Apostolate of Ivan

HEIRS OF THE APOSTLES This survey of Ivan’s life would be incomplete without at least a short mention of Ivan’s relationship with other members of the Church hierarchy, bishops and priests. Just as Ivan’s love started with the pope, it expanded over all the representatives of Christ’s ministerial priesthood: bishops and priests.

As Secretary and Vice President of the Association of Croatian Eagles, Ivan was in constant communication with many bishops. His neatly arranged archives, in which there was a separate file for each diocese wherever there was a society of Eagles, represents valuable documentation for the knowledge of Ivan’s relationship with the representatives of the Church hierarchy. Many of the bishops had a particular respect for Ivan: the Archbishop of Sarajevo, I. Saric, the Bishop of Krk, Srebrenic, the Bishop of Sibenik, Mileta, and others. What a bishop meant to Ivan is evident from his following statement:

“Bishops are in their dioceses official, authenitic teachers. Therefore, we are not listening to the bishop because he has great knowledge or possesses powerful proof, but because he teaches the teachings of the Church with authority and because he was appointed by the Holy Father directly, and by Christ Himself indirectly to teach us, with this power given to him by Christ and the Pope, and to govern the whole of Catholic life and work.”

In another article Ivan explicitly claimed that “it was better for work for an organization or an action not to exist at all than to exist past or against the bishops.” His detailed study, “Church Authority” published in “Vrhbosna” in three installments, indicates how much he wished to introduce into our Catholic public the correct sense of the role the Church hierarchy had in the life and work of the Church.

Both in the service of the Archdiocesan Grammar School as a teacher and in his work in the Association of Croatian Eagles Ivan was in communication with many priests. Not only did he value and respect the dignity of the priesthood highly, but with his work and efforts he also tried to help priests to engage solely in the spiritual vocation they had received from Christ. His efforts to make priests in the organizations of the Eagles to be spiritual leaders, and not just regular members equal with other members, are particularly praisworthy. In the famous Foreword to the “Golden Book” that is considered to bi his apostolic program, Ivan defined the role of a priest as follows:

“Young people are convinced that a priest has the first and the most important role in the expanding of the Kingdom of God, and that lay people should join him; they must become his assistansts. The aim of this edition of the ‘Golden Book’ is to return priests to the dignified place which Jesus’s disciples are entitled to.”

Ivan was a friend to many priests, he was close to many of them, and for many of them he was a model. What Ivan meant for some priests is evident from their written statements. One of them writes: “He was not only a friend to me but I also considered him as my spiritual guide.” Perhaps the most touching testimony is that of Dr. D. Kniewald. After Ivan had left for another, better life, Dr. Kniewald wrote:

“The one who had been, for such a long time, maybe the only person who understood me and whom I understood is gone…During the last days of his life I tried, by visiting him and giving him attention, to repay what he had endebted me with through his extraordinary influence on me, and especially this year by giving me his hand of confidence, by praying and suffering for me. He spoke little of himself, but he told me that he had been kneeling in prayer for me in front of the Lord for a full hour, and that I was the first person after the Pope he prays for.”

Another priest to whom Ivan gave consolation by being the first to protect him when he had been unjustly libelled, called Ivan a “consoling angel” for what the good Ivan had done for him when he had been suffering most. Ivan had much understanding for priests and he never allowed anyone to speak badly of them in his presence.

Finally let us mention the well written article “Priest in Civilan Clothes” in which the writer tells all that Ivan had done for the clergy.Not only did he contribute with his work to the correct understanding of priestly dignity and vocation, but he also carried out eminent priestly functions by becoming a spiritual guide to many young people. He aroused in them a sense of sacrifice not only by giving them the slogan “Sacrifice – Eucharist – Apostolate” but also by setting a good example with his own life. The writer continues:

“His activity has also a direct influence on our clergy. We should mention in the first place all those numerous vocations growing out of the encouragement he had been pouring into the organizations of Catholic youth as well as his example that irresistible attracted young people which directed them to higher goals in life, leading them thus to the priesthood. And were there not many priests even who, having met Dr. Marz or having read his biography, felt a new stimulus for a deeper experience of the priestly ideal… He has always been and will always be a great ideal for Catholic laymen, but for priests also his person and his work mean the emphasis of correct comprehension of the vocation of a priest.”

