April 22, 2020 – The 500-year-old UNESCO Za Krizen procession on Hvar was one of the only events to take place in Croatia this month. An in-depth interview behind the scenes with Vrbanj cross-bearer, Matteo Bratanic.
In 1943, the Italian fascists limited it to just 12 people per procession, and in 1944, it took place in a refugee camp in the Sinai desert in Egypt. For more than 500 years, the Za Krizen procession on Hvar, which became inscribed as UNESCO intangible heritage in 2009, has taken place each year since 1510, with six simultaneous processions from Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirce, Vrbanj and Vrboska following a shoeless cross-bearer on an overnight, 25-kilometre pilgrimage of reflection and prayer. And while almost all events in Croatia have been cancelled this month, Za Krizen was controversially given permission to go ahead, albeit in much-reduced circumstances. Whereas hundreds or even thousands take part each year, Za Krizen 2020 was limited to just 15 people per procession.
So what was it like to carry the cross in this most unusual Za Krizen year, and what was the story behind the scenes? I am very grateful to Vrbanj cross-bearer Matteo Bratanic for this fascinating and comprehensive view of this year’s procession, preparations and aftermath through the eyes of one of the six men who carried the cross. Matteo Bratanic was the cross-bearer for Vrbanj.
Tell us firstly when you signed up to carry the Vrbanj cross? How long ago?
I wasn’t actually the one who signed myself up to carry the Vrbanj cross. It was my late grandfather who did in 2000 when my uncle, Dr. Andre Bratanic carried the cross. I was 14 months old. Unfortunately, my grandfather, who signed me up, passed away in September of last year and didn’t get the chance to see me completing his wish.
In a normal year, how would preparations look like?
Even this year, preparations began normally. People who were closely involved with the procession would come to our house for dinners, the “Kantaduri” would practice their singing of the “Gospin Plac,” and we would all collectively practice singing the songs that would be sung when we arrived in the different towns. Also with regards to preparations through the church… of course going to mass every Sunday, going to confession at the beginning of Lent and just slowly preparing yourself spiritually for what’s to come.
How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically?
Mentally, you have to just have to drill into your head that it’s not impossible. Many people have walked the 25km while carrying an 8kg cross and you will be one of them. Also that there is no need to panic. To be honest, when we left Vrbanj for the procession, all I could think about was “Oh God, what did I get myself into, how am I going to be able to withstand this, etc.” But a former priest that in Vrbanj, Don Branimir, said a very true thing that I totally agree with. “From Vrbanj to Vrboska… you carry the cross. From Vrboska onwards, the cross carries you.” Once you find a comfortable position of carrying, it becomes a piece of cake. Physically, you must be prepared to carry an 8kg cross so upper body strength comes in very handy. Due to the pandemic, there wasn’t much I could do so I would lock myself in my room and do push-ups and sit-ups as well as help my father in the fields which comes with lots of heavy lifting. I am very active as well. In Canada, I play soccer and go to the gym often so I wasn’t worried. Also stamina is key as well to be able to withstand the 25km. We all know its not straight the entire way. The route to Pitve is the toughest because it’s uphill all the way. Thanks to my soccer and constant hiking/walking, I was very prepared and felt in really great shape. In the morning when we got back to Vrbanj, I was ready to do another 25km lap.
This was not a normal year. When did you realise that Za Krizen 2020 would not be like previous years, if it went ahead at all?
1943, 1944 and 2020 will be the years people remember most. I realized that this year wouldn’t be a normal year once all the restrictions came into play by the Croatian government (Cafes closing, stores allowing a limited number of people in at a time, no social gatherings, etc.). About two weeks before the procession, there was an order from the police that only three people plus the Krizonosa (cross-bearer) would go. A week after that, the number got pushed up to ten but shortly after, the number got reduced to five. Thanks to the efforts of Antonio Skarpa (Mayor of Stari Grad), Mario Lusic-Bulic (Member of Vrbanj church committee) and Miko Belic “Kica” (President of Jelsa church committee), the number went back up to ten people. Thankfully due to the efforts of the main “Stozer” in Zagreb, they allowed fifteen people to go for the procession which was a great relief to myself, my family and all of Vrbanj.
Tell us about your emotions as discussions went to the desk of the Prime Minister.
Knowing that Prime Minister Plenkovic is from Hvar and a regular attendee of this event, we were confident that “Za Krizen” would be go ahead but the number of participants remained a mystery. We were mentally prepared for the original five-person procession but when the news came the day before that fifteen people would go, we were nothing but thankful and joyful.
How were discussions about how to proceed, and how close was it to being cancelled?
