Despite being the subject of decades of communist smears and disinformation, Stepinac was beatified as a martyr by St. Pope John Paul II in 1998.
Many in the Serbian Orthodox community are deeply skeptical of the cardinal’s wartime record.
In 2016, Irinej, the then Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, wrote to Pope Francis stating his opposition to Stepinac’s canonization. Pope Francis responded by establishing in May 2016 a commission of Catholic and Orthodox leaders to study the subject.
The commission concluded its work in July 2017, agreeing to disagree about Stepinac’s cause for canonization. In a joint statement, it said that the opinions of both sides remained unchanged, but acknowledged that ultimately Stepinac’s canonization will be decided by Pope Francis.
When the commission finished it work, it was believed Stepinac’s canonization, which has the miracle required to proceed, was going to be announced soon afterward. However, almost four years later, Pope Francis has not signed off on Bl. Stepinac’s cause.
In his response to Porfirije, Stepinac’s postulator asked the Serbian patriarch to clarify what exactly in the cardinal’s letters he found problematic.
“Is Archbishop Stepinac wrong when he begs the Pope to be close to the Catholic faithful in Croatia?!” he said. “Is it problematic that he informed the pope about the fatal opportunities for the Church in her people? Did he betray his vocation by asking the pope for protection for the Croatian people and help preserving their religious and national identity?”
Those letters, the postulator continued, “are a reflection of his faith and his love for the Croatian people.”
Stepinac was 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 preached strongly against the Ustashe, and his sermons were prohibited from being published, so they were printed and circulated secretly.
In 1946, Stepinac was put on trial for allegedly collaborating with the Ustashe’s crimes. The trial drew critical coverage from Western media such as Time and Newsweek and protests from those who saw it as a show trial.
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.
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In 1953, Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal, although he was never allowed travel to the Vatican 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.
Batleja, in his response to Porfirije, also said that because the Serbian patriarch was not explicit about which passages in Stepinac’s letters to Pius XII he thought were problematic, it gives the impression that “Croatian public opinion is also divided.”
“I do not believe,” he said, “that it would be the intention of a patriarch to create mistrust between Catholics in Croatia and the successor of Peter in Rome, and between Catholics and the Blessed Aloysius Stepinac -- even less that he wants to deepen the mistrust between the Croatian and Serbian people.”
“Aware that the Catholic Church can only be free in a free state, Archbishop Stepinac and his people were in favor of the creation of an independent state,” the postulator continued. Stepinac “did not determine its political structure or economic direction, but asked that human and divine rights be respected in it, that both Catholics and Orthodox have the proximity of their Church, their people, their believers.”
Batleja also called the cardinal “the pride of every Catholic, of every well-intentioned man.”
“This is why St. John Paul II called Cardinal Stepinac the most brilliant figure in the Church among the Croats.”