Let us also say that, at the 10th anniversary of Ivan’s death, his influence was credited for the awakening thirty callings, as it was pointed out at the formal academy held on this occasion. Dr. Djuro Gracanin, a well known Croatian priest, writer and publicist, himself attributed to Ivan’s encouragement during his studies in Paris that he had left the study of economics for the study of theology and became, as it is widely known, a very worthy priest.


At the beginning of the 20th century Antun Mahnic, the Bishop of Krk initiated a wide movement in Catholic intellectual circles which he called the Catholic Movement. The aim of this movement was to oppose the liberalism increasingly penetrating Croatia from European countries, which was pushing out faith and its values from public life. The movement gathered, first of all, enthusiastic young Catholics who wished to do something for the Church and their people, and then little by little adult intellectuals found their places in it.

Ivan considered himself a member of this movement together with his colleagues already during his student days. During his stay in Vienna and Paris he contacted many Catholic organizations studying their regulations, their work, their methods. Together with his colleagues in Vienna, Ivan revived “Croatia”, a society gathering Croatian students who were preparing for their later work in their home country.

Upon arrival in Zagreb Ivan immediately joined the activities of the Catholic Movement and already in the fall of 1922 he was elected President of the then existing Association of Croatian Catholic Youth which was to unite with the Movement of Eagles the next year to form the Association of Croatian Eagles. In the new organization, of which Ivan was one of the founders, he was to hold the office of secretary and vice president till the end of his life. The president of the Association was Dr. Ivo Protulipac, a lawyer (he was killed in 1946 in Trieste where he is buried). Among the most significant members of the Presidency of the Eagles’ organization was also Dr. Avelin Cepulic, a young physician, a great benefactor of the Zagreb poor. He died in 1936.

The goal of the Eagles’ organization was the religious, intellectual, moral and physical upbringing of young people. The most noticeable thing about the external activities of the Eagles was their gymnastic activity with public performances, jamborees and with other manifestations. Thanks to Ivan’s great efforts the Organization developed strong religious-cultural dimensions. This was evident, in the first place, in the slogan accepted at Ivan’s suggestion at the founding assembly as the leading idea of the Organization itself: Sacrifice – Eucharist – Apostolate. Ivan introduced new ideas also in the handbook of the organization, called “The Golden Book”, written by Ivan on the basis of the Slovene original: love and devotion for the Church and for Christ’s Deputy. However, Ivan’s greatest merit consists in the fact that he introduced into the Eagles’ organization the ideas of Catholic Action that had been started by the Pope Pius XI, thus directing the whole Organization to the Church and to co-operation in apostolic work with its hierarchy.

Young Eagles performing rhythmic exercises in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Zagreb.

Ivan built into the Association of Eagles, with its headquaters at today’s British Square, all his apostolic efforts. The Association of Eagles had numerous branches all over the country and gathered together many catholic young people.

Of male members alone the total number was 8.000. Let us emphasize that the Association was only one branch of the vast Catholic Movement that included various Cahtolic-aimed organizations.

Ivan had a great deal of work as secretary and vice president. His extensive archives testify to the great effors he made in order to have the organization perform work in the true catholic spirit. He attended meetings, lead deatailed correspondence, composed lectures, visited branches of the organization in various cities, himself giving lectures, most frequently about Rome, the Papacy, Lourdes, Catholic Action and other religious themes. He clearly defined his understanding of the Eagles’ Society in his article “Croatian Eagleship“:

“Croatian Eagleship is not only a gymnastic organization, but it is also a Catholic enlightening youth movement that has physical education of young people as part of its program, but that also carries out the directives that the Holy Seat gives to the so called Catholic Action to the last dot.”

