Sunday, February 7, 2016

In Široki Brijeg Honouring the Sixty-Six Franciscan Friars Executed in Herzegovina Between 1942-1945

The Franciscan monastery - Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Široki Brijeg

Today's post honours the memory of sixty-six Franciscan friars who were executed in Herzegovina during and shortly after World War II, between 1942-1945. Thirty of those friars were from the Franciscan monastery in Široki Brijeg. I had the opportunity to honour all sixty-six friars by spending a few hours at the monastery during my Medjugorje pilgrimage in the Summer'2015. 

On February 7, the Catholic Church in Herzegovina marks the anniversary of the death of the Franciscan friars with a special memorial Mass at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located at the Franciscan monastery in Široki Brijeg, Herzegovina; a city that is thirty-eight kilometers north-west of Medjugorje, or approximately forty-five minutes by car.

My initial discovery of these executions was by word of mouth; a friend who is somewhat knowledgeable with the Catholic Church history of Herzegovina, had informed me about it. The more I came to know about what had happened, the more intrigued I became, so much so, that I felt compelled to visit the Franciscan monastery, and honour the friars who paid the ultimate price for their love of Jesus, the sacrifice of their lives. 

If you are going on a pilgrimage this year to Medjugorje, there is a rich Catholic heritage to discover in Herzegovina, part of which could include time in Široki Brijeg. If you are seriously considering going, I highly recommend you allow approximately three to four hours for a short excursion to the monastery: to pray in the Church, visit the grounds, and especially spend some time at the war shelter, the location where the friars were burned. If you really want to gain a better understanding of the Catholic culture and history of Herzegovina, Široki Brijeg should definitely be an include on your pilgrimage itinerary. The sacrifice of these friars needs to be better known and honoured.

The Franciscan monastery is situated on high ground overlooking a good portion of the city and the surrounding landscape. Upon my arrival, the first place I went to was the monastery's church. At first glance, I was totally impressed with the quality of craftsmanship and construction work that went into building this, one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. Viewing the architecture and landscaping was but a prelude to the beautiful interior that immediately captivated me upon entry.


Praying inside this magnificent church

I had the privilege of being almost totally alone during my time at this church. The sense of peace I felt upon entering it is barely describable with words. The overwhelming desire to pray for, and to these Franciscan friars immediately had me on my knees. I had spent approximately one hour inside this church, which afforded me the opportunity to recite one of the four sets of mysteries of the Rosary.

In the church, there is a section (the tomb) dedicated to the memory of the sixty-six friars, which you can see from the photo below. I had spent several minutes there in prayer in an atmosphere of absolute peace and quiet. I could not help but feel such a great sense of gratitude upon viewing the photos of these men, who made no compromises against the truth, and remained loyal to God. Their fidelity to Christ, their collective witness has surely drawn God's blessings upon Herzegovina, which has no doubt strengthened the Church for generations to come.


In prayer within the church, at a section dedicated to the memory of the executed friars

The murder of these Franciscan friars is something that is too often apart of Church history; the ultimate sacrifice that must be made during times of persecution and war. Of the sixty-six friars, thirty were from the monastic community of Široki Brijeg, with another four from the area. This comprises just over half of the friars that were killed in the Herzegovina region.

The shelter where the friars were thrown into and burned
The brochure provided at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (last photo of this post) describes how they were killed:
The calvary of Široki Brijeg started on 7 February 1945 when it was taken by the communists...They came in the morning and at the end of the day they committed a crime against 12 Franciscan monks. First they killed them with a bullet in the back of their head and then they burned them in the war shelter in the monastery garden. The murdered a total of 30 Franciscans from the monastery community of Široki Brijeg, as well as four others from the monastery area, which is more than a half of all murdered Herzegovinian Franciscans during those months (66).
I had the privilege of visiting the exact location at the monastery, the war shelter where the friars were thrown into and burned. The photo to the right is me in this exact location. Although you can not see from this photo, the shelter continues for approximately another twenty feet, where there is another exit that has been blocked off to visitors. I spent a few minutes in prayer in complete gratitude of their witness and love for Jesus. I know that I have been strengthened because of it.

At the entrance to the war shelter is a commemorative plaque listing the names of the thirty friars who were executed at the monastery. Upon seeing it I just had to shoot it, and capture part of this memorial.


