“Without visionaries we cannot progress. We need visionaries who possess in their genius an idea of how to change a situation, how to effect a radical shift. Visionaries know history, how to show the way and be convinced of its success.”
Dr Fra Častimir Majić was born January 9th, 1914 in Vitina in the Herzegovina region, where he completed elementary school before moving on to the Franciscan gymnasium in Široki Brijeg. He adopted the Franciscan habit at the monastery at Humac on July 2nd 1933. He studied philosophy and theology in Mostar and Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in Mostar on June 4th, 1939. In November of 1941 he moved to Freiburg to study Germanistics, where he continued his pastoral ministry for Slovenian and Croatian emigrants in a number of German cities. He earned his doctorates here, in philosophy and theology, and was a student of Martin Heidegger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He moved to the USA on March 22nd, 1951, making the voyage on board the warship Bretchford. The vessel carried 1,305 passengers, all referred to by their numbers, rather than names. On board were 78 Serbians, 305 Jews and 3 Croatians: Naglić, Maras and Fra Častimir. They travelled twelve days from Brehemerhaven to New York – he continued his voyage to Chicago by train, where he arrived on Easter, April 25th, 1951. He served at numerous posts, from editor-in-chief of the Danica newspaper, a pastoral assistant at Croatian parishes, then as parish priest, custos, guardian, editor of the Croatian Catholic Messenger and of the Croatian Almanac. He also served a the posts of councillor of the Custody, as president and secretary of the Association of Croatian Priests of America and Canada, and as editor of the federation’s periodical Viniculum Caritatis. He was an executive member of the Catholic Conference for Ethnic Issues in America and was as such mentioned in a book on American social leaders and activists. He joined forces with Fra Lawrence Frankovich in preparing the Golden Jubilee Book for the 50th Anniversary of the Croatian Franciscan Custody of the Holy Family (Chicago, 1976). He published a memoir in 1999 detailing his life as an emigrant (Životne uspomene prošlosti / Memories of a Life Past), and in 2011 the book U nebo zagledani (Gazing Skywards), commemorating fellow Franciscans who had been killed. With this book Fra Častimir became the oldest author of a book in the Croatian communities. He was 98 years old at the time. The book was written from memory, and was greeted with the congratulations of Pope Francis, Franciscan Minister General Michael Perry, Croatian Cardinal Josip Bozanić, Chicago Cardinal Francis George, Provincial Fr. Šteko and others. A particular proclamation and congratulations was issued by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to a report from the Minister General, Majić is one of fifteen Franciscans in the entire world that has survived to the age of one hundred.
– How did you come to Chicago? Of your own volition, or where you forced to flee from Communist persecution? What was it like?
Fr MAJIĆ: I personally avoided the massacre committed by Communists units when I was sent to study in Germany. It was only in 1946 that I learned of the murder of sixty-six Franciscans and other victims of communism, as was reported to me by Dr Fra Dominik Mandić from Rome. They were my colleagues and teachers. In 2011 I wrote about my memory of them in the book U Nebo zagledani (Gazing Skywards). Many came to grief in the emigrant communities from the Communist boot. Over seventy people were murdered by the UDBA (Yugoslav secret police). Among these was Križan Brkić of Los Angeles, president of the Croatian Association of Los Angeles. I myself received a package bomb. This suffering at the hands of Communist, then, followed me throughout my entire life. Since I was occupied in work for a free Croatia, their threats were constant, and my friends and associates were murdered. My generation suffered this its entire life. I hope and pray to god that this time is behind us all. And may it happen nevermore.
– In what way and in which projects in your activities did you work to promote the preservation of the Croatian and Catholic identity?
