Josip Juraj Strossmayer – people’s bishop and first son of the motherland
Roman Catholicism holds a meaningful place in the lives of many Croats. The art, architecture, music, literature, and traditions all mirror this influence. Even followers of other religions and those who identify as agnostic or atheist are aware that it has been the foundation of Croatian cultural identity for centuries.
Although the socialist government in Yugoslavia aimed to promote atheism, the impact of Catholicism persisted. Considering this, it appears a bit strange that the very notion of Yugoslavia had its inception in the mind of a Catholic priest from the 19th century, bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer.
The unity, harmony, and love among southern Slavs, bridging the gap between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, was Strossmayer’s greatest desire in this world. His life, described by the British author Rebecca West as one of the most beautiful in recent history, was entirely devoted to that idea.
In pursuit of his vision as a scholar, priest, politician, national champion, patron, and driving force behind cultural, educational, and scientific advances in modern Croatian history, Strossmayer influenced the course of the nation’s destiny more than any other politician of his time.
In this post, we cover:
- Formative years
- Guiding light of the nation
- Pioneer of modern ecumenism
- Founder of Academy and University
- Charismatic visionary
- Interesting facts
The facts are these…
Josip Juraj Strossmayer – People’s bishop and first son of the motherland
Strossmayer was born on February 4, 1815, in Osijek, which was then a part of the Kingdom of Slavonia within the Austrian Empire. His arrival coincided with Napoleon Bonaparte’s departure from Elba, marking the outset of a war he eventually lost, reshaping the course of European history. In that era, Croatia existed in relative obscurity, far from historical currents, with a largely illiterate population.
Among the illiterate was Strossmayer’s father, Ivan. His lineage is traced back to an Austrian soldier who settled in Osijek during the 18th century, integrating his family into the Croatian culture. It was Strossmayer’s mother, Ana Erdeljac, who cultivated within him a profound fondness for the Croatian language and Slavonian folklore.
As an extraordinarily gifted student, Strossmayer pursued theological studies in Budapest, achieving a doctorate in philosophy, followed by another doctorate in theology from Vienna’s Augustineum. Upon his return to Đakovo in Slavonia, he taught mathematics and natural sciences in the episcopal seminary. In the fall of 1847, he was appointed court curate and dean of the Augustineum, also serving as a canon law professor.
Strossmayer witnessed the monumental events of 1848 in Vienna, the culmination of the massive sociopolitical turmoil in Europe, where ethnic groups, including Croats, began to fight for greater political rights, freedom, and national identity. The same year, he was nominated for the bishop of the Bosnian and Syrmia dioceses, with Đakovo as the seat. He was only 33.
„I am the first people’s bishop,” proclaimed Strossmayer when he accepted the nomination. He held the position of bishop until his passing in 1905, an impressive span of 55 years. Throughout this period, he demonstrated unwavering loyalty and affection for his people despite encountering significant opposition from both the church and the political arena.
In the 1860s, as an advocate of the Neovisna narodna stranka (People’s Party), Strossmayer was actively involved in political activities within the Imperial Council, Croatian parliaments, the press, etc. The primary objectives of the party included establishing Croatian as an official language and unifying Croatian provinces as a way to resist Hungarization and Germanization. During this period, Dalmatia was politically and spiritually isolated from the rest of the country.
Strossmayer and his supporters envisioned an autonomous, federatively organized South Slavic state as a lasting resolution to the prevailing political challenges. Ultimately, he wanted to secure Croatia’s independence within the frameworks of the Austrian, Hungarian, or Yugoslav federations. Regrettably, none of these options materialized, leaving his political dreams unfulfilled.
Disappointed, Strossmayer reoriented his focus toward education, and one of his mottos became “To freedom through education”. After his political endeavors failed to liberate his people, he decided to set them free through art and education. He believed a nation of liberated spirits, even if subjected to physical bondage, will not remain bound forever.
Even as a priest, Strossmayer advocated for the rights of his minority community. During the First Vatican Council in 1870, he distinguished himself as a skilled orator, delivering a speech against the dogma of papal infallibility and becoming its main critic. He aimed to better relations with the Orthodox Christians in his diocese, and in the end, he embraced the Council’s decision.
At the Council, he emerged as a genuine pioneer in modern ecumenical efforts, and his extraordinary oratory skills garnered him the title “the first orator of Christianity.” Thus, he attracted fame and fervent attention from religious reformists and theologians of diverse perspectives, ranging from Orthodox and Protestant, notably Anglican, to Catholic.
