OUR BELOVED FATHER WENT HOME
I want to share with you the experience and the role this great man, Pope John Paul II, had to play with the Croatian Nation. I met him on two occasions, once in Rome and the second time in Denver and was present at the National Shrine of Maria Bistica in Croatia when He proclaimed Cardinal Stepinace Blessed. It was also my joy to have been a TV commentator on EWTN for his last visit to Croatia and two weeks later to Bosnia. The first visit to Croatia was on September 10-11, 1994. He was the first one to recognize the independence of Croatia and called his first visit "A Pilgrimage of Peace and Unity"
While in Croatia , the Pope called for unity, forgiveness and the promotion of a culture of peace, "inspired by tolerance and common solidarity" which "does not deny wholesome patriotic sentiment but will never be tempted by the nationalistic aberrations that promote one group at the expense of another."
Pope John Paul II visited Croatia in September 1994 as a "pilgrim of reconciliation." The Pope came, as he said, on "an apostolic pilgrimage of the communion of the Church with the goal of reinforcing the bonds between Peter's Cathedra and Catholicism in Croatia." The Holy Father had previously expressed his heartfelt desire to visit Croatia in encounters with Croatian bishops and pilgrims. The opportunity arrived when the Zagreb Archdiocese celebrated its 900th anniversary. At the time of the Pope's first visit to Croatia, the wounds of war were still fresh. One third of Croatia's territory was still occupied. Croatia was faced with the problem of the return of displaced persons and refugees to their homes and the rebuilding of devastated cities, communities and even entire regions. On this pilgrimage of "peace and unity," the Pope, issued a fervent appeal for reconciliation and peace: "I have come to Croatia as a bare-handed pilgrim of the gospel which announces love, harmony and peace," said the Pope upon his arrival to Croatia, in an address delivered during the welcoming ceremonies at the Zagreb Airport.
On this occasion, the Pope pointed out that it is imperative to promote a culture of peace "inspired by tolerance and common solidarity. The culture of peace does not deny wholesome patriotic sentiment but it will never be tempted by the nationalistic aberrations that promote one group at the expense of another. The culture of peace can cultivate great and noble souls, people who know that wounds made by hatred will never heal by harboring vindictive feelings but only through the cure of patience and with the balm of forgiveness: forgiveness must be sought and given, with humble and selfless magnanimity," said the Pope at the airport. "If we fail to create a culture of peace," continued the Pope, "war will always lurk in the shadows and glow in the embers of fragile truces. With Christian hope, in this solemn moment, I wish to cry out in pain: may the guns at last fall silent and may our hearts be open to the noble task of creating peace! It is with these wishes that I address all the responsible public officials of this honorable nation, that with support from the international community you may always follow the way of peace in seeking answers to difficult, sensitive and as yet unresolved matters, such as the issue of the establishment of sovereignty over the whole national territory, the return of refugee and displaced populations, and the reconstruction of all that has been destroyed in the war." In the light of the Great Jubilee 2000, the Pope urged everyone to prepare for this great event by "building a more just society on the eternal values of the Gospel, so that you may live in harmony and solidarity."
While addressing the highest Government and Church dignitaries, the Pope expressed special compassion for the many displaced persons and refugees, with the hope that they would be able to return to their homes as soon as possible. The Pope also called to mind the many centuries during which "there has never been a decline in the relations between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Holy See." The Holy Father spoke of "generations of the faithful" who "dedicated their lives to the providence of spiritual guidance, relief from poverty and work toward the overall progress of man in the fields of education, medical care and charitable work," making specific mention of the Croatian saints Nikola Tavelich and Leopold Bogdan Mandich, the Blessed Augustin Kazotic the priest and martyr the Blessed Marko Krizevcanin (later canonized), and "the honorable and reverend person of Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac, Servant of God, the fortress of the Church in Croatia." In addition to these, during an address to priests, religious and seminarians, he also mentioned the auxiliary bishop of Zagreb, Josip Lang, the Franciscan Ante Antic, Vendelin Vosnjak and the layman Ivan Merz.
Referring to the conditions endured by Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina during the war, the Pope said that the Holy See, which was the first to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the democratic Republic of Croatia on January 13, 1992, continued "by all means available, to plead for the control of tensions and the establishment of justice and peace in the Balkans. Peace requires effort and hard work but it is the sacred duty of every religious person. Peace is possible wherever peace is sought in earnest. To achieve a peace which would be based upon justice and truth, we must first pray to our Lord for peace," said the Supreme Pontiff.
In the Pope's address during the celebration of the Eucharist at the Zagreb Hippodrome on September 11, 1994, he spoke further on this subject to an assembly of over one million. "The tragic divisions of today and the ensuing tensions," said the Holy Father, "should never become a reason to forget that the peoples who are at war with one another today have always had so much in common. It is therefore an essential and urgent task to gather all that brings them together — and common things are not scarce — and to use that communality as a basis to create a future solidarity of brothers. Peace in the Balkans — I want to emphasize that now, in the midst of all this suffering — it is no Utopia! On the contrary, peace is a historically realistic perspective!" emphasized the Holy Father. "For centuries the peoples of this region have accepted each other and made many exchanges in art, language, script and cultural heritage. Is this not shared wealth for the benefit of all, this tradition of religious tolerance which has been going strong for almost a millennium, which has survived even some of the darkest chapters of history? No, this phenomenon of nationalistic intolerance that rages in the region today cannot be ascribed to religion! This is true not only of the Christians of various denominations — and God calls upon them today to work especially hard for harmony — but also of the people of other faiths, and particularly Muslims, whose presence has been so important in the Balkans. All are called to find a way to live with each other in a civilized manner and to respect each other," said the Pope.