Let us also point out that Ivan made special efforts to save the Eagles from becoming involved in political activities and party work. As an organization it was meant to be purely Church -orientated, open to all young people regardless of their political convictions, but it was not meant to be politically active. Political activity, according to Ivan, had to appear outside of the Organization because within it was to be the place where young people would receive solely cultural and religious education as well as a correct orientation in life. Wa are quoting another of Ivan’s significant texts testifying to the orientation Ivan wished to give young Eagles in their organization. After the return of the Eagles from a pilgrimage to Rome Ivan described his impression in the “Catholic Weekly”. Let us just note that the Holy Father received a group of young men, about 100, in a special audience and delivered to them a great speech that was considered, up to recent times, the longest speech a pope ever gave to Croats. Ivan wrote:

“The Pope! We saw his white figure, kissed his holy hand, and, out of love for the visible Christ we were ready – with the grace of God – to give him over without limits our whole existence… And when in his speech the Holy Father gave to us Eagles directives for our work, we felt all the greatness and significance of the Papacy. We realized: if the Eagles want to remain in the fore front and be a correct movement within the wider range of all possible movements within the Holy Church, it must become a papal movement. The Eucharist and the Pope must be the roots, the source and beginning of the Eagles’ movement. The Eucharist and the Pope should be presented to our nation. And when the Eagles succeed to make these two ideas queen of the Croatian soul, then we can say with a peaceful heart with St. Paul: I have fought a just fight. This is the sole and strongest basis without which all work is doomed to chaos. Well, the Eagles realized this again during their pilgrimage to Rome.”

The youth contacting Ivan day after day did not only regard him as their apostle and leader in ideas, but also as a true, genuine friend to everybody who was ready to do anything for young people, directing them to the right path. Whether it was a case of giving advice or financial assistance, or finding employment for someone, giving instructions or even lending someone the use of his own bed while he would be happy to spend the night sleeping on the floor, his door and his heart were open to all. Numerous young men and girls of his time, now advanced in their age, mention with gratitude his advice, his help and efforts made to direct them to the true values of life.

Finally let us note that the Eagles’ Association, like other organizations became a victim of the 6th January Dictatorship. In 1929, one year after Ivan’s death, the Government in Belgrade prohibited the organization. Thousands of young boy and girl Eagles joined newly founded societies of prayer apostolate and continued to bring to life Ivan’s spiritual heritage and his apostolic program.


In 1922 Pope Pius XI published his encyclical “UBI ARCANO DEI” about Caholic Action, calling on lay people to join the Bishops and priests in the apostolate of the Church in the preaching of the Gospel. He was urged to do so by the needs of the time on the one hand and by the readiness of so many lay people to do something for the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom on the other.

As an eager student of papal documents, Ivan started studying the encyclical and carrying out the Pope’s wishes. Ivan was truly the first to introduce the Pope’s ideas about Catholic Action to the Croatian public. His efforts were not without hard work and difficulties, but in time they did bring results.

Ivan wrote about 17 studies and articles about the Catholic Action as well as a brochure.His writing was nothing but the explanation of the Pope’s decrees, accompanied with his comments with special emphasis on a complete loyalty to the Church and its teachings. Ivan considered Catholic Action to be the work of the Holy Spirit, awakening the Church “to bring back to the Church the nations that had once been Christian and which fell to paganism again.” It was a matter of the establishment of such a social order that would make the salvation of souls possible. Ivan did not found a separate Catholic Action organization, but rather introduced its ideas into the already existing Association of Croatian Eagles and orientated the whole organization to a co-operation with the hierarchical apostolate of the Church.

Rome pilgrimage of the Eagles in 1925. Dr. I. Merz is to the right from the cross.

In addition to the papal encyclical, Ivan was given great encouragement and stimulus for putting the ideas of Catholic Action into life by the clear attitude of the Yugoslav Diocese in its pastoral letters in 1923 and 1925, the first one calling, first of all, upon the clergy to put Catholic Action into effect according to the wishes of Pope Pius XI, and the second addressing all the faithful with the same request.