As mentioned above, we were mentally prepared to take part in the procession with five people. Everybody’s main focus was that the six crosses go so that the 500-year-old tradition wouldn’t be stopped. The tradition could have easily been cancelled but I know for myself that I was ready to go on my own along with my father by my side just to avoid stopping the tradition. There were talks that it would be postponed until September. Nobody on the island was on board with that idea as it just wouldn’t be the same. We are celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection at this time for a reason… This procession would not make any sense at all if it were to take place during any other time in the year.
There was a lot of anger elsewhere in Croatia that Za Krizen was allowed to proceed. What do you say to that?
With Croatia along with the entire world being in this pandemic, I understand why people outside of Hvar would be upset. Residents of Hvar are isolated 365 days a year and this is one of the few things/events that they look forward to every year. With the careful preparation of the procession by the “Stozer” and police along with participants following all rules and regulations given to them. Before the procession there were no cases on Hvar so there was no chance for any danger. Thankfully after the procession we can confirm that there are still no cases on Hvar so a big thanks for everybody’s participation in following the rules! We are all human with our own opinions. People outside of Hvar do not show the same passion and feeling towards this 500-year-old tradition as residents of the island do. We fully understand the concerns and complaints we faced and that is all fine, but there are certain limits and a line that should not be crossed.
Once people start showing disrespect towards the church, procession and ultimately God, especially when they do not understand how much this procession means to the residents of Hvar, this is “crossing the line.” We who have a strong positive feeling towards the church, procession and God get very annoyed and disrespected with unnecessary comments against our beliefs. In my opinion as a message for all people and this is something we learn in elementary school… “If you don’t have something nice or smart to say, don’t say it at all.”
How was the procession for you when it finally went ahead?
All Hvar was excited and thankful. I was very happy because I have been waiting 20 years for this opportunity and I was finally able to follow my father’s, grandfather’s, uncle’s and great grandfather’s footsteps in carrying the cross, but I was happier that I would be one of the six “Krizonose” this year who would continue this sacred tradition, and not stop it. Nobody expected that this year would be “unusual,” but myself and my family could not be more pleased with how everything turned out. Throughout Lent this year, it was filled with lots of prayer through masses on TV contributing to spiritual preparation. The procession itself was very small but very beautiful and full of prayer. In the procession, we had two guys who were leading the prayers throughout the night. We also managed to include very talented singers from Vrbanj who made the singing throughout the night sound very beautiful. In Pitve, we received a comment on how they were very impressed with our singing as there were only ten people in the church singing but it sounded as if there were 100 people.
Your family and the people of Vrbanj did a very nice gesture for the earthquake victims of Zagreb. Tell us about ‘Varbonj za Zagreb.’
About a month ago in the middle of the roller coaster ride of preparing for “Za Krizen,” there was an earthquake that affected Zagreb where quite a few homes and churches got damaged. At the same time, we were getting blasted with unpleasant comments from people who were against the procession from occurring. My father and I decided that we would donate all money received as a gift, funds towards dinner on Holy Thursday and Lunch (Obid od Kriza) on Easter Monday. If anybody gave a gift that was not money, we would calculate the value of that gift and donate that amount from our own pockets for Zagreb.
We proposed this idea to don Mili Plenkovic (the priest in Vrbanj) and the church committee who gladly accepted this proposal and named the campaign “Varbonj za Zagreb – Za Krizen 2020.” They also suggested that they would donate to that fund any money collected during the Holy Week in church as “lemozina.” Once everything was completed a week after Easter, we are proud to say that 100,000.00 HRK was raised. 50,000.00 HRK will be paid to the account opened by the government of the Republic of Croatia to help of Zagreb. The remaining 50,000.00 HRK will be paid on the account of “Kuce sv. Terezije od Malog Isusa za nezbrinutu djecu” in Zagreb. Indeed, it is an institution led by the Carmelites of the divine heart of Jesus. They take care of children who don’t have proper parent care. As the earthquake significantly damaged their building in the center of Zagreb, they had to leave their premises until everything was renovated.
And how do you feel now, 2 weeks later? It must have been an incredibly emotional time for you.
(Hvar TV with the 2012 Pitve cross-bearer behind the scenes – fascinating report)
I feel very proud of myself and happy that I took part in this tradition. Growing up, not being fully on Hvar, I could have easily refused to take part, but after coming many times as a child, I realized that this is something that I want to do. I am also thankful that people of Vrbanj accepted me as one of their own where I am not seen as a “Kanadanin” (Canadian) but as a “Varbanjanin.”