Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Blessed Ivan Merz: living a life of sacrifice for the youth

In this section we wish to give an answer to the question asked by many people: Who, in fact, is Ivan Merz? You have probably already heard of him; maybe you have read something about him here and there. However, there is a lot in this unique young life that is beautiful, valuable and useful to know. The majority of Catholics of the older generation are well acquainted with the name of Ivan Merz. He was a friend and a model for many, and for many people his name even meant a program of life and work.
Ivan Merz did so much for the Church in Croatia and the sanctity of his life is so significant and attractive that he is the first layman in the 13-century history of Christianity of the Croats for whom the local Church has initiated proceedings to announce him blessed and saint.
We believe that the beauty of Ivan’s soul will attract you too: that you will also be inspired by the light of God’s mercy that was so obvious and present in Ivan’s life to such an extent that the former Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, justly called him:
a masterpiece of the Holy Spirit

Childhood and adolescence
Our Ivan was born on December 16th, 1896 in Banja Luka where his father was the chief of the railroad station. His father was also a military officer in the then Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. As an only child Ivan was from the beginning surrounded with great parental love. His father’s high status in society and secure financial position enabled Ivan to have a carefree and happy childhood. Ivan’s parents gave him a good middle-class upbringing. However, he was brought up without a Christian foundation.
Ivan grew up within a liberal atmosphere where the values of this world were rated highly while Christianity was considered a mere tradition, formality, and a sign of sociological belonging which did not interfere excessively with the everyday life of the upper middle-class Banja Luka society to which the Merz family belonged. Ivan received his basic religious knowledge in the religious classes which were at that time a part of the regular school curriculum for all grades until graduation.
As Ivan himself said, it was neither his family upbringing nor the official religious instructions in school that were responsible for his religious orientation but rather the example and influence of his secondary school teacher, Dr. Ljubomir Marakovic, a model Catholic layman. Ivan’s great interest in literature and art found a receptive ear with professor Marakovic who was his Croatian language teacher. Later during the higher grades of grammar school, Ivan also found a friend in professor Marakovic who directed him slowly, through art and literature, to moral and religious values. Later when mature, Ivan expressed the importance for him of this frinedship with professor Marakovic:
A Catholic layman has saved me for Eternity

The song of youth
There are few people even among the saints and those chosen by God whose spiritual development and ascent to God can be as closely followed as that of Ivan Merz. Ivan described each flicker of his young heart, each step of his ascent to the values of life and finally to God in his extensive diary which he started to write at 17. He was stimulated to write by his professor, Dr. Marakovic. Ivan continued to write his diary for eight years until his maturity. This precious document filled twenty notebooks and it's 800 pages when copied.
What was Ivan writing in his diary? He wrote about all that he experienced within him and around him. We can follow his day to day growth and development and how he struggled through his youthful crises, doubts and his search for a religious and moral sense. We can watch his preoccupation with serious life problems of honesty and righteousness and how he solved his problems with life and love in his Faustian search for truth. We sympathize with the tragic end of his youthful love, full of idealism. He was led by God’s tangible grace and little by little he found his way. His life principles crystallized and Ivan started to draw nearer at a quickened pace to the truths concerning the values of life. We see that God was filling more and more Ivan’s soul and his young heart. Later he would dedicate and present them completely to God amidst his zeal as he advanced towards maturity.
Within the pages of Ivan’s diary many young men recognized themselves. They found so much in common with him that they were given the courage and confidence not to become tired with their search for Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Love, which Ivan finally found realized in Jesus Christ.

Entering the world
At the army academy in Novo Mesto
Ivan wished to study art and literature. His parents, however did not agree with him and for their sake Ivan enrolled in the Military Academy at Wiener Neustadt. He endured only three months there, since he had neither the desire nor the talent necessary for a military career.
His short stay at the Academy was not worthless. Ivan had the opportunity to become acquainted with the reverse side of life, the moral poverty of people. His diary of those days is abundant with descriptions criticizing the vicinity in which he had to live, against which Ivan’s inborn correctly disposed nature complained spontaneously. One thing is particualrly evident: the world of faith, as opposed to the moral evil surrounding Ivan, attracted him more and more. Religious thoughts occupied an increasing space in his soul.