The Pope further stressed that faith must once again "become the force which unites and yields fruit," using the image of the Sava and the Danube, which flow through Croatia and its neighbors, linking the countries in this region with the rest of Europe. "These two rivers meet, much in the same way that the peoples who live on their shores are called upon to meet. The two Christian churches, the Eastern and the Western Christian Churches, must lead that effort because in these parts, they have always lived together. The metaphor of the two rivers makes rather transparent the path God wants you to take in this troubled moment of your history," said the Pope. "It is the path of unity and peace and no one should avoid it. . . . Once co-operation and solidarity are restored, the peoples living on the Balkan Peninsula will be able to face their many problems and solve them. The progress and well-being of all peoples in the Balkans has one name only, and that name is Peace!" said the Holy Father.
Speaking about the design for society implied by the Lord's Prayer, the Pope said, "Such a society can be seen as an extended family in which individuals and groups feel respected and loved by others unconditionally. . . . This splendid design of a society is unfortunately vulnerable to human error. That is why the Lord's Prayer shows us the right path, upon which we must retrace our steps every time we slip from it: the way of forgiveness: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' . . . To ask forgiveness and forgive — that in essence is everyone's duty if we wish to lay a good foundation for a true and lasting peace," said the Pope.
At the farewell ceremony at the Zagreb Airport on September 11, 1994, the Pope had a message for the Croatian people: "Fortified by experiences........... through a past not always marked by joyful events, today you are called upon to build a better future, to participate actively in public life and make your irreplaceable contribution to strengthening the democratic system, institutions and perfecting a legal state. Never forget that faith shows its fruits when it is in a position to bolster initiatives of goodness, tolerance and forgiveness. Let your history truly be a ‘teacher' for the present. Your roots extend back to the tradition of thirteen centuries of fidelity to the values of the Gospels. They have brought your ancestors the fruits of tolerance and understanding expressed in respect and cooperation with neighboring nations, even when it was necessary to fight for your nation to regain independence." In this message, the Holy Father reassured the people that they had "the courage to forgive and accept" their neighbors but also provided clarification: "Obviously, forgiveness does not mean relinquishing the legal means of a legal state, whose duty it is to conduct investigations against the perpetrators
of crimes. To forgive means to free the heart of emotions of revenge, which are not conducive to building a culture of love in which every person of good will participates with his/her own contribution. Peace implies that in the foundations of every initiative, there should always
be the sincere desire for dialogue, respect for the rights of each individual, including national minorities, and attempts at mutual tolerance. Be firmly convinced that the good of peace has its ultimate foundation in the heart of God Himself. You have directly experienced the error into which a society can fall when it builds its foundations on the rejection of God and contempt for Divine Law. When this occurs, a person is no longer the primary good of the state but becomes an object and means for achieving goals that are against humanity. The past and contemporary history teach us that true faith in Christ provides the firmest support for the preservation and advancement of human dignity," said the Holy Father.
"At this moment, as I am returning to the Vatican," said the Pope, "I am taking with me as a memento your faces, your eyes in which I have read the ardent desire to repair the present and for the future to flourish. All of you, especially young people, I tell you once again: Be brave!"
Our beloved Holy Father has crossed the threshold of hope. For those under the age of forty, John Paul II was the only pope they ever really knew. For a surprisingly large number of us, he was the only pope we ever met or saw in person. For virtually all of us, he was the singular face of the Catholic Church during our adult lives. We measured our lives with him by decades. He was the pope of our lives. He loved us. We loved him. We heard the sound of his voice often, and even now, in the silence, we cannot forget it. May his words, "Be not afraid! Come to Christ!" echo in our ears when our breathing, too, becomes thin and our flesh fails us.
John Paul II uniquely humanized the papacy via his relentless penchant for travel, his embrace of modern media, and the force of his personality. We came to love this man the way most of us experienced our own fathers-- from the vigor of their prime to the growing fragility of physical decline.
In recent centuries, perhaps because his predecessors, for whatever practical or prudential reasons, chose to not wear the leather off their shoes so publicly, it was understandable for Catholics to perceive the papacy primarily through the lens of the Chair of Peter, that is, with an emphasis on the magisterial authority of the office these men occupied. Pius XII infallibly defined the Assumption of Mary. Pope John XXIII initiated Vatican II. Pope Paul VI was the Humanae Vitae pope. If we came to know previous popes through their works, then we came to love John Paul II through his quirks. We will never forget that he was the one who skied. Our earliest popes worked, dined, ruled, and were usually slaughtered alongside the handfuls of Christians they shepherded in early Rome. As with those early popes, John Paul was the first modern pope to actively expose us so openly to his very self. He ensouled his own proclamation of Christ's teaching on the dignity and uniqueness of the individual human person.
As from the upside-down martyrdom of Saint Peter, with the singularly unequivocal writ of this particular man's death, the Holy Spirit has willed for His Catholic Church a new life through a new particular man--a man already walking this earth (a man even now unlikely to be certain of his approaching destiny, if the testimony of other about-to-be-elected popes is our guide). Let us join our prayers and mourning for the soul of John Paul II to our enthusiastic anticipation and gratitude for his successor, the next Peter with the power to bind and loose on earth and heaven. We know John Paul II loved Mary, and we are sure that She welcomed him with Her Divine Son Jesus to the Eternal Home which awaits us all.
God bless you and through the example of John Paul II, the saintly servant of Jesus, may we continue our journey on earth doing the things God gave us to do. May God's peace be upon you as we together wait for the day when we will meet him again in the arms of Jesus.
Sincerely Yours in Christ,
Fr. Giordano M. Belanich