Fr MAJIĆ: In America we had an association of priests of which I was the president. We had our own newspaper, Vinculum Caritatis. This association assisted Croatian programmes, events and institutions in any ways. We published liturgical books and organised aid for Croatians in need, and in particular provided aid to Cardinal Stepinac. We managed to contact him through special channels. We spoke constantly of him in America, and were proud to promote him. I remember in 1958 when we organised the gala 60th anniversary of his life in Chicago with sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Over two thousand people gathered at the event, staged at the Morisson hotel. We were joined there by Cardinal Meier, the archbishop of Chicago. Every year on February 10th we organised a memorial day dedicated to Cardinal Stepinac. We constantly organised events that spoke of our Croatian and Catholic identity. The Danica weekly was the leading periodical in the Croatian emigrant community. By way of Danica we offered information to our people on the need for cooperation within the emigrant community and our loyalty to the idea of Croatia and its liberation from communists and foreign intrusions (in particular those of Belgrade and Budapest). The weekly was distributed to all corners of the world, across every continent. Our Franciscan print shop in Chicago, founded December 19th of 1946 and first led by Fra Anzelmo Slišković, was an important cog in the process of working for Croatia. In it were published the best works of Croatian writers in the emigrant communities, including all the works of Dr Mandić. The print shop worked round the clock. Books, newspapers, magazines and flyers were printed there. The print shop made a massive contribution to Croatian freedom, identity and the Catholic spirit. Without it many projects would have been difficult to implement. Especially our proclamations, which were frequently presented to the public – they were all printed here. The print shop was under particular threat from the UDBA, and we had to have US police protection.
– Speaking of Cardinal Stepinac, you are one of the few people still alive to have met the man?
Fr MAJIĆ: I met him back in 1938. I remember as if it was yesterday that out master, teacher Fra Jerko Mihaljević, told us seminarians that Archbishop Stepinac would be visiting us. He was with us in Mostar. He held a lecture and we went with him to Široki Brijeg. There were many people. He celebrated mass for the gathered folk and remained there for two days. My experience of him was that of a learned man – humble and loyal to the Church. He was worthy of his status as a priest and bishop. His figure was that of a cultivated gentleman. He was very pleasant in speech, doing everyone a good turn. He was calm. A gentle man, dedicated and convincing in his conviction. It was a great honour to have been in his presence in those days. It was a great joy therefore, to be able to dedicate my efforts for him.
– You have been active in the area of culture, especially in the preservation of the Croatian language – how was this organised?
Fr MAJIĆ: As custos of the Custody in 1975 in our Franciscan community, with the aim of better preserving our culture, language and identity, I initiated the idea of and later founded the Croatian Ethnic Institute in Chicago. The Custody set up premises for the purpose, and since then the institute has archived materials from our parishes, associations, clubs and so forth. Since then it has housed many important documents. In the institute department a section was also established that saw to the Croatian language schools. The founding of Croatian language schools, namely, was not the result only of the work of the Institute, but also that of the Association [of Croatian Priests]. Croatian language schools were set up in all the parishes and worked to preserve the Croatian language and identity in general. They have thus far played a fantastic role in preserving the Croatian language. I should say that we worked ourselves on creating books and printing them, without anyone’s help. And this is how it has been to the present day, 23 years after Croatia regained its independence. My entire life in America revolved around the four robust organisations in which I worked and to which I dedicated my efforts: the Croatian Catholic Community, the United American Croatians, the Association of Croatian Priests and the Croatian National Council.
– How much sense of their heritage do Croatians of the second, third and fourth generation have?
Fr MAJIĆ: I would say that there are in America today some 500 to 600 thousand Croatians. The first generation found its footing quite well. It found employment and their children grew up in the Croatian spirit. The second and third generation depends largely on the Croatian parishes and associations. The Croatian parishes played an irreplaceable role in preserving the Croatian language and the devotion of the second and third generations towards the homeland of their parents. Most are educated. Many are increasingly in contact with Croatia. We did not want to sell anyone our national identity. We fought for our freedom. Our idealised vision of Croatia has often been disappointed. We worked for a honourable, good and fair Croatia. But although we are often disenchanted, we do not give up. Ever. After all, we endured thirteen centuries mostly as slaves to foreigners. That is why freedom is so difficult – but the future is ours.
– How recognisable are Croatian priests abroad in the local churches in which they are active?
Fr MAJIĆ: It should be said that our mission was to organise parishes that would preserve our identity, but always to be part of the Church. Our association of priests was very esteemed in all of the dioceses. Our proposals were heard and we were part of the dialogue and life of the local Church. All of the bishops supported our work. They knew them to be healthy Catholic communities, with a clearly expressed identity of the faith. That is why they always offered us their strong support – whether in parish work, or in working for Croatian freedom. We could always turn to them for assistance, and we always knew that we could turn to them for protection. In 1954 six Croatian priests led by Father Jurički, who was president of the Association of Priests, and including Stepinac’s former secretary Lacković and the Reverend Kamber, were received at the White House by then US President Eisenhower. They asked him to personally intervene on behalf of Croatian freedom from communism. In the face-to-face meeting with the world’s most powerful leader they presented the plight of Croatians, the statistics of murdered priests, the fate of the imprisoned Cardinal Stepinac and other tribulations. It was also our greatest success.
