Beneath the bombs, the Croatian Church tries to keep alive its values, reports Melanie McDonagh
THE SUSTENANCE OF troops can take all sorts of forms; I once spent a few happy hours with a Franciscan chaplain on the front in Herzegovina as he distributed chocolate snails. This was in Medjugorje, last year, when the Serbs were only a few kilometres away from the Lourdes of the Balkans, and Mass in the church cellar sounded like the 1812 overture, punctuated by the sound of gunfire.
Some well-wisher from France had sent a consignment of chocolate, a bit past their sell-by-date, to the Franciscans and the young chaplain had shoved a few boxes into the boot of his car for his pastoral trip to the soldiers. On the way we talked about his job. A lot of soldiers came to confession, he said, to unburden themselves about the hatred they felt for the other side.
It was a problem that the other friars had talked about as well; they'd all dealt with it. The chief function of the Church in this war, said one, was to try and do what it could to make sure that men were fit to return to normal life.
To try to lessen the dehumanising effects of the war, because war makes us less than human. I don't know how things are going there now that the fighting is more ugly, and between Croats and Muslims instead of both of them against a common aggressor, but the problem is still the same how does religion diminish, instead of aggravate, the hatred that comes in a war like this?
Among Croats in Bosnia and Croatia, the Church really does have a part to play. Rosary beads are almost part of the Croatian uniform, and for very many of them it's not just a badge of identity but is used. Everywhere men flock to confession before they go to the front, and pray at the front.
War does concentrate the mind. During the bombardment of Dubrovnik, I had to take refuge in the shelter of the Franciscan monastery; after the bombardment was over we had Mass in the shelter and it had an intensity of fervour and gratitude that I'd never experienced before.
Of course, that sort of fervour can't be sustained forever; I revisited Dubrovnik a few weeks ago, and the priest there said wryly that since the bombardments had stopped the packed congregations had fallen away. But the message was still the same not preaching forgiveness overtly perhaps, but trying to keep alive another system of values than the ones fostered by war.
A bishop told me sadly that Croats had become far more militaristic than ever before; and the Church had to be constantly wary of becoming associated with the politics of militarism.
This sort of contribution doesn't sound terribly dramatic, but in this war an uncompromising voice raised for human values is important. It's hard to understand, sometimes, how much hatred can change people. One young deacon told me that a friend from his village had told him that he'd made a rosary beads from — I'm sorry, but it's true — Serbian eyeballs, taken from corpses. The deacon had gaped. "Why," he asked, "have you started behaving like a Chetnik?" (the Serbian militia). "Father," he said, "I went into one village with my unit and I found everyone dead. Everyone from the babies to the old men. What can you do?"
Besides refusing to compromise Christianity in the interests of nationalism, the Church has an even more important function: to uphold pluralism. For many Croats, Catholicism is identified with Croatia; it means that the Church can have a powerful effect when it says strongly that religions can Live side by side, and must.
I remember vividly one young priest, Fr Jakov Kasinic, whom I met in. the town of Bosanski Brod in Northern Bosnia before it fell to the Serbs. It was a mixed town; just down the road there was the mosque, with its imam. I asked Fr Jakov, who was only 28 but the only priest in this terribly vulnerable town, whether Croatian co-existence with other peoples of Bosnia was possible. He nodded vigorously and darted over to the sideboard. Out of the drawer he pulled a huge Croatian flag. "This," he said, "is my symbol. The Muslims have their symbol; the Serbs theirs. That's no problem. We all have our symbols together."
And then he gave me a present he'd already given me a prayerbook and a chocolate rabbit from his Caritas consignment. It was a bronze head of the crucified Christ. "This is the sign of our people," he said. "Now is the time for us to be crucified. But after the crucifixion comes the resurrection. And until there has been crucifixion there can be no resurrection." His vision of all the symbols of Bosnia Croat, Serb and Muslim fluttering side by side is looking less and less possible now.
In the proposed partition of Bosnia is a constitutional statement that it can't happen. But perhaps this is, not the end of the story.
The crucifixion wasn't the end of the story either; the Church has the job of reminding Catholics, and everyone else, that a resurrection may yet happen here.