A clear manifestation of Strossmayer’s boldness and impact is exemplified in an incident referred to as the Bjelovarska afera (Bjelovar Affair). During a meeting, the emperor Franjo Josip I. (Francis Joseph I) raised an objection to Strossmayer for sending a congratulatory telegram to Kijev (Kiev) on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the Christianization of the Russians. The emperor saw his action as a participation in a conspiracy against the European order.
The bishop responded, “My conscience is clear!” and walked away. Strossmayer was one of the rare individuals capable of opposing both the pope and the emperor. He was able to do that thanks to the substantial influence that stemmed from his exceptional moral reputation rather than his relatively modest position within the hierarchy.
Recognizing that literature and science struggled to flourish in a nation lacking a common literary language, the bishop aimed to establish institutions that could unite the diverse South Slavic people who spoke different dialects through a single language.
The Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjestnosti – JAZU (Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts), established through his initiative in a primarily rural area characterized by illiteracy, became the first national academy among Slavic nations. Today, it is called Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti – HAZU (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts).
Strossmayer’s legacy includes founding the Academy and University, establishing schools and institutions, constructing the Đakovačka katedrala Svetog Petra (Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter) in Đakovo, as well as supporting literature, science, and art. His contributions still stand as an enduring monument to his impact. Without too much exaggeration, it could certainly be said that he was the leader of the entire cultural and educational work in Croatia.
When his critics objected to him squandering a huge wealth while his people were poor, he replied that if the people have real and material needs and wants, they also have more of the spiritual ones. His Cathedral in Đakovo, praised by Papa Ivan XXIII. (Pope John XXIII) as “the most beautiful church between Venice and Constantinople” held for him both religious and educational significance.
For him, a nation without morals was deprived of a role model for a higher social life. Also, he believed that the priesthood required an understanding of art. At the same time, he was aware that religious feeling in the world had weakened, but he wanted to warm secular monuments with the fervor of religious feeling.
Despite his humble origins, Strossmayer’s aristocratic manners paved the way for him to enter the upper levels of European society. Extraordinary eloquence, not only in Croatian but also in Latin, German, and French, cultivated through a deep appreciation of culture and the beauty of spirituality, completed the charm of his personality. Even after many years, individuals would remember meeting him with delight.
It has been said that Strossmayer rarely wielded his pen without producing something of enduring importance. His speeches and letters still continue to astonish modern readers. However, he was a man of action rather than words, and his writing was merely an incidental outcome of his endeavors.
Strossmayer engaged in correspondence with hundreds, if not thousands, of contemporaries. Among his protégés and admirers was the writer Marija Jurić Zagorka, who held Strossmayer in high esteem. Zagorka reached out to him as a young writer, seeking assistance to pursue journalism. He helped her even though he was unfamiliar with her and her writing. With his help, she became the first Croatian female journalist. Later, she visited him to express her gratitude for the assistance he provided.
On that occasion, the bishop said to her, “Those who venture into a profession with such profound enthusiasm and determination undoubtedly possess a certain innate talent for it.” He found joy in someone actively seeking a chance to engage in work with genuine enthusiasm. Another, even more vivid example of Strossmayer’s patronage is the renowned painting called Gundulićev san (Gundulić’s Dream) by a Croatian painter and academic Vlaho Bukovac.
Josip Juraj Strossmayer was born a twin. His brother died soon after birth, and not knowing which one it was, the parents left the surviving child with both names – Josip and Juraj.
As an apostle of Slavic harmony and the successor of the holy brothers Ćiril (Cyril) and Metod (Methodius), he was known in the Slavic world and passionately advocated for the preservation of the Slavic liturgy in Croatia, not the then standard Latin, while promoting the glagoljica (Glagolitic alphabet).
His name holds the 14th position among the most frequently occurring street names in Croatia. Osijek University, parks in Split and Đakovo, and the oldest promenade in Zagreb’s Gornji Grad (Upper City) also carry his honorable name. Beyond Croatia’s borders, there’s a Strossmayer Square in Prague and a street named after him in Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv.
In 1882, Strossmayer was given the title of an honorary citizen in Ljubljana. Zagreb did the same thing in 1910 after his passing. Additionally, there’s a hotel named after him in Rogaška Slatina, Slovenia, a town where he used to spend his summer vacation.
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Hrvatski domoljub Josip Juraj Strossmayer: ogledi, Ur. Ivo Padovan, 1995., Zagreb, Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, Dom i svijet, Naprijed
Josip Juraj Strossmayer: političar i mecena, Košćak, Vladimir, 1990., Osijek, Revija, Izdavački centar Otvorenog sveučilišta Osijek
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