Shooting the commemorative plaque listing the names of the thirty friars murdered at Široki Brijeg

Here is a more detailed account of what happened to the friars at Široki Brijeg, from a fellow blogger In God's Company 2:
On 7th February 1945 the Communist soldiers arrived and said “God is dead, there is no God, there is no Pope, there is no Church, there is no need of you, you also go out in the world and work.” The communists forgot that the Franciscans were working, most of the Franciscans were teaching in the adjoining school. Some of the Franciscans were famous professors and had written books. The communists asked them to remove their habits. The Franciscans refused. One angry soldier took the Crucifix and threw it on the floor. He said, “you can now choose either life or death.” Each of the Franciscans knelt down, embraced the Crucifix and said, “You are my God and my All.” The thirty Franciscans were taken out and slaughtered and their bodies burned in a nearby cave where their remains lay for many years. Today they are buried inside the Franciscan church. In our Gospel today Jesus said, “if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven.” The thirty Franciscan martyrs of Široki Brijeg are a powerful example of declaring oneself in the presence of others for Jesus. They lived something else Jesus also said in the Gospel, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” 
Witnessing to Jesus and following God’s way helps others who are lacking courage to follow Jesus. One of the soldiers in the firing squad at Široki Brijeg later said, “Since I was a child, in my family, I had always heard from my mother that God exists. To the contrary, Stalin, Lenin, Tito had always asserted and taught each one of us: there is no God. God does not exist! But when I stood in front of the martyrs of Široki Brijeg and I saw how those friars faced death, praying and blessing their persecutors, asking God forgive the faults of their executioners, it was then that I recalled to my mind the words of my mother and I thought that my mother was right: God exists!” That soldier converted and now he has a son a priest and a daughter a nun. As I said, witnessing to Jesus and following God’s way also helps others in the crowd who are lacking the courage to follow Jesus.
I would be remiss not to mention the sacrifice of the other friars in Herzegovina as well, some of whom were from Medjugorje.

The month of February in Herzegovina is somewhat a time of remembrance of the friars who were killed during and shortly after the Second World War. In Medjugorje on February 10is the Memorial Day of Blessed Alojzije Stepinac (the Croatian Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960), and the day when the local church remembers the deaths of Franciscan friars from the parish of Medjugorje: Friar Krizan Galic, Friar Jozo Bencun, Friar Marko Dragicevic, Friar Mariofil Sivric, Friar Grgo Vasilj and Friar Jenko Vasilj. 

On February 14, Holy Mass is celebrated for seven Franciscan friars killed in Mostar, of which three were from the parish of Medjugorje: Friar Jozo Bencun, Friar Grgo Vasilj, and Friar Bernardin Smoljan who built the cross on the Cross Mountain as a parish priest back in 1933.

As part of my continued honouring of all sixty-six Franciscan friars that this post is dedicated to, I have added a photo for the benefit of all Medjugorje pilgrims, and visitors to my blog, to see each individual friar. Please click on the photo to view it at a larger size.

The sixty-six Franciscan friars executed in Herzegovina during and shortly after WWII
Today the Herzegovinian Franciscan province is moving forward with a cause for the Church to declare the executed friars as martyrs, blessed or saints. This task is handled by the Martyrdom Procedure Vicepostulature committee (Fr. Leo Petrović and sixty-five brethren). The center of the Vicepostulature is in Široki Brijeg, and they are asking anyone who might know anything about the execution of the friars, including any mercy or miracle gained by their intercession, to come forward and contact them. Father Leo Petrović can be reached by email at mostar@pobijeni.info or by telephone at +387.39.700.325. You can visit the Vicepostulature's web site at www.pobijeni.info. Every seventh day of the month, a Holy Mass is celebrated for all those (including witnesses) who support the work of the Vicepostulature committee either by prayer or financially.

Put to the test of having to pay the ultimate sacrifice, the giving up of our lives, may we imitate these faithful friars who prior to their execution, embraced Jesus saying, "You are my God and my everything," and who after having forgiven and blessed their executioners, sang the Salve Regina or the Litany to Our Lady.

May the memory and sacrifice of these faithful friars never be forgotten.








2 comments:

  1. What a gorgeous and inspiring journey you have delivered to us by means of your blog. Thank you so much for sharing not only the pictures but the in-depth details which you have obviously spent so much time acquiring. I hope that you get even more journeys underneath your belt. Good luck to you and your expressions of faith.

    Carson Coronado @ Old St Marys Detroit

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank Carson for your kind words, affirming the good work God has accomplished through me with this blog, and the gift of a day trip to Široki Brijeg during my pilgrimage in Medjugorje.

      Your feedback is precisely what I hope to receive from readers, that in some way, spending time at my blog has been beneficial.

      I hope Our Lady inspires you to visit Medjugorje and Široki Brijeg: it will be time well spent!

      God bless you.

      Delete

Feel free to share your thoughts. Please keep in mind that any disrespectful and improper comments will not be posted.