Slovenia is a pocket republic in the northern Balkans. Bounded by Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary, it is the twin of Massachusetts in size, and has a population of 1.9 million citizens, mostly Catholics of the Latin Rite. On September 19, 1999 Pope John Paul II, during a 12-hour air trip to Maribor, Slovenia, beatified a man dearly loved by the Slovenes as a culture-hero, Bishop Anton Martin Slomsek (Slomshek), the first Slovene to be raised to the honors of the altar.
Anton Slomsek was born into a prosperous peasant family at Slom in Austria-Hungary. After receiving a good secondary education he studied theology, was ordained a priest in 1824, and began a career of inventive pastoral zeal. Having served his first five priestly years in two successive parishes, he was called back to his theological alma mater in Klagenfurt to become its spiritual director. In addition to his functions as director, he also taught the Slovene language to his seminarians. As a loyal Slovene, he felt that such instruction was at that point very necessary. The Slovenes had been ruled for centuries by German-speakers, first by Germans proper, then by Austrians; and Slomsek feared that his Slovene brethren were in real danger of forgetting their own ancient linguistic and cultural traditions.
In 1846 Father Anton was consecrated prince-bishop of Lavant, but was transferred in 1859 to the diocese of Maribor, where the Slovenes formed the greater majority of the citizenry.
These Slovenes were one of the many Slavic nations. In the fifth century they had moved southeast from their earlier home within the present Poland to the northwest corner of Balkan country. They brought with them their own language and customs and their own patriotic desire for political independence. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, they were growing restive under the Germanizing pressure of the Austrian Empire of which they were a constituent people. The several Balkan peoples (most of them Slavic), who resented the Germanic pressure, tended to consider armed revolt as the only way to achieve independence of Vienna. Bishop Slomsek firmly believed that extreme nationalism and violence were not the key to reform and greater freedom. A man of Christian peace, he held that peaceful, constitutional methods were the only way to self-determination.
In 1848 Austro-Hungary adopted a new constitution that granted to non-Germanic peoples under its jurisdiction “national” rights. Slomsek saw in this concession an opportunity to win political self-rule by positive and peaceful methods. There was no need, he argued, to take up arms against the imperial government or the various ethnic peoples of the Balkans. Let each nation build up its own culture and it will set for others the example of civility, of “live and let live.”
A born educator, Bishop Slomsek started his campaign of patriotic education with the schools. He built many new schools and gave to all of his national schools a syllabus in which Slovenian values, both religious and cultural, were reinforced. Textbooks were very important, so he saw to the production and circulation of a whole library of such texts. An able writer himself, he was the author of many of these attractive school books. Next, he founded a weekly newspaper in which the articles addressed in popular style questions that adult Slovenes were most likely to raise. He also published his own sermons and episcopal statements; here, again, since he was one of the best preachers and writers in Slovenia, these published works were widely read because of their literary merit. But his most effective cultural project was the foundation of a publishing house called the St. Hermagoras Society. Its aim was to produce and circulate good and inexpensive books in the native tongue. Between 1852 and 1952 the Society put 26 million books of various types in the hands of the Slovenes. If Slovenia is today close to 100% literate, the huge library of religious and literary works is largely responsible.
It is easy to see why Pope John Paul II chose to beatify, at the turbulent end of the second millennium, a Slovene leader of such holiness and wisdom as Anton Slomsek. In our own day, many of the Balkan peoples have not yet learned that violence and ethnic cleansing are ineffectual instruments of peace; that the bulworks of civility are culture and tolerance. As the Holy Father said of Blessed Anton in his homily, “He showed that it is possible to be sincere patriots and, with equal sincerity, to live together and cooperate with people of other nationalities, cultures and religions. And the Pope prayed, “May his example and above all, his intercession obtain solidarity and authentic peace for all the peoples of this vast area of Europe.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara