Through Church to Christ

CHRIST’S KINGDOM At the age of 22 Ivan already had a clear vision of the world, reality and human activity. While art and religion were fighting a spiritual battle for precedence in him, Ivan noticed and selected the basic from that which is not essential. On April 9th, 1918 he noted in his diary: “True, literature is not everything. Literature and art are only details in this great work – the Kingdom of God. The ploughman following his plough, the shoemaker, the butcher, the lawyer and the guard, they are all labourers on this great building. The question is not so much how much has been done but rather how it has been done. All professions are of equal value before God, but the work must be done according to His wishes.” And the vision of the goal to which all reality is aimed, all human activity and history – God’s Kingdom – became clearer and clearer to Ivan, but he also realized better and better what his role and place were in the work on the expansion of this Kingdom in human hearts.

For some time Ivan considered the possibility of becoming a monk and entering into the Jesuit Order. But he was not quite sure whather God was really calling him there.In order fo find out what God’s will was, he undertook three days of spiritual exercises in the fall of 1923. On the third day Ivan clearly realized that God wanted him to stay in the world and to work for his Kingdom as a layman. He left interesting notes form these spiritual exercises, which showed how Ivan sincerely tried to find the will of God and how ready he was to follow it when he discovered it. During the same excercises Ivan also decided to take permanent vows of chastity; this he did a month later on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. With this act Ivan gave himself over completely to the service of God and to work for his Kingdom.

In Ivan’s writings we often encounter the idea of God’s Kingdom, i.e. the Kingdom of Christ, which is one and the same reality. Jesus came into the world in order to establish God’s Kingdom and if one reads the Gospel carefully, one notices that this was the central theme of his teaching and of his coming into the world. God’s Kingdom is realized in Jesus Christ and in his Church. This fact fascinated Ivan to such an extent and made him so enthusiastic that he left behind all his personal aspirations for success, prosperity, worldy fame and went after this valuable pearl which he had found.

There are five basic ideas about Christ’s Kingdom around which Ivan’s numerous statements and notes on this subject can be classified: Christ the King must rule in our souls, families, society. The Kingdom of Christ is present in all reality and everything must be aimed to it as the final goal. The Kingdom of Christ is in the closest connection with the Church, because the Pope and the bishops are giving directions as to how to build and expand the Kingdom in the quickest way. Christ the King is present around us in the Most Holy Eucharist. We have all been invited to co-operate in the realization and expansion of the Kingdom.

We present just a few excerpts. As some of these notes were meant for young people in the organization of Eagles we often encounter the name “Eagle”:

“The task of the Eagles is to put all the details of our people’s lives into the service of Christ’s Kingdom, for which the world was created and for which we also are living.

All human activity must be based on love; based on the apostolate, and aimed at the expansion of God’s Kingdom among people.

How can it be achieved that Christ becomes the King of our souls? To do this one must teach the Catholic truths and live according to them, renew daily meditation, especially based on holy Liturgy.

Who is going to give us directions for the building of this Kingdom? No, doubt, the Church is. Revival of human society is impossible without the great principles given to us constantly by the Holy Seat and our bishops.

The King of the Eagles is in our churches, in the Tabernacle. The most Holy Eucharist is our King. Our King is motionless in Holy Communion, but Eagles are His body, His arms and legs – and they carry out those sublime works of the apostolate which their glorious Eucharistic King sends in the solitude and quiet of their hearts.

Co-operation with God! Missionaries, heroes, martyrs, artists co-operate with God spreading the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, artisans and artists create practical and beautiful works carrying out the will of God. All of us are called to cooperate with God, this is the meaning of life for individuals throughout the whole history of mankind.”

Ivan received much encouragement for the further deepening of this basic truth of faith in 1925 when the Encyclical of Pope Pius XI about Christ the King was published and the feast of Christ the King was introduced into the Church’s liturgical year. All these ideas of Ivan, as well as his efforts for the achievement of Christ’s Kingdom, found concrete realization in the Communitiy of Christ the King’s Associates founded by Marica Stankovic, inspired by Ivan’s example and encouraged by him.


The most significant characteristic of Ivan’s person as a mature Catholic intellectual was his love and devotion for the Catholic Church. “Love for the Church spoke out of his every word,” Cardinal Seper, who used to know him personally was to say of him. His friend D.Z. described this unique feature in the figure of Ivan Merz with the following wonderful words: “In Merz’s person there is no stronger idea than the idea of the Church; the Church that through the papacy guards its teachings and its unity and the Church that through liturgy prays and makes a ‘sacrifice of praise’ to the Father. Papacy and liturgy are the wings of Merz’s soul, the essential characteristics of his whole being…

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

He was so organically and spiritually carrying the Church in his being that he felt himself to be a living particle of it, just as a hand or a foot is a particle of the organism called man. All his soul was a love for the Church, love in the Church. In numerous ways he requested all who came to him to hear and see at least something, as least just as Nicodemus did, to make the mystery of the Church their own.”

