Before, during, and after World War II, few men besides Aloysius Stepinac showed themselves more willing to stand up to two powerful mass murderers and publicly speak against their dangerous and downright evil ideologies.Martyr of Communism: Blessed Aloysius Stepinac – Catholic World Report
When Aloysius Stepinac was brought into court on September 30, 1946, everyone knew it was a mere show trial.
Granted, there were many well-deserved trials of suspected war criminals after World War II. Granted, some members of the Fascist Ustašagovernment of Yugoslavia (who were also on trial with him) fully deserved to be held accountable for atrocities committed before and during the war. But the Yugoslav government under Josip Tito was less interested in finding war criminals than it was in destroying all political opposition and stifling dissent. And Aloysius Stepinac, as the Catholic archbishop of Zagreb, had become an intolerable impediment to Tito’s efforts to make Yugoslavia into a Communist country.
The Western world watched this very public trial of a Catholic archbishop, just as it watched the similar arrests and trials of Communist governments against cardinals Stefan Wyszynski of Poland, Jozsef Mindszenty of Hungary, Josef Beran of Czechoslovakia, and Josyf Slipyi of Ukraine. Everyone recognized that Stepinac’s trial was pure propaganda, and everyone realized that a declaration of guilt against him was a foregone conclusion. That didn’t keep people like Winston Churchill and the archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, for example, from publicly protesting his innocence. Pope Pius XII later even formally excommunicated any Catholics associated with Stepinac’s condemnation.
But why did the Communists put Stepinac on trial in the first place? Who was this man they hated so much?
Aloysius Stepinac was born in 1898 in a small village, was conscripted into the army during World War I, considered marriage after the war was over, but entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. He also received doctorates in theology and philosophy and was soon ordained a coadjutor bishop. He was only thirty-six years old, which made him the youngest bishop in the Church at the time.
To understand Aloysius, it helps to understand his people. The modern nations of Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are all crowded near the Adriatic Sea, most of them facing the coast of Italy. The peoples of this region have an ancient history, but the boundary lines of their nations have often been subject to meddling from other, larger nations over the centuries. After World War I, King Alexander I tried to unite the ethnic groups of the area by declaring himself the ruler of a new kingdom of Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes, which became known as Yugoslavia.
Aloysius’ family were Croatians. There were and still are people of many religions and other ethnic groups present in modern Croatia, but Croatians and Slovenes are typically Catholic, and Serbs are typically Orthodox. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that forcibly combining multiple ethnic groups and religions into one country would create conflict. King Alexander’s heavy-handed leadership was one of the reasons that he was assassinated by a Croatian group called Ustašain 1934, the same year that Aloysius was consecrated a bishop.
Just a few years later in 1937, Aloysius was named archbishop of Zagreb, a position he held until his death. From that time forward, he forcefully, repeatedly, and publicly denounced both the National Socialist ideology of Germany and the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union. He explained the errors of materialism and the lack of respect for human dignity inherent in those world views, as well as the dangers to morality which follow from its explicit atheism. Aloysius also condemned Nazi eugenic policies, declaring that “all peoples and races descend from God”. He continued to speak out against Nazism during World War II, so much so that the German ambassador to Croatia remarked that if a German bishop had spoken like that, he would be put in prison.
As the Catholic archbishop, Aloysius devoted himself to strengthening the faith of his flock, particularly by encouraging Catholic organizations and Catholic devotions. As a public leader of a predominantly Croatian city, Aloysius also defended the rights of Croats against repressive practices. But he spoke out against the persecution of Jews and other minorities and helped Croatian Jews escape from the Nazis as well. The relationship between Croats and Serbs is notoriously complicated, with many acts of violence on both sides over the years. But when the Ustašagovernment tried to force Orthodox believers to become Catholic, the archbishop privately told his priests to allow the Orthodox to convert, with the promise that they could return to Orthodoxy after the repression had ended if they wished. Whether the Orthodox believed him or not, at least he tried.
Showing very clearly that the Communists understood what kind of man they were dealing with, as soon as they took control of Yugoslavia after World War II, they put Aloysius under house arrest. They then released him, perhaps hoping they had scared him into submission. But Aloysius continued to publicly protest the atheistic ideology and the political actions of the new Communist government, such as the suppression of the press and the repression of church marriages in favor of civil marriages, along with other practices that were being forcibly imposed upon his people. The Communists even offered to create a national Catholic Church (independent of the Vatican, of course) and put Aloysius in charge of it. Unsurprisingly, he said no.
For that reason, he was arrested in 1946, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. He was imprisoned for five years before his sentence was commuted. At that time, he was given the option of leaving the country for Rome or living under house arrest in his home parish of Krašić. He chose Krašić, refusing to leave his people.
In 1953, Pope Pius XII named him a cardinal to show his great respect for Stepinac’s sacrifices; Yugoslavia angrily responded by severing all diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Seven years later, Aloysius died. Prison life had certainly contributed to his death, but a post-mortem performed years later apparently revealed arsenic in his bones. It is not surprising that the Communist leaders of Yugoslavia would want one of their most implacable enemies to die slowly, rather than becoming known as a martyr, which would only lead to violence.
Stepinac’s canonization process—the effort to recognize him as a saint, not merely a blessed—is stymied by political opposition due to Croat/Serb relations, and it must be acknowledged that Stepinac’s links with the Ustašagovernment are controversial. Some say he should have done more to stop the Ustaša’s genocidal acts against Serbs. But before, during, and after World War II, few men besides Aloysius Stepinac showed themselves more willing to stand up to two powerful mass murderers—Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—and publicly speak against their dangerous and downright evil ideologies. One could argue that he did as much as he could, as diplomatically as he could, before they got around to killing him. Which they ultimately did.
On February 10, we can honor Blessed Aloysius Stepinac as a holy man who loved Christ and the Church and who displayed a heroic level of virtue, merely because he saw himself as a shepherd trying to protect his sheep from wolves. And we can pray for more leaders like him.