In addition, when Pope Pius XI himself received the Croatian Eagles at a special audience on 18th September, 1925, he specially called upon them to be “enthusiastic for Catholic Action which the Pope expects to be total in the revival of individuals, families, society and the whole world.“

Ivan’s writings clearly show that he was not making Catholic Action an absolute. He pointed out its relativity and emphasized its role in the definite contemporary historical moment in which the Church found itself. Once Catholic Action fulfills its task, other forms of the apostolate will appear. Nowadays this is gradually being realized and in certain countries Catholic Action is giving field to other movements and other forms of the apostolate, although in other countries Catholic Action is still strong. In Italy, for instance, it numbers 800.000 members.

We must not forget that the Second Vatican Council specifically mentions only Catholic Action out of the various other movements that brought fruit abundantly for Christ’s Kingdom in the past. The Council even recommends its continuation since organizations of this kind are in many countries still the most appropriate form of the apostolate of the Church (AA,20). With this statement of the Council all Ivan’s pioneering efforts for the introduction of Cahtolic Action in these parts received acknowledgement and justification.


Right after the foundation of the Association of the Croatian Eagles in the framework of the Catholic movement Ivan Merz was given the duty to prepare the fundamental handbook of the organization for the purpose of the ideological and spiritual development of its members. In fact it was based on the translation of the already existing “Golden Book” which had been used by the Eagles of Slovenia, from where this movement came to us, but which, in fact, originated in Czechoslovakia. Ivan was not satisfied only to translate the book. Rather he supplemented it with many new ideas in the sense of the religious and Church orientation. Ivan particularly wanted to introduce the fundamental ideas about Catholic Action towards which he wanted to direct the eagle’s organization. Ivan pointed out such news in the Introduction of the book which is considered to be the “Magna Charta” of his Apostolate, his apostolic program which would be carried out in detail by him with hard work and much striving. Unfortunately, the introduction was not published in the Golden Book in that form. The people who had not yet accepted the ideas of Catholic Action as Ivan tried to carry them out based on the Papal documents, rejected the Introduction and other references concerning faithfullness to the Church and Pope which Ivan added while the book was being printed. That added to the value of the Introduction and made it more interesting. Ivan published it himself four years later, but only partly; and later it was being published in his biographies.

The first thing to notice upon reading Ivan’s apostolic program is the enthusiasm which springs from Ivan’s soul for faith, for Christ, and for the Church. This enthusiasm, combined with a deep conviction in the truthfulness of his writings, is contagious and it passes spontaneously to the reader who himself becomes inspired towards those horizons that Ivan shows. The basic ideas that Ivan presents in his program are: the development of spiritual life, the importance of the Eucharist, enthusiastic love toward the Church, cooperation with bishops and priests, carrying out the Pope’s directions regarding Catholic Action, religious duties of the members of the Eagles’ organization.

Right at the beginning of the Introduction, Ivan points out that Slovene original of the Golden Book, which was written by F. Terseglav in 1910, aimed at applying the eternal postulates of the Catholic Church to the Slovene circumstances. Those postulates were Terseglav’s guarantee that with the book prepared in such a way he would raise up more generations of conscious Slovene Catholics. After the Introduction Ivan continues:

“Still, many will question themselves and wonder why we dared to add to that book or rewrite it. The main reason for that is that since 1910. in fact, since the publishment of this book, organized Catholic Action has developed in a particularly magnificent way and that this glorious life of the Catholic Church left deep traces on our youth.

The most recent Catholic generation took one more step. It has already been reached by the waves of the waters that spring from the enetrnal Rome in 1905 when the late Pope Pius X published a decree about the frequent and daily Holy Eucharist. Young people have an ardent love towards our Saviour who is always with them in the most Holy Eucharist; this is where they gain their strength for their actions and apostolate. While the older generation had to affirm Christianity in an intelectual and apologetic way and showed great courage in stopping the outburst of liberalism, the new generation is calmer; it is in continuous and intimate touch with Jesus, who reigns and governs in their souls.

