Josip Stadler, Servant of God, the first archbishop of Vrhbosna
Josip Stadler was born on 24 January 1843 in Slavonski Brod (Croatia), the son of poor parents Đuro Stadler and Marija nee Balošić. The Stadler family roots go back to Upper Austria from where in 1760 Matthias Stadler, the great-great grandfather of Josip Stadler, a military handyman came to the castle of Brod, which was then the frontier region between the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the Ottoman empire. The family familiarized itself and adapted quickly to the conditions in Slavonski Brod, and thanks to the female side, they were able to integrate themselves in the local surroundings, so much so that already in the third generation the Stadler family was considered a Croat family. This is important to point out, since some of Stadlers’ later critics from both ecclesiastical and civil circles will accuse him of serving foreign interests in his actions, in this particular case, those of the Austro-Hungarians. Stadler was not a servant to the interests of anyone, except for the fact that as a man of the Church he served “Christ, the Son of the living God” and his Church, especially in that area where he was established as pastor. Being a “croata ex todo corde” as his superiors in Rome described him, he served the good of his people amongst whom he was raised and to whom he was sent as their pastor.
Even as a child Stadler experienced difficult hardships. The bitter experience of sufferings already present as a part of his existence during his childhood, will later on increase his faith and his concern for people, especially the poor. Stadler truly believed in the goodness of God and in his mercy, and he firmly held that God does not strike man in order to relish in his sufferings and persecutions. On the contrary, God is nothing else than Love, and he completely identifies himself with those that suffer, especially with the poor, for Christ said: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40) and also “Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42). He understood well that human selfishness and the unjust distribution of wealth have created the existing differences between people, so that some have plenty, while others don’t have even enough to survive and find themselves in a constant struggle for their existence. According to Stadler this difference could be lessened by joyful offerings, assistance to the needy, all done in the name of the Lord Jesus, who came into the world as a poor child, born in a manger, since there was no room for him in the inn. In fact “he wanted to be born this way so that people would love him and not be afraid of him”. If we truly want to be Christ’s followers, then we must love the poor.
Stadler already at the age of eleven felt the consequences of poverty and the need for human solidarity, for in the space of eight months he lost his father and mother, a brother as well as a sister. With his remaining brothers and sisters he was left to depend on the goodwill of the people of Slavonski Brod, who according to the custom of the time, took care of orphans by offering to adopt them in order to teach them a trade and employ them later on. This adoption procedure took place on the day of Mardi gras. Stadler, according to his biographers, took the advice of his parish chaplain and catechist who suggested to the children that they offer prayers in reparation for the sins that people commit during Mardi gras, and hence he stayed in church during the event. Since he did not appear at the adoption proceedings, Štefan Matić the barber of Slavonski Brod who wanted to take Josip in as an apprentice, took his brother instead. By the time he came home, the adoption proceedings were over. A family of tailors, Matija and Jula Oršić took care of Josip taking him in as one of their own children. They planned to teach him the tailor’s trade, but Stadler was to remain grateful to them for the rest of his life.
God had intended a greater vocation for Stadler than that of a tailor in Slavonski Brod and for this he gave him special talents. These talents did not remain unnoticed to people who could do something to help develop them further. The Mayor of Slavonski Brod, Maximilian Wegheimer, perceiving that Josip was a gifted student and saw to it that he would complete his grammar school education. Having finished this school, the Mayor enrolled Stadler freeing him of tuition in the Archdiocesan orphanage in Požega, where he was able to attend the Franciscan elementary school. At that time the Jesuit Fathers administered the orphanage. This encounter with the Jesuits and his continued education in a College run by them, were to have a great affect on him in his personal life, his spiritual formation and his future service in the vineyard of the Lord. The Jesuit formation and spirituality impressed him so much that he himself wanted to become a Jesuit. As a young priest in Zagreb he wrote on a number of occasions to the General of the Jesuit religious congregation in order to be accepted into the Jesuits, and he also asked his superiors at the Germanicum College in Rome to recommend him to the General of the congregation. Providence was to lead him in another direction and his appeal was rejected. The practice of the time was such that every student at the Germanicum upon enrolment in the College had to make an oath that he would not enter the Jesuit congregation. The General of the congregation held that Stadler would be more useful to his local Church amongst the Croats as a Diocesan priest than as a Jesuit religious. Stadler later on, even as Archbishop contemplated entering a religious order if not a Jesuit, then at least a Lazarist religious. In 1884 he wrote: “I often find myself thinking of life in a convent and these thoughts are always with me. For a few years now I have been contemplating on becoming a Lazarist, just as I thought of becoming a member of the Company of Jesus earlier. Whether or not this is good, I cannot say, but these are the facts. I think that I will probably only stay on for another ten years, if God grants me life, up to the time the first Diocesan priests are ready and the Company of Jesus establishes itself, then I will go on and occupy myself with my own soul. These thoughts come to mind almost every day. May God grant me the grace to know his will and to fulfill it”.
