BANJA LUKA, BosniaHerzegovina — Pope John Paul II visited Banja Luka, a Balkans city scarred by two ethnic cleansing campaigns in recent decades, on June 22 and asked God's forgiveness for wrongs committed by Catholics and others in the tormented region.
During his 10-hour visit, the Holy Father urged rival Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholics and Bosnian Muslims to put “suffering and bloodshed” behind them and to embrace the difficult task of “starting afresh” together.
Beatifying a native-born 20th-century layman, he also sought to bolster a minority Catholic community threatened with virtual extinction by the 1991-1995 war's redistribution of ethnic boundaries.
Ethnic tensions remain high in the region, and many of the city's Serb majority seemed ambivalent at best about John Paul's visit. Days before his arrival, authorities pulled down militant Serb posters around the city that read, “Pope, go home.”
Security was exceptionally tight along the Pope's motorcade route and at the city's airport, where three military helicopters patrolled overhead during a small, subdued welcoming ceremony. Before the Holy Father arrived a bomb squad investigated a suspiciously parked vehicle along the motorcade route, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
In his arrival remarks, broadcast live on national television, the Pope told Bosnians he greeted and embraced them all.
“I know the long ordeal you have endured, the burden of suffering that is daily a part of your lives, the temptations to discouragement and resignation that you experience,” he said.
An internationally brokered peace deal in 1995 ended BosniaHerzegovina's 43-month war, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and nearly 2 million were expelled or displaced by fighting. Many refugees have yet to return, and those who do face desperate social circumstances, including an unemployment rate estimated at more than 40%.
A NATO-led force of 13,000 soldiers is still posted in the country to keep an uneasy peace.
The Holy Father told Bosnians he stood by them “in asking the international community, which already has done so much, to continue to be close to you and to help you to reach quickly a situation of full security in justice and harmony.”
But he reminded Bosnians that they themselves must be “the primary builders” of their future and that they should rely on the “tenacity of your character” and their rich cultural and religious traditions.
“Do not give up. Certainly starting afresh is not easy. It requires sacrifice and steadfastness; it requires knowing how to sow seeds and then to wait patiently,” he said.
“The root of every good and, sadly, of every evil is in the depths of the heart. It is there that change must occur,” he added.
The main focus of John Paul's visit, his 101st trip abroad, was a beatification Mass for a Bosnian-born Croatian layman, Ivan Merz, a liturgical pioneer and lay activist who died from meningitis in 1928 at the age of 31. His beatification was originally scheduled for Croatia, where he worked and died, but Banja Luka's bishop persuaded the Pope that holding the ceremony locally would be a big morale boost for his diocese's Catholics, who suffered greatly in the 1990s’ war.
During the Mass, the Holy Father held up Blessed Merz as a model of holiness and “success in God's eyes” that is still valid for modern youth. He said the Croatian layman's secret was unfailing desire for unity with Christ and a strong sacramental life.
As many as 35,000 pilgrims from Bosnia and neighboring countries cheered the Pope with chants of “John Paul II, we love you” and wildly waved yellow and white Vatican flags. Authorities had prohibited the display of any other flag for fear of outbursts of nationalist extremism. Nonetheless, several Croatian pilgrims wore red-checkered paper sunhats reminiscent of their national banner.
The festive mood of the outdoor liturgy contrasted with stark evidence of the region's bloody past. In front of the altar, seven white blocks, like tomb markers, were written with the names of seven priests of the diocese killed during the recent war.
The Mass was held on the grounds of the Petricevac Franciscan convent that was destroyed in 1995 by Serb forces. Behind John Paul's altar lay the concrete foundation of what appeared to have once served as a chapel. Twisted rebar sprouted from where the walls would have been and a weather-beaten wooden cross stood in the former sanctuary.
But the Franciscan convent is also remembered by Serbs for the dark role played by one of its priests during World War II. Father Vjekoslav Filipovic, who was expelled from his order and forcibly laicized, led a 1942 attack by Croatian fascists who butchered more than 2,000 local Serbs, including hundreds of women and children.
“From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed,” the Pope said in his homily, “I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness.”
The crowd — which included a Serbian Orthodox delegation and Muslim and Jewish representatives — hung on the Holy Father's words attentively and responded with brief, polite applause.
Some pilgrims seemed to welcome John Paul's words more enthusiastically, especially those among the younger generations.
Sanja Raslah, an 18-year-old Serbian Orthodox woman in the Mass choir, said she felt honored to sing for the Pope because he was “a symbol of peace.”
Banja Luka Bishop Franjo Komarica also took up the theme of reconciliation in remarks to the Holy Father before the Mass. He said the local Church forgave “the crimes committed by others, while seeking forgiveness for the crimes committed by members of the Catholic Church of present and past generations.”
During the 1990s’ war, many of Banja Luka's 45,000 Catholics were expelled or fled the fighting, and fewer than 3,000 remain. The diocese says that despite the return of some refugees the Catholic population is in gradual decline and “is threatened with extinction.”