Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
In March of 1937, Pope Pius XI issued two encyclicals within five days of each other. Mit Brennender Sorge condemned National Socialism, and Divini Redemptoris condemned Communism. These ideologies, attacking human dignity and replacing God with the power of the self-justifying State, were two sides of the same coin. That is a figure of speech. It is not a figure of speech to say that Christ was crucified between two thieves. Throughout their harsh history, the Slavic countries have known what it is like to be so crucified. The power of Saint John Paul II was burnished by his youthful experience of suffering in Poland under the Nazis, only then to endure Marxism. So too were the travails of Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary and Cardinal Stepinac in Croatia.
My Lenten reading has included a biography of Aloysius Stepinac, who became archbishop of Zagreb six months after those papal encyclicals were published. He had been consecrated a bishop in 1934, just four months before his King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, on a state visit to France, was assassinated in Marseilles along with the French foreign minister. Alexander was a king kind and good, and such men are not invariably treated kindly and well. The diplomatic hopes for the unity of the Croatian and Serbian peoples began to unravel. The study of Balkan history is not for the weak of heart. Nor is the study of the Croatian language. One begins with the complicated accent marks for pronunciation, and things get worse from there.
Cardinal Stepinac now has a fine high school in our archdiocese named for him, albeit not pronounced “Stepinatz” as he did. His sufferings for five years after World War II in the frightening Communist prison of Lepoglava got the attention of the world. During that Cold War period, conflicting sides either championed him or vilified him, depending on their political inclinations. Some tried to protect the reputation of his persecutor Marshal Tito, just as the journalist Walter Duranty had protected Stalin in his accounts of Soviet forced famine and show trials on the pages of The New York Times.
Saint John Paul II knew the complicated loyalties and demands of those difficult years. No one, and certainly no nation, is angelic, but in 1998 at the shrine of Marija Bistrica, before half a million people, Pope John Paul II beatified Aloysius Stepinac as a martyr.
Stepinac had accepted the cardinalatial hat knowing that its red means blood, and is not just an excuse for a party as it sometimes is regarded in decadent times. Some pedants with a political bias complained that the tortured Stepinac did not smile much. But by papal decree, Holy Mother Church is now smiled upon by that successor of the holy Apostles. Walking along the road to Jerusalem these days of Lent, the faithful invoke the saints to cheer them along the way, and among them is Aloysius Stepinac.