In the World War I
In February 1916 Ivan joined the Army. For eight weeks he was becoming used to military life at Lebring near Graz. From there he was taken to Graz and Slovenska Bistrica for further military training. After passing an officer’s exam he went to Seewiesen to attend a skiing course. As a cadet-aspirant in January 1917 he left with a group of soldiers, whom he had to lead for Bozen and Arsier. His mission was to take the group to the positions then to lead them back. He participated in all the battles on the Italian front, staying there till the end of the war.
How Ivan experienced the war and its horrors can ba best seen from his diary, which he succeeded in writing even on the front. However, one thing is clear: by watching “death in the eyes”, by being exposed to sufferings of all kinds, Ivan’s attitude of life had deepened. Doubts and hesitations vanished in Ivan’s encounters with suffering and death. Christian faith appeared to Ivan as the sole value that conquers all evil which he saw around and experienced. Christian faith was, from then on, to take the first place in Ivan’s soul, while the world of art remained in the background. Ivan’s great desire for holiness and Christian perfection continued to be present. Toward the end of the war Ivan wrote his father the following significant words:
I am grateful to God for participating in the war, because war taught me many things that I would not have conceived otherwise. I strongly wish to be free again and to arrange my life according to what I have realized is right.
Ivan’s entries into the diary are abundant with condemnations of the war. It cannot be seen anywhere, neither in his diary nor in his correspondence that he personally ever used arms, or that he sinned against the 5th Commandment. The war period is considered as one of the most interesting parts of his diary.

A flame for endless heights
The war was over. Ivan continued his studies in Vienna. His parents finally gave their consent and Ivan could study what he had wished for a long time: literature, Roman and German languages. His diary of this period shows no further traces of spiritual conflicts and crises. The war had a positive effect on the development of Ivan’s personality. Ivan was now firmly convinced in the truthfulness of faith and his soul was now ascending to God’s heights more and more. His interest for liturgy began during this period, after he had taken part in liturgical spiritual excercises. He also joined the Croatian Catholic students, members of the association called “Croatia”. He became one of the most active members, performing the duties of secretary. He himself gave lectures and talked with his colleagues about the best way for the preparation of apostolic work later in their home country. During one of the meetings he pronounced the well known words:
The base of our life must be our revival in Christ, all the rest will follow in line by itself.

In Paris
With the help of Fr. M. Vanino, SJ, a scholarship was granted to Ivan from France and in the fall of 1920 Ivan, together with two of his colleagues left for Paris where he pursued his studies at the Sorbonne and at the Catholic Institute for two years. Besides studies, Ivan collected material for the dissertation of his Phd which he would receive later in Zagreb. He took an active interest in Catholic life in France, keeping in contact with many Catholic intellectuals and converts. His two-year stay in Paris was a great cultural and spiritual enrichment for Ivan.
Ivan’s parents found out about his intense religious life and were not pleased. Thus a very interesting correspondence, already published in Ivan’s biographies, between Ivan and his mother developed. His mother wanted her son to live just like others, and in his letters Ivan explained in detail and justified his views, even wanting to encourage his parents to deepen their religious life. He warned them that life was short, that it was only a preparation for eternity and that accordingly, we have to do our best in preparing ourselves for eternal life. Among other things he sent his mother the following well known statement:
You know that university life in Vienna, the war, my studies and finally Lourdes have convinced me completely of the truthfulness of the Catholic faith and that my whole life, therefore, evolves around Christ the Lord.
In another letter Ivan wrote:
Catholic faith is my life vocation and it must be the same for each man, with no exceptions.
Only after Ivan's death Ivan’s parents realized fully what he had tried to make them during his lifetime: to become practical Catholic.

