Youth in Banja Luka

Božidar Nagy, SJ

Who is Ivan Merz

A short survey of the life and work of Ivan Merz


In the book in your hands we wish to give an answer to the question asked by many people: Who, in fact, is Ivan Merz? You have probably already heard of him; maybe you have read something about him here and there. However, there is a lot in this unique young life that is beautiful, valuable and useful to know. The majority of Catholics of the older generation are well acquainted with the name of Ivan Merz. He was a friend and a model for many, and for many people his name even meant a program of life and work.

Ivan Merz did so much for the Church in Croatia and the sanctity of his life is so significant and attractive that he is the first layman in the 13-century history of Christianity of the Croats for whom the local Church has initiated proceedings to announce him blessed and saint.

We believe that the beauty of Ivan’s soul will attract you too: that you will also be inspired by the light of God’s mercy that was so obvious and present in Ivan’s life to such an extent that the former Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, justly called him “a masterpiece of the Holy Spirit”. Towards the end of the book we have quoted some of the titles given to Ivan, showing what he had meant for the Catholics of his own generation. However, God’s men are always up-to-date. Throuh them God speaks in the language of our times. It is up to us to listen to God’s speech.

This book, however, gives just basic details on Ivan’s person and his life. Only the most essential was chosen, in order to give at least a general view of this noble life, filled with love for God and people. There are many interesting and valuable details which we have not been able to include in this book. They can be found in the rest of the books on Ivan published earlier. We have olso omitted various notes and quotations, as well as the source of some of the details and quotations. These can also be found in other publications or can be found out from the author of this book.

It is our wish that this book be not only a contribution to the better understanding of the figure of our Ivan but also a contribution to our efforts to hear what God is telling us through his saintly life and work.


Our Ivan was born on December 16th, 1896 in Banja Luka where his father was the chief of the railroad station. His father was also a military officer in the then Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Ivan at elementary school

As an only child Ivan was from the beginning surrounded with great parental love. His father’s high status in society and secure financial position enabled Ivan to have a carefree and happy childhood.

Ivan’s parents gave him a good middle-class upbringing. However, he was brought up without a Christian foundation. Ivan grew up within a liberal atmosphere where the values of this world were rated highly while Christianity was considered a mere tradition, formality, and a sign of sociological belonging which did not interfere excessively with the everyday life of the upper middle-class Banja Luka society to which the Merz family belonged. Ivan received his basic religious knowledge in the religious classes which were at that time a part of the regular school curriculum for all grades until graduation.

Ivan started elementary school in Banja Luka. He attended the 2nd and 3rd grades in Prijedor where his father was transferred temporarily. From there he continued his education in Banja Luka. Here he finished grammar school and graduated in 1914. As Ivan himself said, it was neither his family upbringing nor the official religious instructions in school that were responsible for his religious orientation but rather the example and influence of his secondary school teacher, Dr. Ljubomir Marakovic, a model Catholic layman. Professor Marakovic left an interesting observation on Ivan’s school days: When Ivan was fifteen “the sense of religion and religious life was absent. Only as he left grammar school did it appear. During the entire time I worked in Banja Luka Ivan was the only pupil I had to warn. This occurred when he was in the 5th grade during a church inspection. I told him to behave properly because he held his arms crossed behind his back after Consecration.”

Ivan’s great interest in literature and art found a receptive ear with professor Marakovic who was his Croatian language teacher. Later during the higher grades of grammar school, Ivan also found a friend in professor Marakovic who directed him slowly, through art and literature, to moral and religious values. Later when mature, Ivan expressed the importance for him of this frinedship with professor Marakovic: “A Catholic layman has saved me for Eternitiy.”


There are few people even among the saints and those chosen by God whose spiritual development and ascent to God can be as closely followed as that of Ivan Merz. Ivan described each flicker of his young heart, each step of his ascent to the values of life and finally to God in his extensive diary which he started to write at 17. He was stimulated to write by his professor, Dr. Marakovic. Ivan continued to write his diary for eight years until his maturity. This precious document filled twenty notebooks and it’s 800 pages when copied.

What was Ivan writing in his diary? He wrote about all that he experienced within him and around him. We can follow his day to day growth and development and how he struggled through his youthful crises, doubts and his search for a religious and moral sense. We can watch his preoccupation with serious life problems of honesty and righteousness and how he solved his problems with life and love in his Faustian search for truth. We sympathize with the tragic end of his youthful love, full of idealism. He was led by God’s tangible grace and little by little he found his way. His life principles crystallized and Ivan started to draw nearer at a quickened pace to the truths concerning the values of life. We see that God was filling more and more Ivan’s soul and his young heart. Later he would dedicate and present them completely to God amidst his zeal as he advanced towards maturity.

Within the pages of Ivan’s diary many young men recognized themselves. They found so much in common with him that they were given the courage and confidence not to become tired with their search for Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Love, which Ivan finally found realized in Jesus Christ.

In this short and concise survey of Ivan’s life we present only a few excerpts from his most interesting diary. These enable us to open, although only slightly, the sanctuary of his soul which was being filled more and more with grace. Because of the limited space we were not able to include this time many interesting parts, particulary those in which Ivan talked of his doubts, searches and in which he described his internal battles for the true values of life, that is, for faith, morality and honesty. Any reader who would like additional material can find it in Ivan’s other biographies. The most extensive excerpts were published in the book “Fighter from the White Mountains.”


At the beginning of his diary Ivan exclaims: “Evviva l’arte” – Long live art! – which indicates his delight in the world of art for the values that controlled his soul during the early years of his youth.