– After all the suffering and hope, the work for the liberty of your people, how did you experience independence, the regaining of Croatian sovereignty?
Fr MAJIĆ: Croatians were long slaves to others. I personally have worked for Croatian freedom my entire life. In our publications we always promoted the idea of a free Croatia. I believed that one day Croatia would be independent. What has been achieved is not the ideal I personally anticipated, as I expected a better country, more just and with greater freedoms. There can be no free country if there are no free men. That is why I personally did not feel that my own ideal had been fully achieved, not in the 1990s, and especially not today when there is a Socialist government. Communism created a sense of mistrust among people, even within families. The system created a growing army of spies and paid informers. And what is most important: communism liquidated its ideological opponents without trial or investigation. This led to mass graves – the best example of which is Bleiburg with all of its consequences and death marches, the largest unhealed wound in the body of the Croatian nation. There will be no effort to investigate the victims of communism.
– Much is said of the return of Croatians to the homeland. What are your predictions? How do Croatians in America now view Croatia?
Fr MAJIĆ: The Croatians are staying here. They have good jobs, and many have finished good schools. If Croatia was in a better state politically and economically, it would all be different. In Croatia the legislation and standards are beneath criticism. Of this small country of ours it is enough to say that there are over 360 thousand unemployed persons. This would be intolerable in America. I fear that those who are leaving, now or later, are no longer returning. But it also seems to me that those who do return to Croatia do not live long. I do not know why, but, you know – when a system is dysfunctional, then it affects the whole man, as it did in communism. I think that what prevents Croatians from returning is the still strong socialist mentality. It appears that Croatians are just unable to rid themselves of it. Insecurity in life makes anyone unhappy.
– What is the American policy towards Croatia?
Fr MAJIĆ: American policy is guided above all by its own interests. It aspires to interfere in everyone’s freedom. America takes part in everything, wherever it appears. They imposed the Dayton agreement on us and cut short operations heading towards Croatia. There was a lot of meandering in this policy. They are now openly repentant about the negative moves they made in the 1990s. We were defending ourselves and painted as the bad guys. Now I think we have a status quo. I am of the opinion that America is still more favourably disposed toward Belgrade. That might seem strange, but throughout its history America has always sided with bigger and stronger countries. I remember Bangladesh and Pakistan and other nation building projects around the world. Whenever countries were parting ways anywhere in the world, America always tried to keep them together, as it is in their interest to have large units that are easier to control. That is why America insisted for so long on an integral and unitary Yugoslavia. They will assist Croatia for as long as it is in their interest to do so. American policy is always just a reflection of American interests. Now they are quite favourable to us, but if Croatians are wise they will find their own interest in American interests. Croatia has an excellent geopolitical position; I only think that Croatian politics is not entirely capable in international waters. Our government is left-leaning. It has not opted against communism and continues to gamble with Serbian policy. The break with Belgrade has not yet been completed. We have throughout our history had a submissive bent that thwarted independence and was unable to speak out in favour of the people. This submissive disposition has dogged us over the centuries. It is time for us to wake up.
– Lately we have again seen Croatians emigrating from Croatian and from Bosnia-Herzegovina? How do you comment this?
Fr MAJIĆ: The economic situation is forcing people to seek bread and freedom for themselves. This is the most tragic phenomenon in Croatian history. Our population is not only growing older and going into retirement – it is also declining. The economy is crucial. If there is no work and bread, people will leave, and the farther away they go, the more difficult it is to return. Perhaps some return from European countries, but there is no return from across the ocean. The government with its methods has not found a better solution to improve the standard of living, to employ working people so that the might have a life of dignity with their family. Politicians are the problem. We have no visionaries. Without visionaries we cannot progress. We need visionaries who possess in their genius an idea of how to change a situation, how to effect a radical shift. Visionaries know history, how to show the way and be convinced of its success. I remember Konrad Adenauer and his ministers. They were on their knees, the country destroyed, an impossible situation. They raised up the country, stood at the helm of the world. Only visionaries can achieve this. Croatians, I think, as missing the main ingredient for this: discipline!