All who knew Ivan are of the same opinion. If we wonder what was the cause of Ivan’s unique relationship to the Church, Ivan himself will give us the answer in the following reply he gave to a question which asked why he loved the Church and the Holy Father:

“… Because in the Church I see a clear picture of my beloved Saviour and God Jesus in all His perfection, and in the Holy Father I recognize the human image of my God and my Lord.”

Out of such a deep conviction, many wonderful iniciatives and realizations of fidelity to the Church; many enthusiastic enterprises for the Church, all of which he transferred to his associates and to the people in whose behalf he carried out his apostolic work.

For Ivan the Church was “the gratest thing existing in the world”, and not the Church generally speaking but the “Roman Church” provided the Bishop of Rome, Peter’s heir, but also Christ’s deputy who was a sign of the unity of the whole Church, was holding court in Rome. Ivan pointed out this Roman dimension of the Church on innumberable occasions, orally and in writing, wishing to awaken in the young and in adults love, enthusiasm and loyalty to the one Church to which the Croatian nation has been indebted most throughout history.

In the periodical “For Faith and Home” all through the Jubilee year 1925, Ivan edited the column “Eternal Rome” in which were published articles awakening a sense of belonging to the Catholic Church in his readers advising them to discover the beauty and value of the Roman Church. 1925 was a Holy Year. Ivan, together with other members of the Presidency of the Association of Croatian Eagles organized a pilgrimage of the young to Rome in which 100 young men – Eagles – joined. Upon his return from Rome at Ivan’s initiative each year a celebration of “the Day of the Pope” was organized which was to become an increasingly festive celebration each year, not only in Zagreb but also in other places all over the country wherever there were young people inspired by Ivan’s example and his idea.

What the Catholic Roman Church meant for Ivan is most evident from his article “The Pope”, published in the column “Eternal Rome”:

“When you come to Rome, when you see the Mission Exhibition and the pilgrims coming from different continents, then you quite clearly feel the thundering activity of the Roman Church, the Mother of all Churches in the world. You feel the streams of unusual energy which flow through the Bishop of Rome and the Diocese of Rome. When you are in Rome, you seem to be in a gigantic, as yet unseen electric power station, the wheels of which are constantly spinning, sending energy to the whole world – a great moral revival.

In Rome you have an intuition, a feeling that the Church is in perpetual motion or, better to say, is an invisible force which is permanently putting into motion this colossal machine. You have the feeling that everything in the world can collapse, that nations and countries, parishes and many dioceses, kingdoms can vanish from the face of the earth, but the Diocese of Rome will, in spite of storms and tempests which shake and beat the sea of the history of the human race, will stay unharmed. You have a feeling that everything is frail and temporary, threatened by the danger of sinking into the abyss, but that Peter’s boat is rocking without fear in the middle of the waves and lightning because it is anchored on the secure stone of Peter.

In this Holy Year we have realized more deeply what Papal superhumanity means. We have understood that the greatness of a nation depends on its fidelity to the Pope: it depends on how it carries out the orders and wishes of Christ’s deputy.”

Ivan was fully convinced that the Church encompasses the real truth that must be accepted and followed. Ivan expressed this conviction at numerous places and it permeated all his life and work. His friend wrote, showing how his closest associates experienced this:

“He was not looking for ‘his own solution’, nor for ‘new roads’. He always asked how the Catholic Church made judgements on the problems which arose. And when he found the reply by personal study of the problem, he immediately submitted his reason and carried out the recognized truth persistently in his life and work.”

From where did Ivan’s great interest for the teachings of the Church, for papal documents, come? Ivan not only read all of the most important papal encyclicals and church documents written during the last hundred years but he also studied them. Although a layman, he was better acquanited with contemporary Church teachings than were many priests.”

Whenever someone tried to attack the Church, Ivan was ready to stand in its defense orally and in writing. When it was necessary to guard the church in Stenjevec materially, which members of the “Old-Catholics” had intended to seize and occupy, Ivan with a group of Eagles and other young pople came to defend the access to the church. He suffered insults and humiliations for this from the invaders who even spat at him, but Ivan and his friends successfully protected the church. The Priest who was the parish priest in Stenjevec then, remembers with pleasure the incident as well as Ivan’s suggestion that satisfaction be made for the sacrilege committed through adoration in front of the Most Holy Sacrament.

We could go on and on, putting down statement after statement, example after example. It is fully understandable that after his death the Catholic Weekly wrote of this man, who had shown so much ardor fot the things of God and the Church: “He was never dressed in a priest’s robe, but he was a pillar of God’s Church!”

Let us end this short survey of Ivan’s relationship with the Church about which far more should be said, with his own words. They were taken from his significant article “Spiritual Renewal by Liturgy”:

“Who is a better teacher of spiritual life than the holy Church, that apart from its two-thousand year experience acts under the influence of the Holy Spirit Himself; what methods are better than the ones the Church teaches? Let us knock therefore on its door humbly and ask the Church to be our leader in our spiritual life; let us ask the Church that our limited lives be partakers in its immense inner life, that our meagre souls expand to the boundless divine life.”


