ROME — Pope John Paul II leaves June 5 for a five-day trip to Croatia, one that will set the record as the 100th foreign visit in the Holy Father's almost 25-year pontificate.
It will also be his third visit to this predominantly Catholic nation in the Balkans, the other visits being in 1994 and 1998.
“I think that the whole country is rejoicing,” said Josipa Gasparic, a Croatian student of theology at the Angelicum University in Rome. “For centuries, we were considered the last bastion of the Catholic Church. After the 1054 split between Catholics and Orthodox, we were looked down upon as ‘papists.’ So it is an incredible joy to receive the Holy Father. This is even true for people who do not practice. We have always defended the Pope.”
Analysts of the region note the mark left in Croatian Catholicism by communism. Some think it is the Pope's intention to help liberated Croatia grow into a more mature faith.
“The rebirth of Croatia back in the late ’80s was linked to strong nationalism and a not-fully-correct approach to religion,” said Federico Eichberg, a Balkans expert who serves as chief of staff for Italy's Department of Foreign Trade. Croatia's first elected government apparently emphasized the nation's Catholic heritage in an antagonistic way.
“This approach has not always been positive,” Eichberg said. “The Pope can help Catholics of this second generation to de-link Catholicism from nationalism.”
For the Holy Father, Croatia has many parallels to his beloved Poland: It is a Catholic country that suffered under communism and today struggles to enter Europe. His 1994 visit was during the Balkans war — at a time when being Catholic in Croatia was more than just a faith to be practiced. It was a cultural identity that differentiated the Croats from the Serbian Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims.
The primary goal of the Holy Father's visit then was encouragement. His 1998 visit was also meant to strengthen, through the beatification of Zagreb's Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, the man who defended human rights during World War II, saved prisoners, stood up against communism and protected Jews.
The upcoming visit will likewise beatify a new hero for Croatian Catholics: Sister Marija Petkovic. The event is scheduled for June 6, during the Holy Father's visit to the Diocese of Dubrovnik on the island of Korcula.
“She was born into a well-to-do island family in 1892,” said Stuepan Bagaric, consul at the Croatian Embassy to the Holy See, of Sister Marija. “Marija organized classes in literacy after World War I. Besides teaching children, the elderly and widows, Marija became known for her devotion to the poor.” Eventually, she founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Mercy.
The Pope's plans are to stay in Rijeka during this visit and travel from there by plane to Osijek, Djakovo, Dubrovnik and Zadar. This visit will be challenging because it includes four dioceses. Though it appears the 83-year-old Pope is stronger as of late, the tour would be exhausting for someone even half his age.
Some members of the Croatian government have stated that the Pope's visit will accelerate Croatia's acceptance into the European Union. Opinions vary among those who follow the region.
“It's not true,” Eichberg said. “The present government was elected in 2000. So their mandate is coming to an end. The visit of the Pope won't change anything.”
“Croatia is one of the countries closest to entering the European Union,” said Paolo Quercia, a Croatia expert at the Center for Military and Strategic Studies in Italy. For Quercia, the link between a papal visit and EU membership seems “a bit superficial.”
“The political class wants to capitalize on this visit because they are down in the polls and will probably lose the next election,” he said. “But talking about EU membership devalues the papal visit to something political.”
However, some still think there is a link between the Pope's visit and EU membership.
“Europe doesn't like Croatia because it is nationalist, and they are against nationalist tendencies,” said Gasparic, the Croatian theology student. “But Croatia is naturally in Europe — both by geography and mentality. The Pope is trying to help Croatia find its legitimate place.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican's attention is focused on Croatia's spiritual pulse. Of the country's 4.6 million inhabitants, 84% are Catholic and most seem to be practicing, to some extent.
“Churches are full and confessionals are packed,” Gasparic said. “During Lent, you have to wait two hours in line to go to confession. There is a national sense of being Catholic.”
However, work is needed with regard to real understanding of the faith and truly living the Church's moral teachings.
“Every second wedding I go to, it's because the woman is pregnant,” Gasparic said. “Unity of life and thought is missing. It's cultural relativism.”
People wonder why the Pope is returning again to a small country he has already visited on two occasions recently.
“I think that now is the right time to evangelize because churches are full,” Gasparic said. “People are interested in discovering their Christian identity, which was suppressed under communism. Since the war, there has been an increase in religiousness. This happened because many had the experience of nearly losing their life. People are experiencing the beauty of life again.
“It is clear that the Pope loves Croatia. Maybe he has the feeling that we have a lot to give to the world.”