An American Catholic chaplain looks at Croatia

30 Apr 2001 | LCDR Joseph A Scordo, CHC, USNR 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Editorial Note:  LCDR Scordo wrote the following article upon the request of Zlatko Iusic, a member of the Croatian Army who escorted him throughout his stay in Croatia during a training exercise with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit last year.  The article was written from the perspective of a Catholic priest serving Marines and Sailors in a country whose populace is more than 90 percent Catholic.

-- Before deploying with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26 MEU), I must admit that I was not very familiar with the history, geography, and culture of the Balkan countries.  There were several short briefings for all personnel of the MEU to familiarize us with these topics, and these talks started to inform me of the long and varied history of the countries that made up the former nation of Yugoslavia.

My initial first-hand experience of Croatia was the port visit that we had at the lovely city of Dubrovnik.  It was there that I first experienced the friendliness and warmth of the Croatian people, the beauty of the city and countryside, and the history (sometimes violently tragic) of the country.  It was difficult to believe that just a few short years prior to our arrival, Dubrovnik was the target of a fierce shelling and much of this historic city was devastated.

A book that was widely sold in bookstores and souvenir shops gave the history with photographic evidence of terrible destruction of businesses, homes, and churches.  But when our people arrived, most of the physical evidence of the devastation was gone.  We spent several days exploring the city and countryside, going on guided tours of the city, and simply walking the city streets and walls.  What a wonderful introduction to Croatia!

Some time later, in November 2000, our Amphibious Ready Group pulled into the port city of Rijeka.  We had a very short time before our arrival there to make arrangements and plans for training at the large military base outside the small town of Slunj in the Croatian mountains.  Having completed our planning and preparations for our exercises, we started the long, five-hour bus ride to the mountains.  I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside, which at that time was in full color with the changing of the foliage on the hills and mountains.

On our trip to the interior, more and more evidence of recent war fighting was visible.  There were many new homes and businesses along the way having been completely rebuilt or repaired after their destruction in the war.  Very few buildings were visible that had not undergone renovation or rebuilding.  My thoughts were of a very proud and industrious people that would not let their lives and countryside be visibly scarred by the conflict.  On occasion we did pass some buildings on which we could still see the marks of the bullets where the fighting was clearly fierce.

Yet, the ugliness of war was far outstripped by the beauty of the little towns with lovely streams and waterfalls running through and around the buildings perched on the steep sides of the hills and mountains.  Our long convoy of buses must have been an unusual sight for the local people since many stopped and observed us as we made our way up the mountains toward Slunj.

I really can't say now what I was expecting to see, but what was clear as we stepped off the bus was that we were in a most beautiful country setting.  To my thinking it was far too beautiful to be a place for military training.  But we were here at the "range" as the local military called it.  It was a great facility for our Marines and Sailors, and each unit had the opportunity to accomplish some excellent training

I had the good fortune of meeting Zlatko Iusic, a member of the Croatian military who served as our translator, public relations officer, and general ambassador of good will.  "Johnny", as he liked to be called because of his love of American Country Music and especially that of Johnny Cash, and I spent many hours in pleasant conversation about his country, the war, the local economy, the weather (it was unusually warm, and the local farmers were worrying about the fruit trees budding before the winter freeze--effectively ruining the next year's harvest), and religion.  I was a Roman Catholic priest in a country that was predominantly Roman Catholic, so there was much that Johnny and I could talk about and identify with.  Johnny said that he would like me to meet the Pastor of the Catholic Church in nearby Slunj, so we made plans to visit with him.

Toward the latter part of that first week in Slunj, Johnny and I went into town to meet the priest.  Johnny told me that the priest spoke no English, but he did speak Italian.  I have only a limited use of the Italian language, but Father and I were able to communicate with ease.  I thought to myself how strangely wonderful this encounter was:  here I was in a foreign country communicating with a man in a language that was native to neither of us!

One of the ironies was that Johnny, who came along as an interpreter, actually didn't do too much talking for either of us, so well did we understand each other!  It was also a providential stroke of good "fortune" that there was scheduled that very morning a meeting of all the local Catholic clergy in the very rectory in which I sat.  So I had the opportunity of meeting so many of the Catholic priests of that mountain area and experiencing their warmth, spirituality, and dedication.  What a blessing for me!

The Pastor of Slunj and I began to make some plans for some of our Marines and Sailors to attend a Sunday Mass at his church at which Father and I would concelebrate.  Father, Johnny, and I would meet one more time to finalize plans for the Mass.  It was very simple and straightforward:  Father would be the principal celebrant, and I would concelebrate and have an opportunity to say a few words as well.  Johnny would serve as interpreter of my remarks.  All was well. 

The Pastor certainly mobilized his people after that point, since on the planned upon Sunday, not only was there a wonderful Mass complete with music and the parishioners' participation, but also a social afterwards in which we were treated to the kindness of the townspeople who offered us refreshments and magnificent, home made pastries---all fit for kings!

What a wonderful experience:  we worshipped Almighty God together, and together we felt each other's good will and warmth.  The rain that fell on us that day did absolutely nothing to dampen our soaring spirits.  There were all kinds of high ranking military and civilian official present that morning, and all agreed that the Mass and social that followed was a major highlight of our short stay at Slunj.  I believe a major step in good relations and understanding between peoples of different cultures was made through that event.

One afternoon back at the training facility, Johnny and I had been talking, and he gave me a small prayer book that many of the Croatian military receive.  I was paging through it, and I came upon a section devoted to Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, recently raised to the level of "Blessed" by Pope John Paul II.

After the Second World War, when the Communist government was in charge of the country then known as Yugoslavia, the prelate was imprisoned and suffered terribly because he would not accede to government wishes to declare the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia independent from the Holy See (in effect, the Catholic Church) in Rome.  I told Johnny that I was familiar with the Cardinal's story.  As a boy I had attended Catholic secondary school in White Plains, N. Y., which had been named in honor of the then Archbishop Stepinac. In 1948 the Cardinal Archbishop of New York paid tribute to this priest that was suffering under a Communist regime by dedicating the school to him.

Johnny was delighted that I knew of his saint, and he told me that the town of Krasic was nearby.  This was the birthplace of Cardinal Stepinac, his place of house arrest, and the place where he died.  Johnny promised to take me to Krasic to visit the shrine, and following that wonderful Mass at Slunj, we set off. 

There in the center of the lovely town was Stepinac's church.  We spent some time visiting the church, and we went around the back to the small building where Stepinac spent the last years of his life.  The building was locked, and there seemed to be nobody around.  However, the ever-resourceful Johnny found the residence of the local Catholic priest of Krasic.

Father Josip Balog soon joined us and took us inside the building.  He spent a minimum of two hours telling us of the life and trials of Cardinal Stepinac, the false accusations, the imprisonment, and the eventual death of the saint.  What a wonderful experience for me, an American priest and Navy Chaplain, who had yet another tie to Croatia.  Father Balog's warmth and generosity of time and spirit clearly reflected those same qualities of the Slunj clergy and the Croatian people in general.

A day or two later we were finished with our military exercises at Slunj, and we began our trip back to the port city of Rijeka.  Again, we were able to marvel at the beautiful country vistas as we made the five-hour return trip.  Warm memories of powerful religious and cultural events mingled with the visual beauty of the Croatian countryside made the afternoon slip by without even noticing the time we spent traveling.

The events described above have affected me tremendously, and I now feel an almost "familial" tie to a country and people that previously were unknown to me. What a blessing this training exercise and visit was for me!  I only hope and pray that others had a similar and enriching experience in a country that seemed to open its arms and heart to us.