatian Union of Eagles.” He died in 1928, at 32, but had lived a life of such heroic sanctity that he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
“This young life, completely given over to love, bears the fragrance of Christ,” said Pope Benedict.
The Pope then accepted enthusiastic cheers of “Benedikt! Benedikt! Benedikt!” from the youthful crowd for a few moments before imparting his apostolic blessing and departing for the evening.
Before more than 400,000 pilgrims at Croatia’s first annual family day in the nation’s capital of Zagreb on June 5, Pope Benedict gave an emotional plea for all people to recognize the beauty, joy and witness of Christian marriage and family life and to reject secularism, artificial contraception and cohabitation because they are opposed to true love.
“Everyone knows that the Christian family is a special sign of the presence and love of Christ and that it is called to give a specific and irreplaceable contribution to evangelization,” the Pope said.
“In today’s society the presence of exemplary Christian families is more necessary and urgent than ever,” he said.
The gathering at the city’s Hippodrome racetrack was the highlight of the Pope’s two-day visit to Croatia, a country where 89 percent of the population is Catholic.
In his homily he extolled both the virtues of Catholic family life and flatly rejected many of the modern attacks upon it.
Because of the “difficulties and threats” that Christian families face, Pope Benedict said that they have a “special need of evangelization and support.” He praised them as a decisive resource for education in the faith, for the way families build up the communion of the Church, and the ways they contribute to the Church’s missionary presence “in the most diverse situations in life.”
Pope Benedict then turned to those things that destroy family life and happiness: the first being extreme secularism.
“Freedom without commitment to the truth is made into an absolute, and individual well-being through the consumption of material goods and transient experiences is cultivated as an ideal, obscuring the quality of interpersonal relations and deeper human values; love is reduced to sentimental emotion and to the gratification of instinctive impulses, without a commitment to build lasting bonds of reciprocal belonging and without openness to life,” he observed.
“We are called to oppose such a mentality!”
In particular, he urged the young people in the vast congregation to reject cohabitation and artificial contraception. Both, he suggested, undermine true love.
“Do not give in to that secularized mentality which proposes living together as a preparation or even a substitute for marriage! Show by the witness of your lives that it is possible, like Christ, to love without reserve, and do not be afraid to make a commitment to another person!”
“Dear families, rejoice in fatherhood and motherhood! Openness to life is a sign of openness to the future, confidence in the future, just as respect for the natural moral law frees people, rather than demeaning them!”
He then gave parents practical advice on how to live out the radical Christian ideal he was proposing to them.
“Dear parents, commit yourselves always to teach your children to pray, and pray with them; draw them close to the sacraments, especially to the Eucharist.
“Introduce them to the life of the Church; in the intimacy of the home, do not be afraid to read the sacred Scriptures, illuminating family life with the light of faith and praising God as Father.”
The Pope said that while human effort and ingenuity are commendable, it is prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit which are primarily required if a Christian family is to survive and prosper.
“Sometimes it is thought that missionary efficacy depends primarily upon careful planning and its intelligent implementation by means of specific action. Certainly, the Lord asks for our cooperation, but his initiative has to come first, before any response from us: His Spirit is the true protagonist of the Church, to be invoked and welcomed.”
Ending his homily on that note, Pope Benedict concluded with a prayer. “Let us pray to the Lord, that families may come more and more to be small churches and that ecclesial communities may take on more and more the quality of a family!”
The Pope then traveled to Zagreb Cathedral, where he prayed at the tomb of Cardinal Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, the leader of the Catholic Church in Croatia under the occupation of the Nazis during the Second World War and the communists in subsequent years. Cardinal Stepinac died while under house arrest in 1960 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
After a short but eventful two-day visit to Croatia, Pope Benedict bid farewell, saying that although his trip was short, it was “graced with encounters” that made him feel one with the Croatian people.
“My visit to your country is drawing to a close,” said the Pope in farewell text issued to the media at Zagreb Airport later on June 5.
The planned farewell ceremony at the airport had to be abandoned due to bad weather. This saw Pope Benedict, instead, having to take shelter under an umbrella as he waved good-bye to Croatia and boarded his plane back to Rome.
“Though brief, it has been graced with encounters that have made me feel part of you, and part of your history, and they have given me the opportunity to confirm the faith of the pilgrim Church in Croatia in Jesus Christ, our only Savior,” said the text.
“As I leave for Rome, I place all of you in the hands of God. May he who is infinite Providence, the giver of all good things, always bless the land and the people of Croatia; may he grant peace and prosperity to every family.”
In return, President Ivo Josipovic of Croatia thanked the Pope for his visit, noting that it came at a significant time in the country’s history. Croats are marking the 20th anniversary of independence this year, at the same time as they are preparing for membership in the European Union.
“Your visit to Croatia is an exceptionally important state event. But it is also a spiritual event in which I have participated with joy, confident that it will give Croatian citizens moral encouragement, a sign of hope and an incentive for the future,” President Josipovic told the Pope.
“Croatia has welcomed you with open arms and is bidding you farewell with love and gratitude. For this reason, thank you for your visit, Your Holiness, thank you for your noble messages of reason, love and peace!”
The Pope then returned to Rome onboard a chartered Alitalia flight code-named “Shepherd One.”