The ardent love of the youth towards the Holy Church, Jesus’ immaculate bride and its bishops and priests has something to do with it. They are convinced that the priest is given the first and the most important role in the spreading of the Kingdom of God, and that the laymen must join them; they must become their helpers. That’s why we can notice among other nations that the best members of the Catholic youth organizations entered the seminary. It seems that this spirit is going to take over in this country, too. In fact, this edition of the “Golden Book” had the intention of returning to the priest that dignified position of a Christ’s disciple.

It can be seen in this book that the youth has its eyes directed towards Rome, where the lighthouse that enlightens all the earth is placed. From Rome itself have recently come the directions that count upon Catholic Action as a fact and which in a very precise way determine its role.

Therefore, by writing the Golden Book we have taken into consideration mostly the instructions given to Catholic Action, particularly to the youth movement by the last popes. Accordingly, Catholic Action includes: related organized Catholic powers for guarding, applying and defending Catholic principles in individual, family and social life. As for the organized Catholic youth, the Holy Father Pius XI – the Pope of Catholic Action – clearly expressed that it must aspire mostly to achieve its own religious, intellectual, cultural and social education. The Catholic youth movement must take care of the education of the elite, of the education of the apostles. Associations of Catholic youth must for the listening Church – Ecclesiae audienti – be true seminaries, in which assistants are bred essentially for the teaching Church – Ecclesiae docenti.

All this makes it understandable that today we have by far greater requirements from our youth than we could have had thirty years ago. Terefore, we have defined completely in detail what are the religious duties of an Eagle, how many times he has to receive Holy Communion, what his relationship to the Holy Church and its officials must be. While the older generation emphasized love for God and tha nation more strongly, in the young this love for God has received a more concrete form of love for Jesus in the Eucharist, and love for the nation they want to subordinate to love for the Holy Church.

May the good God let the “Golden Book” in this form educate an army of apostles, an army of saints, so that the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus can encircle as large a number of our brothers as possible with his divine embrace.”

When these lines have been read, a clear picture of Ivan’s apostolistic soul emerges, a picture of all that he wanted and succeded to carry out. Many of the young with whom Ivan used to work had accepted this program and their work for the Church and for the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom brought beautiful fruit.


A whole teaching could be composed out of the multitude of data contained in Ivan’s writings, a teaching that Ivan followed in his work with the young. We must be satisfied with listing here only those that form his basic principles and the methods according to which he worked.

Supernatural eschatological values occupy the first place in Ivan’s work. Everything is directed to the salvation of souls, to eternal good, and to the final goal of man which was determined by God for him. Ivan expressed this basic, final goal of his educational work in many ways. We are quoting here only one of his definitions. According to him, every Catholic organization as well as every educational work aim “to unite as large a number of people in the world as possible with the Eucharistic Jesus, so that as large a number as possible will be resurrected and united with him inseparably in eternity.”

In order to reach this aim, Ivan saw three phases. These indirect aims are: unity with the Church and is hierarchy; the formation of a whole human being and a mature Christian in each young person; and the third, that young people thus formed should become the apostles of Christ’s Kingdom and work on the expansion of the Kingdom in the souls of their neighbours.

The topics Ivan discussed in his work are theologic-ecclesiastic on one hand, that is, everything in connection with the deepening of faith and its truths. On the other hand, Ivan worked on many contemporary problems of morality in the light of the teachings of the Church.

The means and methods Ivan used in his educational work were not particularly novel. He applied to the last detail all that the Church recommended and gave at his disposal, both in spiritual formation and in the field of practical work in all other fields, the extent of the presence of the Church in Ivan’s life can be seen, how faithful he was to its teachings and to everything the Church requested from those who wished to engage in the field of Catholic education. And it is not without reason that today the words “Faithful Son of the Catholic Church” are engraved above Ivan’s name on his tombstone.