A commission of Catholic and Orthodox leaders tasked with examining the wartime record of Bl. Aloysius Stepinac concluded their final session last week, agreeing to disagree about the Croatian cardinal’s cause for canonization.
The Secretariat of the Holy See prepared a joint statement, adopted by both sides, at the conclusion of the commission’s sixth and final round of meetings at the Vatican July 12-13.
The document states that the opinions of either side remain unchanged, but also acknowledges that ultimately the competency for approval of the cardinal’s cause falls under Pope Francis.
“It has come to the conclusion that various events, speeches, writings, silences, and views are still subject to different interpretations. In the case of Cardinal Stepinac, the interpretations that were predominantly given by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs remain divergent,” it states.
It included their thanks to Pope Francis for establishing the commission, which he did in May 2016 after receiving a letter from the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej, who stated his opposition to the cardinal’s canonization.
They also expressed their gratitude for the atmosphere of the discussions which allowed “full freedom of expression.”
“From the commencement of the commission’s work, the members were aware that the process of canonization of Cardinal Stepinac was in the exclusive competence of the Pope. They also admit that each Church has its own criteria for the canonization process,” it continued.
The Secretariat of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, accepted the outcome of the commission, which was led by Fr. Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.
With the conclusion of the commission, the path to the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac is fully open. The proper requisites in place, it is in the hands of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and then will go to Pope Francis for approval. It is believed the announcement of his canonization could take place soon.
Cardinal Stepinac, who is hailed as a hero in Croatia, has been a target of decades-long communist smears and disinformation. Despite this, he was beatified as a martyr by Pope St. John Paul II in October 1998.
Many in the Serbian Orthodox community are deeply skeptical of the cardinal’s wartime record. Though one researcher of the period says the facts counter false claims about the beatified cardinal’s record.
“What you have is a false narrative created by Soviet agents,” Prof. Ronald J. Rychlak told CNA/EWTN News in 2016.
Cardinal Stepinac was the Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960 at the age of 61. In Yugoslavia during the Second World War, the pro-Nazi Ustashe movement came to power under leader Ante Pavelic after the Axis occupied the country.
“Stepinac’s sermons against the Ustashe were so strong. They prohibited them from being published, because they were so strong against the Ustashe,” Rychlak said. Instead, his words were secretly printed and circulated and occasionally broadcast over the radio.
He also severely condemned the Ustashe’s destruction of Zagreb’s main synagogue in 1941 and in an October 1943 homily, the archbishop condemned notions of racial superiority.
In 1946, Stepinac was put on trial for allegedly collaborating with the Ustashe’s crimes. The trial drew critical coverage from Western media like Time and Newsweek and protests from those who saw it as a show trial.
Archbishop Stepinac was denied effective representation and only met with his attorney for an hour before the trial. The government’s witnesses were told what to say, and the archbishop was not allowed to cross-examine them.
In 1953, Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal, although he was never allowed travel to the Holy See to be officially elevated. He died in 1960 of an alleged blood disorder, which was said to have been caused by the conditions he endured in jail. Recent tests of his remains by Vatican investigators show evidence he was also poisoned.
In June 2011 Pope Benedict XVI praised Cardinal Stepinac as a courageous defender of those oppressed by the Ustashe, including Serbs, Jews and gypsies.
He said the cardinal stood against “the dictatorship of communism, where he again fought for the faith, for the presence of God in the world, the true humanity that is dependent on the presence of God.”