Sanctity of a life
Ivan finished his literary studies in Paris and came to Zagreb in the summer of 1922. In the meantime his parents had moved to Zagreb. The same fall he received employment as a teacher of French and German languagers at the Grammar School of the Diocese that was located in the building at Kaptol, where the Faculty of Theology was located for a long time later. This was to be his profession until the end of his life.
The following year, in 1923 he received his Phd at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Zagreb University with his dissertation about the influence of liturgy on French writers. He lived with his parents in the house called “Starcevicev dom” near the railroad station. Ivan lived there for 6 years. During this short period of time he did a great deal: he ploughed a deep furrow into the field of Croatian Catholicism. Like a meteor he flashed up in the sky of the Church in Croatia. But his light has not died out: it will shine permanently as a leading-star showing men a secure orientation in life.
From Paris, Ivan came with a clear sense that “Chatolic faith was his life vocation”, as he had written to his mother before departure. He came knowing what he wanted, with a whole spiritual program he wished to realize. Marica Stankovic, Ivan’s close associate in his work with young people, puts it best:
A new man appeared on our horizon. A man came for whom faith was not tradition but life, and who did not consider Catholic activities as a kind of sport but as a battle for immortal souls.
All Ivan’s free time was devoted to the education of Croatian youth in Catholic organizations, particularly in the Association of Croatian Eagles. Many of Ivan’s colleagues and active Catholics were also making sacrifices to the maximum in the field of the Catholic apostolate.
However, the appearance of Ivan Merz surpassed them all; he became a spiritual leader to all, even to his closest associates, a leader who introduced a new way of thinking, feeling and judging into contemporary Catholic public life.

Ivan in prayer
What was Ivan’s prayer life like in practice? The center of his relation to God was his daily Holy Mass and Holy Communion in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Even today there are people who remember Ivan going to the Jesuit church in Palmoticeva Street every morning at 6.30; they remember how Ivan prayed from his thick French-Latin Missale the Holy Mass, as he himself used to say. His ideal was to attend High Mass, conventual Mass that is celebrated the way contemplative orders celebrate it, but he very rarely had the opportunity to attend such Mass.
Ivan meditated for three quarters of an hour every day, as he stated in a survey. He particularly believed in the necessity of liturgic meditation on the text of the daily Mass each particular day. He himself meditated and recommended meditation to others.
The rosary was in his hands every day. He came to like it particularly after his visit to Lourdes. Ivan himself stated that it was after Lourdes that the rosary became his second best friend, his first best friend being the Eucharist. He used to pray the rosary while walking in the street, in various circumstances, even when it demanded considerable sacrifice like once in Rome when at two o’clock at night, after having seen his pilgrims to their lodgings, he found the energy to kneel down in front of his bed and pray. What he found in praying the rosary is evident from a piece of advice given to a girl:
When life is hard for you and when you meet with trouble, take the rosary of Our Lady and it will comfort you and give you strength to endure all in peace with a complete surrender to the Will of God.
One of Ivan’s close friends said:
Whoever found himself in church with Merz would feel, by watching him, the real presence of God. For he knelt in such complete humility, honour and with a heart that pointed to the presence of the holy, chaste, just, endless Deity in front of whom one must fall on knees offering one’s whole soul just like Ivan was doing.

Liturgy - the magic beauty
Liturgy occupied an extensive field of Ivan’s interest, it was his great and sacred “hobby”. Here we find ourselves confronted with one of the greatest paradoxes of Ivan’s life. In company with so many priests, monks and nuns Ivan, a young layman became one of the greatest promoters of liturgic revival in Croatia. What was it in liturgy that attracted and filled Ivan with so much enthusiasm that it completely occupied the interest of his spiritual world? The answer is found in his soul which longed to be united with God to a greater and greater extent, and this was achieved best through the official prayer of the Church, through liturgy.
In one of his articles Ivan gives three pieces of advice followed by a detailed development of the way liturgy leads to spiritual revival:
1. Read daily spiritual texts that would make liturgic texts more understandable.
2. Meditate daily on the basis of the Missal.
3. Receive Holy Communion at each mass attended.

