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Croatia's Fearless Defender of Life
By Christopher Heffron


'To the Least of My Brothers'
Restless, Righteous Spirit
'Truth is Not Negotiable'
Blessed Alojzije Stepinac

Perhaps no other event in world history illustrates the depths of human cruelty like the Holocaust. More than 60 years have passed, but the shadows of that era linger. Apart from the bravery and resolve of the Jewish people—those who survived and those who didn’t—few shards of light penetrated such unparalleled darkness.

There were exceptions—people who risked life and liberty to ensure the survival of the innocent. Blessed Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac was among them. From the start, Stepinac devoted his life to battling “isms.” He waged wars on Communism, fascism and, most of all, the evils of Nazism.

Born to a peasant family in Krašic, Croatia, Stepinac lived under four different governments, all of which influenced his life and sculpted his courageous resistance. After serving in the military, Stepinac chose to be a priest and was ordained in 1930. Deep faith and a concern for human rights dominated his life. His voice—which defended people of all faiths—would be his legacy. It would also be his undoing.


'To the Least of My Brothers'

Two years after he was consecrated archbishop of Zagreb—the largest city in Croatia—World War II began. Almost immediately, Stepinac used his position to speak out against the treatment of Jews and Orthodox Christians.

He backed his statements with action, instructing his priests to provide baptismal certificates to any in need of protection. He knew refugees might well return to their own faith tradition “when these times of madness and savageness are over,” as he once wrote.

Stepinac also allowed people—mostly Jews—to hide in monasteries. Estimates of lives saved—directly or indirectly—by Cardinal Stepinac are in the hundreds, including 60 residents of a Jewish home for the elderly.

After the war ended, Stepinac waged a private war against Communism. Such opposition garnered unwanted attention: Falsely accused of war crimes, he was arrested and tried in September of 1946. Convicted, he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor, despite vehement opposition from many Jews who credited Stepinac with saving their lives.

He was released from prison in 1951 but put under house arrest, dying nine years later from arsenic poisoning, it is suspected. But his memory endures.

May 8, 1898 Born in Krašic, Croatia

June 23, 1953 Made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII

February 10, 1960 Died while under house arrest, having written 5,000 letters defending the Church and denouncing Communism

October 3, 1998 Beatified by Pope John Paul II in Zagreb

What is it about heroism that captures the human heart? I think these brave men and women exhibit qualities that speak to our own potential.

Stepinac—a defender of life in its purest sense—was a restless, righteous spirit: What the Nazis sought to destroy, he fought to save. When nations turned a blind eye to those cruelly victimized, he shed a light as bright as heaven on them. He spoke for those whose own voices were muffled. Simply put, Stepinac wasn’t afraid to stand up.

In my own life, I try to follow the lead of this holy martyr. Stepinac proves that speaking out is a noble act. The many people he saved—and the generations alive today because of him—are the fruits of his life’s work.

Alojzije Stepinac’s life exemplifies the passage from the Talmud which states: “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.”

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“In his human and spiritual journey, Blessed Alojzije Stepinac gave his people a sort of compass to serve as an orientation. And these were its cardinal points: faith in God, respect for man, love toward all even to the offer of forgiveness, and unity with the Church guided by the successor of Peter. He knew well that no bargains can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable. Thus he faced suffering rather than betray his conscience.... In this courageous witness, he was not alone.”

—homily from the Mass of beatification


Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

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