As his diary’s motto Ivan chose this verse from the poem “Manfred” by the English poet Byron. The verse is followed by a very significant dedication:

I have had those earthly visions

And noble aspirations in my youth,

To take my own the mind of other men,

The enlightener of nations; and to rise

I knew not whither—it might be to fall;

But fall, even as the mountain—cataract,

Which having leapt from its more dazzling height,

Even in the foaming strength of its abyss

(Which casts up misty columns that become

Clouds raining from re-ascended skies)

Lies low but mighty still.

This is the wreath I am placing on her grave

to the holy and honourable memory

of the first love

that made me born again.

We must stop for a minute at this solemn overture in Ivan’s diary. Ivan dedicated this verse to the memory of his first youthful love which was holy and honourable for him due to its ideal and chaste character. Ivan at 16 fell in love with Greta Teschner, a girl of his age whom he had met within his parents’ friends’ family circle. Unfortunately, through no fault of Ivan, this love had a tragic end. During the summer Greta went on vacation to Travnik with her parents. Since her standards were fairly loose, as Ivan himself noticed, she allowed a man to seduce her. When this man left her she took her life in despair. Ivan talked of her often in his diary. He noted that after her death something broke down in his soul but that later he experienced a revival also connected with this. In what sense? Ivan did not write much about it but many things can be observed about his further development when reading his reflections in his diary.

Within this chaste, youthful love, there were revealed unimaginable horizons of the human soul, its unappeaseable aspirations for a greater, more lasting eternal Love, such as no human being could satisfy. For earthly love is merely a pale picture, a tiny spark of God’s great Love from which we were created and with which we will be met at the end of our lives on earth. Although Ivan perhaps had not been quite aware of it from the beginning, this experience of earthly sympathy and love, no matter how exalted, chaste, noble, short and, in his case very tragic it was, it served him later as a signal to a higher and even more axalted love which Ivan discovered in Jesus Christ to whom he was later to dedicate his whole young life.

Ivan at Grammar School

Our attention is more attracted by the verses Ivan copied from “Manfred”. Since he chose them for the motto of his diary this indicates that he found in them himself, his strivings ans aspirations. We can find expressed in them a youthful idealism, an enthusiasm of a soul that young people of Ivan’s age frequently feel. But, as it seems, there is more to it than just that.

Today, with Ivan’s whole life in view and when we see all that happened after the “mountain waterfall” had fallen into the ground, we are surprised with the prophetic contents of this verse. After his death Ivan “filled” so many “hearts with his heart, his thoughts, his ideas. He lit a light for Croatian people and his light is becoming brighter and brighter. It has begun to shine for other nations, too. Many foreigners, meeting him for the first time are amazed by his personality. In his prime this “waterfall” of a chaste life, with which Ivan amazed his contemporaries, fell down, in virginal white, but it has not remained lying on the ground. His resting place is now a source of beneficial influence. The inexhaustible wealth of his thoughts from his spiritual heritage, prayers answered at his plea are falling down like gentle, merciful rain from the heights on all who turn to him, who are interested in him.

These prophetic verses are the expression of a vague promotion of the mission meant for him by the Divine Providence to have in the Church an in the world. A mission that Ivan, as it seems, already vaguely felt in his early youth. His Mission is still growing; Ivan is still striving to achieve this “Enlightenment” for all the nations from the altars of Catholic churches of the Christian world. Hopefully, this moment is no longer far awy.


Banja Luka, 27th February 1914 – Yesterday, on Thursday, I had to write an essay at school about “The Usefulness of Diaries”. Marakovic explained how useful this is, particularly mentioning Goethe’s era during which the world was feeling more deeply. This can be seen from many diaries… Well, during class and all day long I was thinking of this and concluded that Ljuban – as always – was right.

2nd March, 1914 – We spoke during physics of the speed of light. The light of some stars needs 8, 10, 25 or even 250 years to reach us. God! How great the universe is: everything is shining, everything moves with perfect accuracy; everything is huge, immensely huge. Stars move across space; everything is immense in that enormous space. Our little Earth, like a tiny crumb is also flying and rotating. Man on it is an imaginary mathematical point. – He is envious; he is tormented and swelling with pride. What is man? Nothing? This nothing, this mathematical point – on a point, embraces and sees the universe as a great stage and sees even further – further. Isn’t this matter that looks like man a trifle, and again, so, so huge? And the whole universe, all that is visible and all that is invisible, all that can be heard – who rules this stage, who is that magnificant Spirit that encircles it all? HE is.

26th April, 1914 – The more I learn about Catholicism, the more I see that it is inechaustible. I wish to accept His Body, the purpose and last cause of mankind. How great His Love is, when He, the Boundless, whom we are unable to comprehend, He rules the universe and every blade of grass and who knows and who sees the quarrels of the tiny human race, gives us, small and worthless, Himself to take.

21st June, 1914 – It is a beautiful night. The immense mechanism of the universe is standing still. No ropes can be seen, but it stands still. With what speed this boundless object rushes, rotates; and this dust of man is thinking about it all. Where does it lead? Why does man have a body when he is essentially soul? Why? How? Eternal mysteries.

8th July, 1914 – Everything is passing. I hardly loved anything as deeply as I did love Greta, and all the same, it has passed; I remember; it has ennobled me, but again, one can live without it too.

11th July, 1914 – Finis finaliter. I have passed my final exams in Grammar School. Good riddance to the worries, but… I cried at noontime. Who knows why? A new step. Childhood has passed. Great duties are to begin. Ideals become real questions. Life will pass, too.

30th August, 1914 – Temptations attack horribly, but prayers lift me. In the holy of holies (R. Tagore), in my heart, there is firm faith; scepticism too. Eternal fight… I wish there was an intelligent confessor here so that he could understand me and warn me! I’ll see that I go and confess before I leave (for the Military Academy) and that I take the Body to strenghten me for my future life.