Towards a full christian life – sanctity

NEW MAN IN ZAGREB 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.

Many who hear of Ivan Merz for the first time can rightly ask what had this young man done, what made him so great that he has been written about, talked about so much, that proceedings have been initiated for his beatification, that his body has been, after 50 years, transferred from Mirogoj Cemetery to one of the churches in Zagreb, that so many find a friend in him, an example, ideal, leader, even a life and work program? This question cannot be answered fully in one sentence. It is hard even to sum up all the studies and books written about Merz on the basis of his rich life and work. The pages following this short review of Ivan’s life and work endeavour to give the reader the basic details of this exceptional phenomenon of Croatian Catholicism.

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.”

Ivan carried out his duties as a teacher conscientiously like so many other teachers who were at the time living and working in Zagreb. This is not where his greatness lies.

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.

We remember many of them with gratitude, and their names remain written into the pages of Croatian history with shining letters. And if we were to measure with outward standards only, even here we would not be able to find anything particular that would distinguish Ivan from his associates. Others too worked in Catholic organizations like him, travelled all over the country, gave lectures, worked with youth, wrote articles, organized meetings, shows, discussions; others also attended church, prayed, received Holy Communion, etc., did all that is essential for an active Catholic layman to do.

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.

The thing which is unique about Merz, that is so attractive and animating is the beauty of his soul in the first place, his spirit all permeated with God’s light, all full of God. The beauty of his soul and his life, dedicated completely to Christ and to the expansion of His Kingdom, appeared in full splendour only after his departure from the world. Many have become fascinated with him by reading the pages of his diary and watching Ivan from day to day climb gradually, with his own efforts, to the top of Christian holiness, to attract from these hieghts of God many who also started on his road.

Another characteristic of Ivan’s greatness is his world of ideas, his rich spiritual heritage, a literary opus of over three thousand pages. These writings had powerful influence on Croatian Catholic public, public opinion and ideological movements. He even became a “symbol of a certain spiritual orientation and a landmark of Croatian Catholicism” as D. Z., his close friend, said. Why? Because Ivan, with a new zeal and a fully conscious experience as a layman set forth the beauties of Christian truth, the magnitude of the Church for the life of every Catholic, the value of liturgy for personal spiritual life, the importance of the Papacy for Catholics and for nations, he emphasied the necessity of the engagement of laymen in the apostolate of the Church, but always in collaboration and subordination with Church hierarchy; he spoke in favour of unpolitical activity of Catholic organizations, making efforts to promote the supernatural spiritual wellbeing of their memebers.

All this was not mere theory: Ivan supported it all with the power of his conviction, with the depth of this knowledge he experienced the truthfulness of all he represented and propagated. “He was, perhaps, the only one among us who, whatever he wrote, wrote in sacred enthusiasm and in the radiant safeguard of a mysterious Grace. That is where his strength was and is even today. This is why he could influence the youth and make the young form a power that would defend God.” wrote his friend, Ton Smerdel, Croatian poet. All Ivan’s external activity was only the revelation of the richness of his inner being which he had consciously and with a great deal of personal effort developed into a worthy dwelling for the Trinity. His personality and his work together form a complete and harmonious whole and we can only try, with some effort to separate and present individually the most significant views of this “masterpiece of the Holy Spirit”, as Franjo Kuharic, the then Archbishop of Zagreb called our Ivan.


The greatness of man consists in his relation to God, and this connection is realized first though prayer. Ivan’s diary shows, right from the beginning, his inclination to prayer. He wrote down invocations and prayers of various length and beautiful, touching content.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Zagreb

Ivan’s prayer-life, inspired by invisible Grace will only grow and develop, so that Ivan’s life during his last years was from morning till night permeated by the spirit of prayer and concentration. We will quote here only the most significant of the multitude of facts and statements of his prayer-life.

We must emphasize right at the beginning that the main characteristic of Ivan’s prayer life was his close connection with lithurgy, the official prayer of the Church. His prayer life shows nothing different from what the Church was recommending and practicing at the time. Ivan accepted it with full zeal and made it his own.

