The Figure of Cardinal Stepinac Becomes a Diplomatic Challenge

Source: FSSPX News

Diplomacy often consists of the art of forcing chance: on February 18, 2021, when the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church elected its new patriarch, the apostolic nuncio in Croatia, Bishop Giorgio Lingua, paid tribute to the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac, a prelate as much adulated in Croatia as hated in Serbia.

An emblematic figure of the Croatian episcopate, Cardinal Stepinac (1898-1960) is admired in his country for having defended the populations persecuted under the Nazi occupation.

A version that Serbia does not share: conversely, on the Belgrade side the high prelate is accused of having collaborated with the occupier in war crimes targeting the Serbian populations.

Suffice to say that the words spoken by the nuncio on February 18, 2021 had a remarkable echo, when the interview granted to Vatican News by the Roman diplomat took place shortly after the latter had been received in audience by the Holy Father.

“I was very impressed, I must say, by the figure of this blessed prelate whom the Croats consider as their father, and I understand their impatience to see him raised to the altar,” declared Bishop Lingua.

The nuncio in Croatia took up the semantics frequently used by the Argentine pope, in order to paint the portrait of the ideal bishop: “Stepinac, like a shepherd, was imbued with the scent of his flock, he was close to his people, and saw the Church as a field hospital, rolling up his sleeves to do everything possible to welcome the poor and refugees.”

Logically, Msgr. Lingua—who, in his capacity as nuncio, has the particular mission of presenting candidates for the episcopate—concludes: “the profile of the ideal bishop is Cardinal Stepinac, who incarnates it in my eyes.” It could not be more clear.

The intervention occurred at the moment when the new leader of the Serbian autocephalous confession was chosen.

In accordance with custom, the names of three candidates elected by simple majority were sealed in envelopes placed in a gospel. An Orthodox monk then pulled out one of the envelopes, designating the new patriarch.

The elected one, until now Metropolitan of Zagreb, is a supporter of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic: chance often has a hand in things...

The election of the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church comes amid political tensions: Serbia and Kosovo are under pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden and the European Union. The latter is calling for a resumption of dialogue on the normalization of their relations, thirteen years after the independence of this territory which Belgrade still does not recognize.

In addition, regarding the possible canonization of Bishop Stepinac, the Serbian Patriarchate wrote to Pope Francis in 2014 reaffirming its opposition in principle to this project.

In order to defuse the conflict, from July 2016 to July 2017, an ecumenical commission of Serbo-Croatian historians—which included the new Serbian patriarch—was set up by Pope Francis, in order to achieve the rehabilitation of the figure of Cardinal Stepinac: in vain.

“I am Serbian, but above all a Christian,” assured Patriarch Porphyry, for the sake of appeasement in the wake of his election: in this ground weakened by oppositions which plunge their roots deep into the past, the Vatican diplomats still have a lot to accomplish on the Serbian dossier.