The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is unsustainable. There are four problems: the Serbians have excessive control of Bosnia-Herzegovina; secondly, the Muslim-Croatian federation is not working at all. The Muslims are looking only after their own interests. Thirdly, foreign interests are supporting the ideas of Muslims and Serbs more than those of the Croatians. Fourthly: the Croatians are divided amongst themselves. And they have been undermined by corruption. We have, therefore, become a minority. The mistrust is too great. That is why people are leaving. The most realistic situation would be to create cantons along the lines of the Swiss system. In that way the different nations would have their centres and would find it easier to cooperate. As it is, it’s a broken house.
– The Church is inseparable from culture; in fact culture – literature, art, architecture, music – grew largely out of the Church. How would you assess the current situation?
Fr MAJIĆ: The Church has always been oriented towards the people. A person’s spirituality impacts everything a person does. For example, the medieval period had not only good theologians, but also people who expanded their view to the broader base of human activity. Take for example our Bošković, or Thomas Aquinas or St Bonaventure. Today life has become more materialised than ever before. The job a person does defines much, including their character. People of my generation lived more modest lives, but happier. People today are less inclined towards intellectual work, to a deeper consideration of reality. People today are as if closed off in smaller circles. People are shut off today towards the general good. In my time people had a firmer spiritual foundation. The role of the Church is to reawaken unselfish values in people. My Franciscans lived, suffered and died with the people. A life that is always, constantly dedicated to the general good.
– As a Franciscan, a monk, how do you regard the current charisma of the Order in comparison to when it was at the peak of its strength?
Fr MAJIĆ: I experienced the Franciscan charisma in the homeland and as an emigrant. I found solace in the words of St Paul: “Nihil habentes omnia possidentes” (Having nothing, yet possessing all things). This is the charisma of St Francis. I think that training at seminaries and theological schools is more liberal than ever. We were trained in discipline, prayer and obedience. Today that is being lost. We had a greater capacity for sacrifice and giving. But I must confess that it seems that the young Franciscans today are quite diligent and engaged. They know how to work with youth. We were more bound to older generations. The young ones are working a lot with youth, and that is good. Hats off to them on that point. When I was a candidate for the seminary, there were sixty-eight of us candidates, and they were taking only twelve. Today all of Europe does not have this many candidates to take the monastic orders. I am happy to have lived then. I experienced all of these phases of life. We genuinely accepted our trainers and teachers. We believed in them. The feeling of belonging was strong.
– During your long life you met with and worked with many leading public figures.
Fr MAJIĆ: I can say personally that for the most part I was personally acquainted with all of our political leaders and leading activists for Croatian freedom. I knew each of them personally and respected them. They were all involved in the work of the Croatian National Council. People like Branko and Ivan Jelić, Vrančić, Nevistić, Nikolić, Mate Meštrović and others. I met with others, such as the Princess of Saxony, the Bulgarian King Boris back in 1943; many, truly many American senators and members of congress, cardinals and bishops. Together with Don Anton Livajušić and Stepinac’s secretary Stjepan Lacković I laid Vlatko Maček to rest. This was in May of 1964 in Washington. There were not many of us at the funeral. Later on the earthly remains were transferred to Zagreb.
– You have passed you hundredth birthday and continue to follow all the current events, read, write and pray… What is the secret of a long life?
Fr MAJIĆ: An orderly life. Not steeped in materialism. Not overburdened by anxiety. Accepting natural growth as it develops in people. In school we were taught to have discipline. Now I see how important it is. Never too much food! You have to control yourself. Overdoing things does not do a person good. It impacts a person’s spiritual and physical life. People of small spirit have their complexes that are an impediment to life. One should be wary of them. And always strike a balance between health, food, your relationships with others, your point of view, and healthy spirituality. Moderation is good. If a person lacks a spiritual foundation and a metaphysical substrate, then they are lost. Humour is important, it is part of life – without it life becomes raw and arid. And really, it does not matter how long you live – although I am happy to have lived to a hundred – but rather how we lived our lives.
(GK – Vlado Čutura)