The lithurgic prayer of the Church and other permitted forms of devotion, were so incorporated in him that one could not help having the impression that one had an authentic representative of the praying Church in sight.

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.

His friends very often found him in his home praying the Breviary. He wished to pray together with others and tried to do it with one of his friends. On great holidays he used to attend the Franciscan church on Kaptol where he took part in the Franciscan festive singing of the Breviary.

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.”

Adoration in front of the Most Holy Sacrament was a devotion particularly dear to him. Many people were inspired with a deeper adoration of the Eucharist while seeing Ivan kneeling in a deep concentration and reverence in front of the Tabernacle. Attending the Benediction Service his eyes would concentrate completely on the Most Holy Host, watching it as if he were getting lost in the distance of eternity – this is how someone who saw him looking this way once in the church of the Sisters of Mercy in Frankopanska Street remembers him. Passing by a church or chapel Ivan never failed to greet Jesus, present in the Eucharist. His pupils still remember how he used to go for a short adoration in the Grammar School chapel during breaks. Priests who gave him Holy Communion left us touching testimony of the honour and piety with which he used to receive it. It was all just an external expression of his great reverence for the Eucharist and of his deep faith in the presence of Jesus Christ in this Sacrament of Love.

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 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. Liturgy was the culmination of all artistic achievement for Ivan, a field where all art collaborates, for him liturgy was art and life itself. Ivan was interested in liturgy since his student days. He had liturgic spiritual excercises during Easter 1920 in Vienna which left a deep impression on him. His interest for liturgy widened further during his stay in Paris. He liked to visit the chapel of the Benedictine sisters, a well known spiritual center of Paris intellectual circles.For the theme of his dissertation Ivan chose the influence of liturgy on French writers and read numerous literary works by French authors for this purpose.

Upon his return to Zagreb Ivan wrote many articles on liturgy in Catholic periodicals, gave lectures on liturgy; he interceded in favour of young people getting acquainted with liturgy, praying liturgically so that they would understand what the celebrating priest was praying at the altar – because the mass was celebrated in Latin then – and that they would take part in the mass. Let us hear only a few excerpts form his most beautiful articles on liturgy. The first one is an excerpt from his article “Spiritual Revival through Liturgy”:

“Liturgy is the official prayer of the Church, the official prayer of the Bride of Christ, a conversation between the Bride and the Divine Groom. Oh how gladly we eavesdrop when two very wise men talk with each other; our chests seem to expand and we ourselves seem to become wiser. And what happens when we eavesdrop on the conversation between Christ – God and the Church that is alike Him? Should that whole ideal world stay superfluous for us, should it not lift our lives to the immense heights of divine life… Yes, such a treasure is left neglected by us Catholics, and then we are surprised to see that our work doesn’t bear any blessings. Every Catholic becomes great and universal through liturgic meditation. He comes to put his personal interests aside and starts to feel what the Church itself feels, that magnificent reflection of the immense Christ Himself. Each soul is being educated on the basis of liturgy. It can be said that liturgy is pedagogy in the real sense of the word, because with the help of liturgy a man of faith experiences in his soul all the phases of Christ’s eternal life.”

In the same article 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.

In another article, “Liturgy and Art” Ivan, full of enthusiasm, said the following:

“The beauty of Catholic ceremony is so magical that whoever felt its magic once, has a feeling of longing in his soul to leave everything and spend his life in liturgic prayer, singing praises to the Most Holy Trinity ceaselessly day and night.”

It is not surprising that all Ivan wrote and did for liturgic revival represents such a large quantity of material that it could be a PhD dissertation. Dr. Marin Skarica, a priest from the Split Archdiocese wrote a dissertation on the basis of Ivan’s writings and defended it successfully at the Papal Liturgic Institute Anselmianum in Rome in 1975. This was the first PhD dissertation written on Ivan Merz, entitled “Ivan Merz, Promoter of Liturgic Revival in Croatia.”