The Eucharist – source of life
Ivan’s diary shows right from the beginning a special affection for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He accepted unsceptically and without discussion the belief of the Church in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As Ivan matured, the longing to take Holy Communion daily became more evident. He noted in his diary once: “Holy Communion is the source of life!” Upon his arrival in Zagreb Ivan organized his life in such a way that daily Holy Communion was part of his schedule. Even when travelling Ivan found the opportunity to receive Holy Communion.
“I spoke with the zeal I received from the most Holy Eucharist”, said Ivan after a lecture he had given at the Great Jamboree of Catholic Youth in Maribor in 1920.
His whole apostolate was inspired with this zeal, which was already evident to a great extent in the slogan Ivan gave to the organisation of the Eagles: “Sacrifice – Eucharist – Apostolate”. These three words contain a whole program realized first by Ivan and then followed by many others. Today these words are engraved in the marble panel on his grave.
These lines as well as many others of Ivan’s writings indicate the fire burning in Ivan’s heart whenever the question of the Eucharist arises; therefore it is not surprising that the flame has spread over so many young people and adults who contacted Ivan.

With Mary to Jesus
We know from Ivan’s diary that the Blessed Virgin Mary played quite a definite role in his life. He mentioned her already in the first part of his diary, directing sincere and touching prayers to her and calling on her to guard, protect and help him in life, to keep him from moral evil, and to preserve the purity of his heart. Little by little, his ideal of women found its complete fulfillment in Mary, in whom he found the concentration of all that is exalted. At the age of 19 Ivan already made a vow of chastity before marriage. Concerning this vow he made the following entry into his diary on 12 December 1915:
I made a vow of chastity before marriage to the Blessed Virgin the other day. Maybe it will last till I die.
It can be concluded that this happened on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. Ivan was not wrong suspecting that the vow was for a whole lifetime. Eight years later he actually took a vow of eternal chastity also on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, thus devoting his whole being to the divine love through which he was to give himself away to so many of his brothers and sisters in faith.

A path to the eternity
A sacrifice of life for croatian youth
Ivan’s eyesight was bad since his childhood. Later teeth problems were added to it. Sickness constantly followed him, fettering the ardor he had for study and work. In the last year of his life he was seriously ill. He had an accute inflamation of the mandibular cavity and he had to undergo surgery. During the last few months of his life Ivan made a few significant entries into his diary which he had stopped writing regularly already during his studies in Paris. These last thoughts tell us a great deal about the state of his mind and of the mood he was in before departure from this world.

21st January 1928 – Let everything be in honour of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
13th February 1928 – There is a great enough cross on us. I have an acute purulent inflamation of the mandibular cavity. Today they extracted another tooth. Mother is in great pain. However, I see that she prays quite gladly. Last night we took something like a vow that we will, whenever circumstances permit, always pray the rosary together. Strange: this suffering of ours seems to have performed miracles in my mother who now prays even the rosary quite easily. She personally told me that she said hundreds of Our Fathers and Hail Marys today. This is an empirical proof that suffering is the strongest means for the salvation and enlightenment of the soul. Happy are the souls who accept every pain from the Lord’s hands gladly and, in union with Jesus, make it a sacrifice for the expansion of Jesus’s Church in souls and society.
The sickness developed to such an extent that Ivan had to undergo surgery. Before the operation Ivan visited his spiritual leader, Fr. Vrbanek, a Jesuit who later described this important and significant conversation in Ivan’s biography. Ivan had come to him fully conscious that he was to die and that God requested from him the sacrifice of his life for the benefit of the young people Ivan had been working with. Fr. Vrbanek could only do his best to encourage and comfort him. Rememering the words of the Gospel about the seed that must fall into the earth in order to bear fruit Ivan said goodbye to his confessor with the following words:
Yes, I have been convinced of this for a long time: one must sacrifice! I am ready!!
And truly, Ivan was spiritually completely prepared to face God. The day before he was to go to the clinic he arranged for all his belongings and wrote his last will. Actually, this was the text of the inscription he wanted to be engraved on his tombstone, written in Latin and was found in the drawer of his desk after his death. The English translation follows:
Died in the peace of the Catholic faith. My life was Christ and death was my gain. I am expecting the mercy of the Lord and I am in undivided, complete eternal possesion of the Most Sacred Hearth of Jesus. I.M. happy in peace and joy. My soul is reaching the goal for which it was created. In God the Lord.
Reading the above words, one maintains a deep impression of admiration. Ivan was going out to meet death, to meet eternity with a peaceful soul, without fear or uncertainty, convinced that he would achieve the eternal love that he had devoted his whole young life to. This was a solemn finale of a wonderful life, the last testimony and confession of his deep and sincere faith that was his life vocation. He had fulfilled this vocation conscientiously.

