The Croatian community are a vital source of hope in Ireland, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
Although a priest is sometimes described as a shepherd tending to his flock, it’s clear that Croatian chaplain Fr Josip Levakovic radically embodies this phrase.
Arriving to Ireland in July 2016, Fr Josip has managed to bring life, energy and spiritual support to Croatian communities across the country, in the hope that his native young people will continue to be empowered by the church.
His tenacious conviction in this mission stems back to his youth, where he developed a profound appreciation for the Faith, in particular, its traditions and principles.
“My parents, my whole family were very faithful…we spent a lot of time in the church. It was like my second home, especially on Saturdays. We prepared the church for the services,” he says, stressing that Catholic values have been an intricate part of their lives. Fr Josef adds that his grandmother played a crucial role in his spiritual upbringing, describing her as a “source of the Faith”.
With so much exposure to the Catholicism, it came as no surprise to Fr Josip’s parents that he had chosen to become a priest, a decision, he says, that was not his own, but God’s. He explains that it was natural for him to follow this vocation given that encountering priests and nuns was an “everyday” part of his life, allowing the “seed” of Faith to continue to grow.
“My parents, they knew it. When I started seminary, I still didn’t know why but when I was ordained then I realised that God needs me,” he says, adding that he is simply an actor in God’s story.
Fr Josip was ordained in 2012 in Croatia, and worked as a church curate and parish priest in his home country until 2016. With the prompting of his archbishop, he was tasked with the responsibility of creating and leading a Croatian chaplaincy in Ireland, a conversation, he says, which was “the beginning of the story”.
“I was thinking to myself, is he crazy because I didn’t know much about Ireland. We’ll need to start from the beginning. So, I just said to God, ‘I hope and believe you will send me there, and you will lead that community and I will be there to work and be part of that story’,” Fr Josip says.
With this prayer in mind, over the past two years, he has brought together and built up the Croatian community in Ireland, giving them a place where they can pray and receive the sacraments. The community gather in Dublin’s St Mary’s Church every Sunday evening, to attend Mass and catch up with one another.
“I can say around 200 or more are connected with the community and they come to the service whenever they can. But they’re not here every Sunday because they’re working. Sometimes we have 50 of them, 80, 100 – it depends,” Fr Josip says.
In spite of the sporadic numbers, he says that the parishioners are enthusiastic about their Faith as it provides them comfort and sustenance, especially given the stressful problems they face when coming to a new country.
“They’re here. They’re alone. Sometimes they have a lot of different troubles with jobs and accommodation. Then they feel alone – they’re squeezed totally. That’s the materialistic part of the story, but then they come and ask for help – not for money – but for spiritual support,” Fr Josip explains.
He adds that the Sacrament of Confession “is very important here in the community” and that it’s “amazing” when people experience the “real fruits” of this Catholic rite.
“They just need support, but when God is in the middle of that support, it’s better,” he says, adding that he is seeing more and more young people coming to Confession and experiencing the benefits of reconciliation.
Alongside the challenges his community face, Fr Josip says he sometimes finds it difficult to minister, especially because he is trying to acclimatise to a new country and new people.
“It’s very challenging. I’m here for the first time in my life. I just know that I’m trying to do my best as a priest but sometimes you need to be more than a priest,” he says, pointing out that he also needs to be a friend and somebody with whom parishioners will talk.
In spite of these trials, Fr Josip stresses that the Sacraments allow him to experience a form of peace, and not focus too heavily on the burdens of others.
“It’s a great experience for priests, sometimes it is maybe stressful, but if you do the Sacraments you are not alone. You are not doing it on your own. So, I don’t need to be stressed with their life. I’m just a channel – God will give that grace,” he says.
It is in this environment where Fr Josip can preach God’s Word to a community of eager listeners and believers, that it will continue to grow even bigger and stronger. His hope is that both Irish and Croatian communities can come together and bring a new-found vitality to an almost 200-year-old church.
“Maybe young people from our community can bring new life, new spirit, who knows, who knows. And maybe, that’s why we’re here, who knows? God knows.”