The center of liturgy is the Paschal mystery – the Sacrament of Easter – that stands in the middle of the liturgic year, and of each liturgic day of the Church. The Holy Mass, Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist in which the Paschal mystery becomes present daily on our altars, in our churches and in Christian communities, was also the center of Ivan’s life. In his article “Spiritual Revival Through Liturgy”, Ivan wrote: “Here is what the most essential is. The greatest thing existing on the earth is the Sacred Church, the greatest thing in the Church is the Mass, and the greatest thing in the Mass is Consecration. And just as Christ was directing all his thoughts to Golgotha during his life on earth, the Bride of Christ, the Church, has its eyes on the altar. What happens, then, on the altar is the greatest thing that has ever happened in the world.”

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.

The testimony of his friends reporting on this is touching. He was completely permeated with the spirit of the Eucharist. We have already mentioned that his adorations, his visits to church to worship Christ present in the Eucharist left a very deep impression on all who saw him. “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. Out of the numerous testimonies recorded about Ivan’s deep piety for the Holy Eucharist, we quote the one given by Ivan’s priest-friend Don M. Blaskovic of Hvar:

“I considered him not only my friend but also my spiritual leader. Once he assisted me at the celebration of mass. When I gave him Holy Communion, rays of light seemed to come out of his face, it was such an angelic light that it almost transformed like the transformation one can see only on the pictures of St. Aloysius… I will never forget those moments of revelation! Oh, you would be right to think that I should assist you, thought I, all excited, on my way back with him to the sacristy where again he remained praying for a long, long time.” Although Ivan did not leave us a separate work on the Eucharist, it is a fact that many of his writings are filled with the Eucharist and its spirit. These writings are like pearls scattered all over his rich spiritual heritage. Here are a few quotations taken from his various writings:

“We are living in happy times; we can all enjoy the fruits of the papacy of Pius X, we can frequently and daily be with the One who is all our joy. By the degree of the Holy Pope the world has become heaven. Holy communion is the quickest and easiest way to revive and to raise our inner life. In Holy Communion the soul celebrates its triumphs; it becomes similar to its Divine Groom; it becomes divine itself.

Be convinced that the Holy Mass without Holy Communion is somewhat fragmentary. We became partakers of the endless life of God’s Word through Holy Communion. In this action in which your body and your spirit unite with the Diety must be the culmination of your life; this action is the culmination of the whole liturgy.

The Holy Eucharist is leading us to the height of Christian perfection of a true inner life. It is our true joy on earth; we become partakers of the future heavenly glory already here.

It is a fire burning out the rust of sin in us and gives life to our soul so that the soul also lights up with new zeal. Then we experience in ourselves the word of St. Paul who says: “… it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

What is the safest means to keep a life chaste? It is enthusiasm for the holy Church, based on the knowledge of faith and daily Holy Communion, a systematic victory over flesh.

Pilgrims return from Loureds deeply convinced that the Creator of the world and the miracle performer of Lourdes reigns captured in the Tabernacle of every Catholic church and that he is burning wih divine love for human souls, wishing to be united with them often end even daily.

Without the most sacred Eucharist the body cannot become submissive to the spirit adequately; every physical growth that is not based on the Eucharist is incomplete. Without the Eucharist it is impossible to raise a chaste generation, and any education of youth that does not follow this rule is a failure.

The reign of the Holy Spirit is visible in the Roman Church at the center of which the most holy Sacrament is shining. It is quiet, immobile, but the Catholic hierarchy is taking over its external activities. Just as the Pope is at the head of the hierarchy, so the Eucharist is above all other sacraments.”

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. Let us conclude this short glance into Ivan’s Eucharistic life with the words of his spiritual leader Fr. Vrbanek: “It is a fact that for Ivan the Host is the center of everything: his daily agenda and the foundation of his life; his Eagles’ organaization and the idea of a novel; the internal liturgical life and the external church festivities. Wherever Ivan appeared something Eucharistic should also be found; and during the last five years of Ivan’s life in our Catholic public life it was the other way around: wherever there was something great and beautiful and Eucharistic Ivan was also there with his handsome contribution.”