Last days of his life
On 26th April Ivan underwent surgery at the Othorinolaryngologic Clinic on Draskoviceva Street in Zagreb (today this building houses an elementary school named after him). Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful. Ivan developed meningitis of which he was slowly dying. On Sunday, 6th May his confessor, Fr. Vrbanek administered the Last Sacrament to him. Ivan was conscious, but he could no longer speak. After the ceremony Fr. Vrbanek, guessing what Ivan was thinking, reminded him of their last conversation about the sacrifice of life. “You are sacrificing your life for the Croatian Eagles, aren’t you?” Ivan looked at him cheerfully, his big eyes lit up and since he was unable to speak he just nodded in confirmation.
On 9th May, Ivan received a telegram from Rome in which the Holy Father sent his blessing to Ivan. Thus Ivan, who during his lifetime had loved and respected Christ’s Deputy, received this rare consolation in his last moments. He was still conscious when they told him the news. The next day, Thursday, 10th May, 1928 before noon, in the presence of his father and closest friends, Ivan entered into the eternal joy of Christ’s Kingdom. Dr. D. Kniewald, who was present at Ivan’s death, described Ivan’s last moments as follows:
Ivan’s breathing was slowing down and weakening gradually; he was lying peacefully, with his eyes closed. At one moment he opened widely his large eyes out of which a tear of death dropped. His eyes were directed somewhere high up and far away; they were peaceful, confident, sure; one more sigh, one more little, hardly noticeable jerk and Dr. Ivan Merz have
given his noble soul over to the Almighty.
The news that Ivan had departed for the eternal life spread all over Zagreb and then all over Croatia with the speed of lightning. That same forenoon after Ivan’s death the bells of the Zagreb cathedral announced Ivan's death. It was exception because the bells usually only toll to announce the death of a bishop. This alone proves how the Church respected Ivan and his work already at that time.
We all felt not that something terrible but rather that something great happened when Dr Ivan Merz died. We were all under the impression that he sacrificed his life for some cause – said his friends.
It is not necessary to mention the deep pain Ivan’s parents felt, who lost their only son and support in their old age. Ivan’s friends and associates, as well as all Croatian, Bosnian and Dalmatian youth, whose ideal leader Ivan had been, were deeply shaken.
The Catholic city of Zagreb gathered together on Sunday, 13 th May, at the Mirogoj cemetery. They were joined by numerous delegates of various Catholic organizations from all over Croatia. It was estimated that some 5000 people attended the funeral. The burial ceremonies were led by Bishop Dr. D. Premus. Judging by the number and respectability of the people who attended the funeral there had not been such an occasion since the death of Bishop Lang. It was a very solemn, formal occurance with numerous speaches; and Ivan’s remains were buried for eternal rest at the Mirogoj Cemetery with music and singing. In 1977 Ivan’s body was exhumed and placed in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Zagreb, which church he had regularly visited during his lifetime.

Ivan Merz was Solemnly Beatified by Pope John Paul II Last June 22, 2003, in Bosnia.

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***For More Information about Blessed Ivan Merz, feel free to contact the Confraternity of the Catholic Saints, the official promoter of Blessed Alberto Marvelli and Blessed Ivan Merz in the Philippines.
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Blessed Ivan Merz, Pray for Us!!!

For God's Greater Glory!!! Amen.

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