Bl. Ivan Merz (1896 - 1928) is a modern Croatian saint who is probably unfamiliar to you. He died less than one hundred years ago, and he continues to have an impact on the world he left behind to be with His savior.
Ivan was born on December 16, 1896 in Banja Luka which is in Bosnia. At the time of his birth, his hometown was part of the Austro-Hungary Empire (which would soon be ruled by another saint--Bl. Charles of Hapsburg). His hometown was diverse in its religion and ethnicity, and Ivan was educated in that environment. Ivan completed his high school education about the time that the crown prince Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 which was the catalyst for World War I.
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The War Years
At his parents' insistence, after high school, Ivan headed off to a military academy near Vienna. However, the life of the students there was repulsive to him, and he left after three months. Ivan, instead, enrolled at the university at Vienna in 1915. His studies lasted about a year until he was called up to the military to prepare to fight.
After his basic training, Ivan was sent to the Italian front where he served throughout most of 1917 and 1918. Never suited to be a soldier, Ivan nevertheless served honorably but noted the awful conditions that men found themselves in due to war. It was an emotional and spiritual battle as much as a physical one. Throughout the time, he clung to his faith although he would often go long stretches of time without access to the sacraments.
At the war's end, he was back in his hometown of Banja Luka where he lived through the political turmoil as the new nation of Yugoslavia was born. Eager to continue his studies, Ivan returned to Vienna where he concentrated his education on philosophy.
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Earning His Doctorate and Serving the Youth
From Vienna, in 1820, he went to Paris where he continued his education at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, he took classes and also began working on his doctoral thesis which focused on the influence of the liturgy on certain French authors. In 1923, he earned his doctorate after he successfully defended his dissertation at the University of Zagreb. After completing a state exam, Ivan was qualified to teach French and German language and literature, and he accepted a teaching position at the archiepiscopal high school of Zagreb. Ivan would teach at this school until his death five years later.
In addition to teaching at the high school, during those five years, Ivan spent all of his free time helping Croatian youth grow in the faith through education, liturgical renewal, and supporting the organization Catholic Action. Ivan was a co-founder of the League of Eagles which was geared toward the growth and formation of young people in the Catholic Faith with a goal of holiness.
As an educator, Ivan thoughtfully prepared the lessons which would be taught in order that the young people would be taught the fullness of the faith. In addition, he wrote pamphlets and books to help with this effort. Ivan was a staunch defender of the Church and the Papacy, and he was keen to pass on to the young men and women that same deep love and respect for Christ' Church and His representative on earth.
Ivan died of meningitis on May 10, 1928. He had suffered for many months prior to his death, and Ivan had offered up that suffering for benefit of the young people of Croatia. Shortly before his death, he wrote these words which became the epitaph for his grave:
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 possession of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. I am happy in peace and joy. My soul is reaching the goal for which it was created. In God the Lord.
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Prepared to Defend the Church
One event from late in his short life shows Ivan's fidelity to the Church. There is a splinter group from the Catholic Church known as the Old Catholics. In 1926, in Stenjevac which was in the diocese of Zagreb, the Old Catholics were demanding to be able to us the parish church of Our Lady of the Assumption to celebrate their liturgy. The bishop had not given permission to do this and there were even laws in place which prevented this from happening. Nonetheless, the members of the Old Catholic church were prepared to force the issue and made a plan to celebrate a liturgy on November 21, 1926.
When Ivan heard about this plan, he gathered together about thirty young men from the Eagles and arrived early in the morning to guard the church from being forcibly occupied and used by a non-Catholic group. When the Old Catholics arrived, they were surprised to find it guarded by Ivan and the young men. Some of the young men in the Eagles were physically attacked and Ivan and others were spat upon. However, it became clear to the Old Catholics that these Roman Catholics were not going to budge so they left.
Ivan, himself, made it clear how strongly he felt about the matter when he wrote that he was prepared to give his life in defense of the Church and the Church not being desecrated by being forcibly used by non-Catholics. He had told the attackers, "You can enter this Catholic church only over our dead bodies."
The parish priest was grateful for the help of the young men and asked Ivan might be done for the expiation of the attempted desecration of the church. Ivan proposed that the next Sunday be devoted to adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The parish priest agreed, and the next Sunday all day, outside of mass, the Lord was exposed in the Blessed Sacrament, and many came to adore him. Ivan, himself, spent several hours before the Lord.
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Learn More About Bl. Ivan Merz
You can learn more about Bl. Ivan Merz at the official website. There is also a great documentary, with English subtitles, which you might enjoy.
His feast day is May 10. (Memorial)