The iron-barred gates of Lepoglava Prison swung open. Out walked Communist Yugoslavia's No. 1 ideological prisoner, Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac, the gaunt, peasant-born primate of his country's 7,000,000 Roman Catholics.
He did not walk into freedom. By order of the Tito government, Archbishop Stepinac had been conditionally released, after serving five years of a 16-year sentence on a trumped-up charge of wartime collaboration with the fascists. Actually, he was on his way to a roomier internment: his native village of Krasic, where, as a government communiqué said, "the former archbishop" would have to limit himself to the duties of a simple priest.
"I Don't Feel Guilty." There, in vestments borrowed from the parish priest, Stepinac said Mass for a dawn congregation of peasant women. Only his purple skullcap marked his ecclesiastical rank. Later, Stepinac talked with newsmen. He looked sallow, but otherwise fit. How did it feel to be out of prison? "I am satisfied," he answered softly. "Here, or there, it is my duty to suffer and work for the Catholic Church . . ."
How did he feel about the conditions of his release? The archbishop's eyes glowed as if aroused by the question. "I was not released under any conditions," he replied. "They released me on their own wish . . . The reason I did not ask to be released is that I don't feel guilty."
The cleric talked a bit about his prison days (he was not maltreated, could say Mass, have visitors, books and newspapers), but he declined to be drawn into political topics ("My words might be misinterpreted").
At interview's end, he picked up his black felt hat, walked easily and firmly, with no trace of prison hobble or shuffle, from the church to the rectory. Outside, he glanced at the 400-year-old, dun-colored church, largest building in the village of 400. A militiaman with red-starred cap dawdled along a village street, the only uniformed person visible in Stepinac's new cell of confinement.
"Freedom Is Suffocated." Tito, by releasing the archbishop, obviously hoped to better his standing with the U.S.,* from which he wants military aid. The gesture did get him favorable headlinesbut it did not satisfy the Vatican. Stepinac's new status, while "less hard" than imprisonment, said a church spokesman, is mainly "polvere negli occhi" (dust in the eyes).
The church still wants Tito's regime to recognize Stepinac's innocence. It regrets Belgrade's reference to "the former archbishop"no state, in the Vatican view, has the right to elevate or depose a prelate. Finally, there is the fate of the Roman Catholic Church in Yugoslavia. Said the Vatican's Osservatore Romano: "Another bishop, His Excellency Monsignor Peter Cule of Mostar, is still unjustly held in jail . . . Fully 200 priests and religious are in prison. Seminaries are still held requisitioned, and monasteries and convents are still confiscated . . . Freedom of worship ... is suffocated."
* In private audience, a visiting Congressman recently asked: "Marshal Tito, when are you going to release Cardinal Mindszenty?" Tito smiled, apparently waiting for the Congressman to correct what must be a slip of the tongue. It wasn't.