The will of God led Stadler on another path. Upon completing his fourth year of education at the elementary school of Požega, he was accepted into the Archdiocesan orphanage at Zagreb, and he continued his studies at the school of Gornjigrad. After concluding the sixth year of education, he was enrolled in the Archdiocesan minor seminary as a candidate to the priesthood. Having completed his studies with fine results and due to his excellent behaviour, his superiors sent him to Rome in 1862, where as a member of the Germanicum College he stayed until 1869 crowning his studies at the Gregorian University with doctorates in philosophy and theology. His superiors, professors and educators in Rome all sent good reports on him. He was ordained a priest in Rome in 1868 and celebrated his First Mass at St. Peter’s tomb on 7 June 1868.
Upon completing his studies Stadler came back to Zagreb, where he became prefect in the Archdiocesan minor seminary, then catechist at the elementary school of Zagreb and afterwards professor of philosophy and theology at the same minor seminary. In Zagreb he was well known as a preacher and confessor. Through his published works one can easily acknowledge his concern for the education of his fellow Croats. He became an active member of the Society of St. Jerome, which he wholeheartedly supported. He also initiated the periodical “Glasnik sv. Josipa” – “The Herald of St. Joseph” aimed towards lay people. In politics he adhered to the ideas of Starčević’s Party of Rights, while in public he emerged in word and action as a “wholehearted Croat”. He remained in Zagreb up until 1881 when he was named Archbishop Metropolitan of Vrhbosna (Sarajevo).
During Stadler’s formative years and his priestly service in Zagreb, there were many uprisings of Christian faithful in Bosnia-Herzegovina who could no longer stand the weight of the hardships imposed on them by the Ottoman authorities. The Turkish Empire by the end of the 18th century had become the “Sick Man of Europe”, and was only held intact due to the interests of foreign powers. Some countries had for a long time been pondering the idea of getting involved in the Balkans and arriving at the warm sea. Hence Russia through Serbia and Montenegro had its eyes on this region. Wars and uprisings in all the areas of the Ottoman Empire forced the Turks to talks. During these talks she lost a good deal of her territory. In 1878 the Berlin Congress was held during which the European powers changed the order of Europe according to their own interests. During this congress, Austro-Hungary acquired a mandate to take over Bosnia-Herzegovina and to introduce its authority in this region. Upon the arrival of the Austro-Hungarian authorities in Bosnia, the circumstances matured for the renewal of a regular Church hierarchy. After negotiations between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Holy See, in 1881 with the Bull “Ex hac augusta” the ecclesiastical province of Vrhbosna was established. Josip Stadler was named the first Archbishop Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna (Sarajevo).
Stadler arrived in Bosnia in January 1882 and took charge of an Archdiocese that up to that time only existed on paper. In June 1882 regarding his Archdiocese he wrote: “My Archdiocese has 70 parishes which are all very distant from each other. More than half the parishes do not have a parish church, while the other half lacks just about everything. Indeed, this other half does have churches but these buildings are basements, wooden barracks and only a few have well built churches. My cathedral would serve as a mediocre parish church somewhere else in the world”. In this “cathedral” mentioned by informants as a worn-out church which was situated where the current church of St. Anthony is located at Bistrik in Sarajevo, Stadler was installed as Archbishop in January of 1882. Once established in Sarajevo he began working immediately and he had plenty to do and was not afraid to take risks in organizing his Archdiocese. Yet was this a risk or was it what we Christian faithful would call trusting completely in God’s providence, the same Providence that encouraged St. Paul the Apostle to say: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
Guided by Divine providence, during his thirty-six years at the helm of the Archdiocese, Stadler succeeded in erecting a Curia and Chapter of Canons, a Minor Seminary in Travnik, a Major Seminary in Sarajevo, a Cathedral and many churches throughout the Archdiocese. He also built two orphanages “Bethlehem” and “Egypt”, which were given agricultural estates in order to become self-sufficient. Towards this goal, he established a religious congregation for women called the Sisters Handmaids of the Child Jesus, whose main purpose was to serve Christ in the poor. He invited the Jesuit Fathers and the Daughters of Divine Charity to Bosnia, who along with the already present Franciscan Fathers and the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, dedicated themselves to the education of children and youth in all the major centres of the Archdiocese. His intention was to create a network of Catholic elementary schools in Bosnia which would be entrusted to the Christian Brothers FSC, so that in this fashion education could spread to the general population. Unfortunately he did not succeed, due to the fact that his goal was contested by the educational politics of the Austro-Hungarian authorities in Bosnia. By 1916 when the Christian brothers finally arrived in Sarajevo and immediately took over the German school it was too late, because at the end of the First World War with the formation of the State (Kingdom) of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, they had to return to Austria and never truly established their religious congregation in Bosnia.<