Ivan with Fr. Foretic in Rome, in 1925

If the chief characteristic in Ivan’s spirituality was ecclesiasticism, feeling with the Church, then the Church, then the essence of this characteristic was his relationship to the papacy. The idea of the papacy permeated all of the last six years of Ivan’s life, no matter whether it was his personal life or his apostolate.

Papacy gave the basic tone both to his personality as a Catholic layman and to his work. This was so evident that his friends used to tell him that he was leading a revolution referring to the Pope so often; this was something no one else did usually. Ivan used to answer: “What a revolution, to repeat today what the Pope said yesterday!” It is an indisputable fact that Merz was the first among Croatian Catholic laymen who introduced a new comprehension of the Church and Papacy into the Croatian Catholic public. He awakened interest, respect and devotion for the Church and the Papacy in many Catholics. He aroused a sense of what the Pope means for the Church, for Christians, and for the Croatian nation. Many of his writings clearly speak of this.

The basis for such a unique attitude to the Pope was found in the fact that Ivan considered the Bishop od Rome as Christ alive on the earth, Christ who through Peter’s heirs continues to rule the Church and to carry out his triple salvatory mission: as a teacher, as a priest and as a shepherd.

The best article Ivan wrote about this is “A Letter to a Brother Eagle” written for the young to allow them to become acquinted with the idea of Papacy and to awaken their love and honour for Christ’s Deputy. Ivan began espousing that the “Love and devotion for the Pope are of the greatest and most essential importance both for the personal and public, and the temporary and eternal life of each one of the faithful.” He continued by saying that to the same extent Papacy was important for all social life, for life in families, and in schools, for the press and for art, for agricultural, political and international life. “Just as Christ is the center of the whole of history, the Pope is the center of this history. For he is Christ visible in the world! – exclaimed Ivan. From this he further developed that “the Pope is the foundation and the immovable cave on which the Church is built. Just as the Church envelopes all parts of the world, all dioceses in the world, the basis of Papacy sacramentally extends to all the dioceses in the world. This stone basis is immovable and that the whole Church that raises on this base receives its strength and firmness from this base.” Further Ivan claimed that Papacy was also the basis of our spiritual life: “The building of our spiritual life, of our knowledge of religion and of our activities, must be raised on the unshakable fundamental truth the Papacy unmistakenly teaches. Accordingly, Papacy must be the essential part and basis of our spiritual life, and of our thoughts, our aspirations and feelings. The Pope must therefore be the subject of our special honour and our love: a part of the life of our souls.”

Numerous facts and statements from his friends prove that these thoughts originated in Ivan’s personal experience and that he was the first to carry out whatever he advised others to do. He told a close friend once that he was the first one after the Pope whom he had remembered in his prayers. In other words, first of all he had been praying for the Pope, the Holy Father, and for his needs and intentions.

In the Foreword of the column “Eternal Rome” Ivan wrote that one of the “essential characteristics of every Roman Catholic is love for the Holy Father the Pope and that all his thoughts and actions are originated by his decrees and wishes.” How Ivan himself carried this out is shown by his ardour in studying the papal documents and encyclicals. His friend, D.Z. was to write of this:

“I can say of myself today with a clear conscience that it was a real miracle for me to watch this young professor for four years for whom the first and main worry was, without exaggerating, the study of encyclicals. Encyclicals, encyclicals! The words were fluttering around our ears like swallows. Now and then we were catching a drop out of these magic Roman vases withouot comprehending their sweetness and value. And he was just gathering and gathering, tirelessly day and night drawing and blooming with happiness because these wells were inexhaustible and very rich, and because they could refresh the whole world and revive the universe. The power of Dr. Merz was magic and this power is responsible for the warmth this strange and unknown word found in our souls. The air suddenly became too full of encyclicals. Everything started and ended with them. The good, poor labourers and apprentices, even they yearned for the encyclicals and their hearts also burned when Ivan talked to them about the encyclicals and according to the encyclicals.”

It was completely clear for Ivan: if the Church possesses the truth, it has the right and duty to give directives for human activity especially on questions of the apostolate and of the building of Christ’s Kingdom. Therefore in one of his lectures he said:

“Without the great principles given by the Church no social system whatsoever can be put on solid foundations, nor is renewal of human society possible. Therefore if we really want to help to save contemporary society, we will direct our eyes to the unmistakable teacher of Truth and Morality, to the Holy Father the Pope and to those whom the Holy Spirit Himself entrusted with the management of God’s Church.”

Let us conclude: Ivan truly introduced something new into Croatian Catholicism. This was not so much a new teaching or new ideas but rather a new relationship with the whole complex of truths that Christianity has been announcing right from the beginning. This is where the greatness of Ivan Merz is. He discovered all the beauty, all the sublimity and value of Christian truths, of the Church, Papacy and helped to arouse not only interest but love and honour, devotion and confidence for them.

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.