Protecting the traditional family, encouraging Europe to treasure its Christian roots, and stressing the importance of religion, ethics and moral conscience in public life were the key issues Pope Benedict XVI raised on his recent trip to Croatia.

The June 4-5 apostolic voyage — the Holy Father’s 19th outside of Italy — was short and intense but well timed, coinciding with an imminent announcement on the outcome of Croatia’s bid to join the European Union. The Pope made a number of references to the country’s likely entry into the political and economic bloc, which has caused some controversy among Croatians, 90% of whom are Catholic.

Speaking to journalists on the papal plane, the Pope said it is “logical, just and necessary” that Croatia enters the EU.

“One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralized bureaucracy and a rationalistic culture that doesn’t sufficiently take into account the history — the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history — that Croatia offers,” the Pope remarked aboard the plane. But he said he also hoped that the entry of Croatia into the EU would help reverse the wave of secularism sweeping across the continent.

Also during the press conference, the Pope hailed Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, the late cardinal-archbishop of Zagreb, the capital city, as “a great pastor and a great Christian.”

Blessed Aloysius was imprisoned following a show trial in 1946 on account of his opposition to the communist regime and died under house arrest in 1952. Pope Benedict described both regimes — Nazi and communist — as “anti-humanist.”

At a meeting with Croatia’s leaders of civil society in Zagreb June 4, the Pope warned that Europe will “collapse in on itself” if it doesn’t rediscover the true meaning of conscience. But he added that if conscience is rediscovered as “the bulwark against all forms of tyranny,” then there is “hope for the future.”

Reason and freedom, he said, must be rooted in “their transcendent foundation” if freedom of conscience, human rights and a free society were not to be undone.

At a later meeting with 50,000 youth in Zagreb’s Ban Josip Jalacic Square, the Pope encouraged young people to be “rooted in Christ” in order to “fully become the person you are meant to be.” The Lord Jesus, he said, “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.”

Among the crowds were many young priests and nuns. The event combined both music and times of silent prayer.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters afterward that the Pope was “very impressed” with the intensity of prayer and veneration at the end of the event and said the Pope “looked in admiration” at all the people still kneeling on the ground praying.

During an open-air Mass at Zagreb’s hippodrome racetrack on Croatia’s first annual family day on June 5, the Holy Father issued a strong plea to all people to recognize the beauty, joy and witness of Christian marriage and family life. He also made firm calls to reject secularism, artificial contraception and living together before marriage, all of which are opposed to true love.

Addressing a crowd of 400,000, Pope Benedict said families have a “special need of evangelization and support” because of the “difficulties and threats” they face in today’s world. He praised the family 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. But he also noted what destroys family life and happiness, the first being extreme secularism.

“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.”

Benedict XVI also called on parents to 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 gave parents some practical advice on how to live out this ideal, calling on them to teach their children to pray, to pray with them, to draw close to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and to read Scripture together. Prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit, he said, are needed most if the Christian family is to survive and prosper.

During evening vespers in Zagreb’s cathedral June 5, held in remembrance of Blessed Aloysius, the Pope urged bishops, priests and religious to “always be faithful to Christ and to the message of the Gospel in a society which seeks to relativize and secularize every area of life.”

The Pope also urged Church leaders “to strive for reconciliation” in light of lingering religious and ethnic tensions between Croats, Serbian Orthodox and Muslims in the region.

While in the cathedral, the Pope prayed at the tomb of Blessed Aloysius, who is a national hero for Croats but a highly controversial figure for Serbian Orthodox and some Jewish groups who have accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer.

The Pope, however, praised him as a martyr, saying he became “a living image of Christ” and defended Jews, Orthodox and gypsies who were targeted by the murderous World War II-era Ustaše fascist regime. He said the cardinal is a role model for all people because he courageously defended “the truth and man’s right to live with God.”

The departure ceremony at Zagreb Airport was curtailed because of heavy rain: The Pope’s farewell speech wasn’t read out loud. But in his printed message he praised the Croatians for their “alive and sincere” faith, especially among the young.

“At a time when stable and trustworthy reference points seem to be lacking,” the Pope wrote, “Christians united together in Christ, the cornerstone, can continue to act as the soul of the nation, helping it to develop and to make progress.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.