A messenger of peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina - Card. Vinko Puljic
Jubilee 2000 Search


Card. Vinko Puljic

During the difficult war and post-war periods, all of Bosnia-Herzegovina was overtaken by the shadow of suffering and of hate that has been difficult to overcome. The mechanism of war exacerbated all of the already-existing differences between the local populations, spreading a hate that culminated in a horrible conflict, with devastating consequences.
The data that has been made known - information that refers to the period from the beginning of the war in 1991 until its ends in 1995 - speak of 270 thousand dead, an average of 200 victims each day. The people that had to abandon their houses and find refuge abroad number one million and 250 thousand, which is 28.4 percent of the inhabitants. Meanwhile, another one million, 370 thousand people - another 31.2 percent of the population - found refuge elsewhere within the confines of the country. Only a small portion of those refugees up until now have been able to return to their original towns.

It is almost impossible to know the exact number of people who were wounded or how many were subjected to the violence of concentration camps. And we will never know how many people suffered psychological harm caused by witnessing horrors or the trauma of war. The Archdiocese of Vrhbosna, or Sarajevo, had 528 thousand faithful divided in 144 parishes before the war. The Serbian armed forces devastated 45 percent of the Archdiocese: the Catholics were kicked out, a majority of the churches and other places of worship, of the monasteries and of the rectories was plundered, burned and destroyed. In addition, the conflict between Croatians and Muslims caused new damage in about 30 percent of the same ecclesiastical district. Today, in the territory of this Archdiocese 200,000 Catholics can be found.

The Diocese of Banja Luka had more than 110 thousand Catholics before the war. The Serbian armed forces had already taken control over most of the territory of this Diocese before the outbreak of the war, and so the zone was saved from armed conflict. Notwithstanding that, the ethnic cleansing put into practice by those controlling the territory forced 80 percent of the Catholic population to abandon their homes and to find refuge elsewhere, while five priests and a woman religious were killed and 98 out of 100 churches were damaged or destroyed.

The two Dioceses of Herzegovina, of Mostar-Duvno and of Trebinje-Mrkan, have had 10 thousand refugees and exiles and 10 churches gravely damaged; the diocesan Curia of Mostar was burned, together with other precious goods, including 50 thousand books predominantly of a religious, cultural or historic character. I have put forth just a few facts that illustrate the general situation that has been created in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of the recent war. It is difficult, however, to express the drama lived by the common man during the days of violence, of insecurity, of fear and of hunger. Only God, who scrutinizes the human hearts, knows in depth what those dramas are. I can only add that in the darkness of the bellicose fury, prayer and communion represented the ray of light and hope. Every sign and every word of solidarity and expression of closeness for all of us were always reasons for profound interior joy.

The Holy Father has represented for us in a particular way the messenger of peace. Every one of his appeals, and each of his invitations to prayer for peace were consolation and a sign of hope. We suffered in a special manner were in 1994 the pastoral visit of the Pope to Sarajevo was blocked. We feared that the same thing could happen again. The time for the preparation of the visit was short and the circumstances were particularly complex.
But during the preparations love and enthusiasm were never lacking. We were also conscious that there could have been those who with violence and terrorism sought to instill a sense of insecurity and fear in the people who intended to participate in the visit. We prayed a lot. And with just one objective: that the visit of the Holy Father, messenger of peace, would coincide with the times of the reconstruction of our country, which had been martyred and devastated by the bellicose fury.

While the preparations proceeded for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, in the Year of Jesus Christ and in the atmosphere of Easter time, the visit of the Pope became reality. The airplane landed, and the Pope finally set foot on our soil that had been bloodied by so much innocent blood, and he set out along the streets which carried the marks of the unprecedented violence of recent years. I was with the Holy Father in the automobile that carried him into the city. He often sighed as he looked at the ruins of buildings and his hand was continuously raised in order to bless and to wave to the unexpected number of people that had lines the roads to greet the Symbol of Peace that had been so longed for. I tried to point out to him the principal aspects of each quarter of the city as we passed through; to show him the places in which the city was put under fire; to give him the information about the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Muslims who live in Sarajevo....

Sarajevo welcomed the Holy Father in an extraordinary way, encircling him with affection and gratitude for this new sign of hope and peace. The surrounding zones and the Cathedral of Sarajevo were extraordinarily filled with men and women of every age: everyone tried to see and shake hands with the Pope. After the departure of the Holy Father I received many letters, especially from people who could not participate in the Mass in the Kosovo Stadium or could not meet him on the streets of Sarajevo. One man who was wounded during the war, who followed the visit of the Holy Father on television and who is not Catholic, wrote to me that on that day he did not need medicine: the words of the Pope and the scenes he saw on television were enough for the man.

Truly, the visit of the Holy Father was an event of joy for the Catholics of Sarajevo and of Bosnia-Herzegovina and for all of the inhabitants of this city and this country. My answers to the journalists about the visit of the Holy Father in Sarajevo can be summarized in the three following points:

  1. The world had the opportunity to see that in Bosnia-Herzegovina there also live Catholics faithful to Christ, to the Pope and to their country. Many times we were able to painfully witness that the members of the international community with the words - or work - neglected the existence of Catholics. Thanks to the visit of the Holy Father, everyone was able to see and hear that even we Catholics are in Sarajevo and in Bosnia-Herzegovina and wish to stay here. The Pope came to give us courage and through his speeches we saw him delineate for us the Church of 2000. Even amidst the material and spiritual ruins, our local church prepares itself for the threshold of the third millennium.
    The Holy Father came to visit us exactly in the Year of Jesus Christ, rendering the witness: «We have an advocate with the Father: a just Jesus Christ» (1 Gn 2, 1). For we Catholics, this was a voice of hope which encouraged us on our Via Crucis and in our walk towards the re-establishment of a just peace.
  2. Coming to Sarajevo, the Pope brought with him to this hot zone the entire world and he wanted to attract attention to the urgent need for the reconstruction and peace and for the serene living of all the populations of the region. All the residents of Sarajevo, of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and all those who followed the visit of the Holy Father through radio and television were able to have this impression.
  3. The representatives of the international community and all those responsible in Bosnia-Herzegovina who are involved in the reconstruction of peace and life in these regions can not now ignore the principles proclaimed by the Holy Father in Sarajevo:
    • Every human being must be respected, because the respect of rights and of human dignity must be at the base of the reconstruction of peace;
    • Bosnia-Herzegovina is the country of each of its three populations and justice remains at the base of peace;
    • Reconciliation and forgiveness are the true commitments which await each builder of a just and lasting peace in this region.

The visit of the Holy Father will be the event that will remain engraved in the living memories of all the inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sign of consolation and of hope, which appeared after a long night of violence of every kind. For our part, we thank the Holy Father for his love towards each person, towards men from each of the four corners of the earth. The love of his heart is open to everyone, it indicates the Heart of Jesus and of his Holy Mother, a source of hope for a better tomorrow and for the advent of the third Christian Millennium.