Despite the efforts made to materially build up the Archdiocese, the spiritual edification was not neglected either. Being a man in possession of a wide culture of intellect and heart, Stadler was also involved with writing. Along with methodical works in the areas of philosophy and theology, he wrote, translated and published many popular spiritual and practical-pastoral works which he deemed necessary for the Christian education of the Croat population. In this regard, he initiated newspapers and periodicals, and often contributed articles to them. With the already mentioned “Glasnik sv. Josipa” – “The Herald of St. Joseph”, which he started and managed as editor during his years as a priest in Zagreb, he began an official bulletin in Sarajevo of the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna called “Srce Isusovo” – “Sacred Heart of Jesus” which later on became a periodical known as “Vrhbosna katoličkoj prosvjeti” – “The Catholic Education of Vrhbosna”. Then he initiated “Glasnik Srca Isusova” – “The Herald of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” which he later on entrusted to the Jesuit Fathers in Travnik, followed by “Balkan jedinstvu i bratskoj slogi” – “The Unity of the Balkans and Brotherly Accord”, which was a periodical dedicated towards Christian unity, as well as “Hrvatski dnevnik” – “The Croatian Daily”, a political newspaper for the national and religious orientation of the Croats of Bosnia.
Stadler’s literary works were not written to obtain any acclaim (even though he was pleased when he heard that the Herder publisher decided to take over the publication of the second edition of his work on Fundamental theology, which at that time [1884/85] was already being used as a textbook in Salzburg, believing all the while that his work along with his philosophical works only served for the “greater glory of God”), nevertheless were seen as responses for the needs of the times. He understood the hidden power of printed media, which as a modern means of communication was able to influence public opinion, shape the overall life of society and also penetrate into the private realm of peoples’ lives. He could not stand by idly and watch how other spiritual, and oftentimes un-Christian and anti-Church activities, attempted to spread their own ideas and visions of society into the world. Through his efforts, all Stadler wanted was to help in the religious and national formation of all levels of society, not only in his own Archdiocese, but also in the entire region inhabited by Croats. He had many other desires and plans as well, to further build and organize in the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna, but his earthly life was too short to realize them all.
Stadler was also a great patriot, whose patriotism was enriched by his Christian faith and priestly (pastoral) service. His patriotic sentiments were verified during the Croatian Catholic Congress in Zagreb on 3 September 1900 in the struggle for a Croatian title for the College of St. Jerome in Rome, and in his support for Croatian institutes which at that time were involved with the cultural and national formation of Croat youth in Bosnia, such as the Croatian cultural society “Napredak” – “Progress”. Stadler assisted this society both materially and morally, recommended it to priests and twice saved it from financial ruin. After his death, many had words of praise for Stadler’s overall activities, such as “Splitski dani” – “The Days of Split” which wrote: “He was a patriot of conviction and action, and not of criticism and boastful words”.
Stadler came across opposition in his work and also experienced low blows, even from within Church circles as well as from those beyond them. Yet he never knew how to nor ever could hate anyone. Reconciled with God and with people, he departed from this world on 8 December 1918, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who as the Mother of Jesus Christ he constantly venerated. He did not leave any debts behind him, yet he left his works which even today inspire and speak of a great man of our Croatian history. Stadler’s body rests in the Cathedral of Sarajevo, and on 12 April 1997 the successor of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II visited this church and in his discourse to priests, religious men and women, major and minor seminarians said to them: “In this Cathedral how can I fail to recall Monsignor Josip Stadler, the first Archbishop of the revived see of ancient Vrhbosna, modern Sarajevo, and the founder of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Child Jesus, the only Religious Congregation founded in Bosnia-Hercegovina? May the living memory of this great Bishop, utterly faithful to the Apostolic See and ever ready to serve his brothers and sisters, encourage and sustain the missionary commitment of all the consecrated persons who work in this region, so dear to me!”