National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

An elderly woman displays a statue, crucifixes and rosaries as she waits for Pope John Paul II to arrive to celebrate an outdoor Mass in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, June 22.
-- CNS/Reuters
Hard feelings overshadow pope’s plea for healing

Papal trip points up resentments from Bosnia’s bloody history

Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina

To one of the most blood-soaked corners of Europe, Pope John Paul II brought a message of reconciliation and forgiveness June 22. The lingering question after his 12 hour and 50 minute visit was whether the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina were ready to hear it.

John Paul’s 101st foreign trip took him for the second time to Bosnia, this time to Banja Luka in the Serb-dominated northwest of the country. The pope made a previous one-day trip to Sarajevo in 1997.

The site of the papal Mass in a community outside Banja Luka called Petricevac, on the grounds of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, was especially evocative of Bosnia’s bloody history. On this spot in February 1942, Croatian Ustashe fascists reportedly massacred 2,700 Serbs, including some 500 children. Popular Serb memory links an infamous Franciscan priest, Miroslav Filipovic-Majstorovic, known popularly as “Friar Satan,” with the attack.

A Serb history of the war, titled The Great Crime, says Filipovic broke into a school at Petricevac and slashed a Serb child’s throat, instructing the Croatian Ustashe militia with him to do likewise to all Serbs, vowing that he would forgive their sins.

A senior Vatican official, however, said Filipovic had been expelled from the Franciscan order and defrocked before the massacre, and before he administered the nearby Jasenovac concentration camp. Hence, he acted “on his own account,” the official told NCR.

During the 1991-95 Balkans war, Serbs burned down the Petricevac convent as a form of retribution. The act was part of an ethnic cleansing campaign that saw the total number of Catholic Croats in the Banja Luka diocese drop from 125,000 to fewer than 50,000. The plight of those refugees still weighs heavily on local church leaders.

Hence, both Serbs and Croats link Petricevac with suffering, and it was from there that John Paul launched his plea for pardon.

“From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness,” he said.

It was not the straightforward apology for which some Serbs were hoping. Nevertheless, there were some signs of receptivity to the pope’s message.

                                        -- NCR Staff

The three co-presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim, who rotate according to a plan worked out during the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords -- told John Paul that they intend to “build the country on the basis of the words you have given us.” The presidents of the Serbian Republic and the Croat-Muslim Republic that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina repeated the same idea, almost word-for-word, in an afternoon meeting at the bishop’s residence.

The three federal presidents also announced that to mark the pope’s visit, the government would restore to the country’s religious communities, including Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, goods that had been confiscated during the communist regime.

The president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina expressed sentiments of understanding during an interreligious session.

“A future of peace is possible in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” he said. “Our people can live in peaceful coexistence with one another.”

At the same time, the bitterness that smolders just beneath the surface was clear throughout the visit.

Bishop Franjo Komarica of Banja Luka welcomed the pope at the Mass at Petricevac, and while expressing appreciation for the pope’s message of peace, also clearly did not want his community’s suffering to be forgotten.

“The Catholic church in the wider region of Banja Luka, by the will of the powerful of this world, now finds itself almost complete eradicated,” Komarica said. “Up till now in my diocese, only three percent of those who were forced to flee … have been able to return.

“I am convinced that the uprooting of Catholics from this region is not the will of God,” Komarica said. “You also told me in the spring of 1996 that this is not your will either and that this must not be the will of the church.”

Those lines drew much more rousing applause than the pope’s call for forgiveness, the crowd’s response to which seemed restrained.

Anti-Catholic persecution in Bosnia is not a recent invention. Winding the clock back to the 15th century, Catholics represented 90 percent of the Bosnian population. Under centuries of Turkish domination, most of these Catholics migrated or converted to Islam. Studies suggest that 75 percent of Bosnian Muslims today are of Catholic origin.

A background paper on the Catholic church in Banja Luka said that the 1991-95 Balkans war had produced “a total exodus of the Catholic population from this region,” that the few who remain are “predominantly elderly,” and that the church now risks “total extinction.”

Hard feelings were clear on the Serb side as well. Serbs tend to blame the Catholic church for siding with the West in the NATO incursion in Bosnia, and more remotely for anti-Serb atrocities carried out during the Second World War.

Patriarch Pavel, head of the Serbian Orthodox church, publicly indicated he would not come to Banja Luka to greet John Paul II. A lower-level delegation met the pope at the airport, and the local Serb Orthodox bishop took part in the afternoon interreligious encounter.

Serb Orthodox pamphlets circulated before John Paul’s arrival said “Pope, go home,” and some posters touting the pope’s visit had four-S graffiti sprawled across them, representing a Serb nationalist slogan: “Only Unity will Save the Serbs.”

Two days before the pope’s arrival, local police arrested individuals thought to pose a potential security risk. Among them was a man who was allegedly marketing t-shirts with a picture of the pope, his faced crossed out with an X.

In the end, the pope’s message was clear: Whether hatred or healing takes the upper hand is up the Bosnians themselves.

“The future of this land depends on you!” he said. “Do not seek a more comfortable life elsewhere, do not flee from your responsibilities and expect others to resolve problems, but resolutely counter evil with the power of good.”

Popular affection for John Paul among the largely Catholic crowd was clear. Komarica drew applause at Petricevac when he referred to the pope as “John Paul the Great,” and as the Mass was ending, the crowd belted out a traditional Croat ballad of parting, “We thank you for your every word and your every smile dedicated to us.”

In one of history’s ironies, it happened to be the same song that was sung for the death of Marshal Josip Tito, the socialist leader of the former Yugoslavia, in 1980.

The official purpose of the papal visit was to beatify Ivan Merz, a lay Croatian who was born in Banja Luka in 1896, studied in Vienna and Paris, returned to Croatia and died in Zagreb in 1928. He was a pioneer of liturgical reform, and promoted the Catholic Action movement. He was especially known for his work with youth.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: