John Paul's Uphill Pilgrimage to Zagreb: Visit Takes on Grim Meaning after Trip to Sarajevo Postponed

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

John Paul's Uphill Pilgrimage to Zagreb: Visit Takes on Grim Meaning after Trip to Sarajevo Postponed


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


The most moving moment during Mass at the Zagreb racecourse Sept. 11 came when Pope John Paul paused in his.exhortations to the congregation of more than half a million and simply prayed.

He prayed the Our Father, the central Christian prayer, but with additions. "Our Father," he cried, his voice suddenly strengthening, "you invite us to repudiate violence and build a society based on brotherhood and solidarity."

"Our Father," he went on, "would it not be intolerable hypocrisy to pray to you while harboring feelings of anger, or even intentions of violence and revenge?"

Prayer is not just a pious intention, something that goes on "in the head." It is a form of self-commitment. To pray is to will change, to seek conversion. It was a tough message for the Croats, still reeling under the injustice of losing Krajina to the Serbs.

Can they really say "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" without their hearts' rebelling? It was an even tougher message for President Franjo Tudjman, who heard John Paul say that when God is pushed aside, then "there is the risk of idolizing a nation, a race, a party and justifying in their name hatred, discrimination and violence." Tudjman had already had several run-ins with Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, archbishop of Zagreb, on precisely this issue. God the Father is bigger than Croatia, was the Catholic position.

Tudjman wants to exploit the theme of the "Catholic" nation of Croatia, for nine centuries the "bulwark" of Western Catholicism against the invading Turks and the Serbian Orthodox church. John Paul seeks to reverse or nuance this historical trend. The special mission of Croatian Catholics, he declared in excellent Serbo-Croat, is to "become apostles of the new concord between peoples."

Mir, the Slav word for peace, understood from Zagreb to Vladivostok, tolled like a great bell throughout the pope's speeches in Croatia. It was an old communist theme. But now it was going to cost them something.

"Mir," John Paul cried, "is not a utopia but is the only realistic approach. To forgive and to be forgiven is the only way to peace. Progress in the Balkans has only one name, peace, mir."

Accustomed from their communist days to conventional applause at any mention of mir, there was only scattered applause at the papal invitation to supreme and heroic holiness. He was asking a lot. Theologians remembered the conclusion of the last encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, which presents martyrdom as the highest form of morality.

Added pathos came from the evident fact that John Paul is a very sick, if not a dying, man. When he got out of his limousine before the Mass, he could hardly walk. He had to be helped along by Tudjman and Kuharic, symbolically if briefly united in propping up the ailing pope.

They got him to the rear of the altar where a concealed elevator brought him face to face with the crowd. There he visibly revived. The old actor in him responds to the multitudes. His voice was animated even if his body was not.

He had a poetic purple passage about rivers. The Sava, which flows not far from the altar where he was speaking, divides Croatia from Bosnia; the Danube divides Croatia from Serbia. These divisions go back to the year 800.

But rivers bring together as much as they divide, he proclaimed. "These two rivers meet," he said, "in the same way that the peoples they connect are called upon to meet."

The clear message of John Paul was one of peace and reconciliation. But can it work?

A Croatian priest told NCR why it was difficult. "We tell people," he said, "that violence is not the right way to solve our problems, and they know that. We exhort them to patience, but our people ask for justice as well as peace."

A symbol of this dilemma was present at the Zagreb racecourse where the pope said Mass. It was dominated by a huge cross destined for the martyred town of Vukovar. …

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