Fight conflict, cruelty with tenderness, sacrifice, Pope Francis tells Catholics

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Conflict and cruelty must be fought with tenderness, forgiveness and bearing Christ's cross, Pope Francis said.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced "a history of cruelty" and one that is seen in many conflicts around the world today, the pope told a gathering of priests, religious and seminarians in Sarajevo's cathedral June 6.

The best response "is always do the opposite of cruelty," he said; show "tenderness, brotherhood, forgiveness and carry the cross of Jesus Christ."

Making a one-day visit to the capital of a nation still scarred by ethnic and religious divisions, Pope Francis had said he came as a "pilgrim of peace."

He called on government officials and civilians to be "artisans of peace;" religious leaders to be dedicated to dialogue; consecrated men and women to be sowers of hope; and young people to be seeds of peace willing to renew the land that gave them life.

"You are the first generation after the war. You are flowers of a spring ... that wants to go forward and does not want to return to destruction and things that make us enemies of one another," he told hundreds of young people of different faiths who volunteer together with the archdiocese's St. John Paul II Center.

"You want to walk together" in joy and a way that includes everyone; not as "me" and "them," but as a "'we' in order to not destroy the country," he said.

More than 100,000 people died and millions more were displaced during the 1992-1995 war, which saw a Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims after the mostly Muslim nation declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.

The pope told leaders representing the Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic faiths they had the duty to dialogue with one another and to see diversity as a resource, not a threat.

Remembering the past is important in order to learn the lessons of history, he told the faith leaders. He repeated the point later in the day with priests, religious men and women and seminarians gathered in Sarajevo's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

People have a right to remember and share their past, not in order to feed hatred and revenge, but as part of the process of building peace, he said.

Two priests and a nun shared personal stories of being captured, threatened and tortured by militants during the conflict.

Walking to the lectern slowly and unsteadily with crutches, Father Zvonimir Matijevic of Banja Luka said his Serb captors beat him so hard, their military commander sent to the hospital where doctors and six pints of blood helped him survive. His wrists still bear scars from handcuffs squeezed too tight.

However, the priest, who has since developed multiple sclerosis, said he forgives those who hurt him and prays that God help them choose a life dedicated to the good.After the priest finished his testimony, the pope bowed deeply before him, kissed his wrist and then held him in a long embrace.

Franciscan Father Jozo Puskaric, however, "confessed" to the pope that he had given up all hope at one point and begged one of the guards to kill him and put him out of his misery. The priest's voice wavered with emotion as he told his story and paused as he sought to hold back his tears and continue.

He said when he found out he was worth more alive in a possible prisoner exchange, he regained the will to live, and said God sent "sent me his help through a Muslim woman" who gave him food while he endured inhumane conditions of torture, filth and starvation in a concentration camp.

He said forgiving one's enemies "makes room for the coming of God's kingdom in man's heart and only in this way can we recognize a brother and a sister in others."

Lastly, Daughter of Divine Charity Sister Ljubica Sekerija, who ministered to the elderly and sick in the Muslim-majority region of Travnik, said foreign fighters swept in from Arab countries and took her prisoner. She said some residents cheered on the militants and jeered at her as she was taken away.

After a priest held captive in the same room refused orders to crush the sister's rosary, the militants smashed it themselves, she said. They took the ring given to her at her final vow ceremony, ordered her to convert, humiliated and beat her along with the others they kidnapped, she said.

One militant bragged his machine gun was his family: "It is my mother, father, wife and children," she said, but there was also another who asked her if she was hungry and secretly gave her a pear.

Sister Sekerija said despite the evil and cruelty she experienced, she still felt an abundance of God's grace throughout the ordeal.

The pope, who had set aside his prepared speech, said consecrated men and women have the blood of martyrs in their veins, and are obliged to forgive. Those who don't know how to forgive are "useless."

Being close to those who suffered also helps religious keep things in perspective and remember their spiritual calling, he said.

"Worldly nuns, priests, bishops and seminarians are a caricature, they're useless," having lost the memory of the martyrs and the crucified Christ, he said.

The next time someone wants to complain about having a bad meal, a toothache or not having a TV in their room, "think of how much these people suffered. Think of those six pints of blood the priest needed to survive. And live a life worthy of the cross of Jesus Christ," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015