Suffering and holy death

ENCOUNTER WITH SUFFERING Ivan encountered suffering already during the years of his youth. The first great pain he felt was the death of the girl to whom he was attracted and for whom he experienced his first ideal, youthful love. The tragedy of her loss left a deep trace in his soul in the sense of the breakage, but also of a revival, as he himself said in his diary. However, the most impressive of Ivan’s encounters with suffering happened during World War I at the front. It was specifically the war that contributed most to the deepening of Ivan’s views on life and to his understanding of the truthfulness of the Catholic faith, as shown in beautiful entries into his diary.

After the war, pain and suffering continued to entangle Ivan’s life, right to his death. The sickness of his eyes, in addition to his sinus trouble little by little damaged his health. In addition, Ivan suffered a great deal spiritually in connection with his work because of a lack of understanding of the part of those who could not understand his pioneering efforts for the introduction of Catholic Action into these parts, and who could not comprehend his love for the Church and Papacy. On two occasions they made Ivan so sad that he had to cry. One occasion was when they cut out his famous “Preface” of the “Golden Book”. However, his Preface, despite of such treatment brought fruit later on. Already we mentioned that Ivan always treated those who unjustly attacked him and often insulted him, clamly and with a great deal of Christian forgiveness. Ivan’s notes and letters show clearly how deeply he entered into the mystery of the cross and how well understood the value of suffering. Writing from Paris to his sick friend, D. Marosevic, Ivan encouraged him and tried to point out how valuable suffering could be. He was only 25 when he wrote the following lines:

“I know that it is hard to suffer, but some people have the vocation to suffer. We are the body of Christ in which the roles are distributed. Some must suffer to turn away God’s punishment that would otherwise pour into their neighbourhood. Huysmans would call these chosen ones mystic lightning rods. Has it ever occurred to you that you suffer for our movement? Have you offered your pain to the Lord Christ for out movement? Castholicism will not spread unless we have Those Who Work, Those Who Pray and Those Who Suffer. This is a law of the expansion of God’s Kingdom on earth. Our movement produced so far only the first type, those who work, and we have created in our souls the ideal worker for the Catholic Movement. We prayed less, and we suffered only when we had to. The last type is by all means the supreme degree – the imitation of the complete Sacrifice of the Saviour on the Cross. And I see a considerable number of sufferers already in our movement. Since there is no such thing as chance, I believe that tha plan of Providence is in our comprehension of this mystery from His life: to suffer for others.”

These profound words need no comment. It is evident how Ivan understood the essence of suffering. He often spoke also to other people, explaining to them the reason for their pain, as he did to a female schoolteacher who had told Ivan about her difficulties regarding her health, advising her, however, to take reasonable care to cure herself. But at the end, he added the following wonderful thoughts:

“If it is the Lord’s wish that despite of the medical treatment you still must suffer and not recover then you should put yourself into His hands – because not even the smallest bacillus can move without the presence and activity of the Lord. After all, you yourself know better than I that one can do more for the expansion of Jesus’s Kingdom by suffering than with hard work, scientific papers, splendid speeches or articles. If Jesus chose you to be an apostle in suffering, I am convinced that He will give you the strength too, so that with the cooperation of your will power you will carry out this apostolate well. Perhaps we cannot see the fruits of the pain with our earthly eyes but high up in God’s Heart it will be shown to us how many souls were saved by your suffering and to how many Catholic projects it brought blessings.”

Ivan not only gave beautiful advice about suffering but he himself had a deep, mature Christian attitude toward the cross as the notes made during his spiritual excercises in Paris in 1926 reveal:

“Fighting under the leadership of the crucified King I must be crucified till the end of my life. The Bride of Jesus was nailed to the cross throughout all the centuries – and I must be a partaker of this glorious crucifixion. A life without the cross – a comfortable one – should be the greatest shame for me. I must therefore be happy and consider the hard duties of my class that prevent me from sufficient study and work is the normal state of Jesus’s soldier. Decision: To carry out my duties conscientiously and to consider it my life’s cross; my daily crucifixion that brings blessing on the work of Catholic Action for the salvation of souls.”

Let us also mention that in addition to all suffering Ivan met in others during his lifetime, he himself had to put up with the lack on understanding of the part of his parents who just could not comprehend Ivan’s great enthusiasm for his apostolic work. It was hard on Ivan not to be able to share with them the religious life he experienced. In addition, his mother became gravely ill and had to stay in bed unable to move during the last few years of Ivan’s life. Only after Ivan’s death did his parents become practical believers as Ivan had been.

A SACRIFICE OF LIFE

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.

ZAGREB, 10th February, 1928 – Today, for the first time Mother consented to praying rosary together in our family. Tomorrow is the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. This is “her work”. But this is also why so many kinds of sickness had to find me, and now I must undergo this surgery of the nose unless the Holy Lady helps in another way.

ZAGREB, 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.

ZAGREB, 15th February 1928 – It is easy to receive Holy communion and to be a guest of the Lord every day. But oh, how bitter it is when one must bite and eat the hard wood of the holy cross. Today, again, they extracted a tooth.

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.

On 26th April Ivan underwent surgery at the Othorinolaryngologic Clinic on Draskoviceva Street in Zagreb (today this building houses an elementary school). 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.