On May 5th, Pope Francis will begin his two-day visit to Bulgaria, a multi-religious Eastern European country with an Eastern Orthodox majority that makes up 59.4% of the population. Muslims make up 7.8% of the population, while Catholics (of both Latin and Byzantine rites) and Jews are minorities in Bulgaria.
Why is Francis going East? What is the message Francis wants to bring to Bulgaria and Bulgarians? What is Francis hoping to accomplish in Bulgaria?
The theme of Francis’ visit is peace, peace on earth – the same message St. John XXIII brought to Bulgaria 94 years ago. Msgr. Angelo Roncalli, the future pontiff and saint, arrived in Bulgaria on April 25, 1925, and served as the Holy See’s Apostolic Visitor for ten years with two main objectives: pastoring the small Roman Catholic community of Bulgaria and helping to build bridges with Bulgaria’s Orthodox faithful. Pastoring the tiny Roman Catholic community scattered throughout the nation was no small task. Roncalli preached, pastored, and catechized, traveling for long hours by train or on horseback to be with the Catholic flock who were living in poverty and on society’s margins.
Bridge building with the Bulgarian Orthodox majority and improving relations between the Vatican and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was also challenging. At the time Roncalli was serving in Bulgaria the estrangement between East and West ran deep, and ecumenical dialogue seemed an almost impossible enterprise. However, this did not set him back: trust was built as he helped Bulgarians after the deadly earthquake of April 14, 1928. The earthquake’s epicenter was near Chirpan, between Sofia and Plovdiv. Roncalli set out to assist families of those who were killed, as well as those who were injured and lost their homes and their belongings. The Apostolic Administrator was living with people in tents, raising Vatican officials’ awareness of the humanitarian disaster in Bulgaria until his superiors sent relief funds to open what became to be known as the “Pope’s soup kitchen” for the Bulgarian homeless and the needy.
The future pontiff grew to love Bulgaria and Bulgarians. People loved him back, calling him the Bulgarian Pope. His Christmas 1934 sermon, before he left Sofia for Constantinople, is significant. In his farewell sermon to the Bulgarians, he discussed the Irish Christmas custom of leaving a lighted candle in the window to reflect the family’s wait for Jesus and Mary. The Apostolic Visitor extended an invitation to any Bulgarian, regardless of religion:
Wherever I may go, if a Bulgarian pass by my door, whether it’s night-time or whether he’s poor, he will find the candle lighted at my window. Knock, knock. You won’t be asked if you’re a Catholic or not; the title of Bulgarian brother is enough. Come in. Two fraternal arms will welcome you and the warm heart of a friend will make it a feast-day. Such is the charity of the Lord whose graces have made life sweet during my ten years stay in Bulgaria.
Nearly a century later, Pope Francis is visiting Bulgaria with a message of peace, using the same theme as St. John XXIII’s 1963 Encyclical Pacem in Terris: natural rights. Human beings are created in God’s image and possess natural dignity and rights: the right to freedom in investigating the truth, freedom of speech and publication, freedom to pursue a profession, freedom to worship God, economic rights, the right of meeting and association, and the right to emigrate and immigrate. Francis will walk in the same path as his predecessor John XXXIII, pastoring the small Catholic (Latin and Byzantine-rite) community and bringing a message of peace to all Bulgarians.
Francis’ first goal might be easier to achieve; the second is far more complicated and sensitive. Sharing this message of peace today requires tough ecumenism, firm diplomacy, and maintaining a delicate ecclesial-political balance among three powerful stakeholders: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria is distancing itself from any public ecumenical event with the pontiff. First, the Holy Synod (the governing body) of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced on April 3, 2019, that the invitation to Pope Francis to visit Bulgaria came from the government authorities, and consequently his visit and the events related to the visit should be coordinated with State institutions. The Holy Synod added that “Any form of liturgical celebration or common prayer, as well as wearing liturgical vestments for the occasion, is unacceptable to us as it is not allowed by the holy canons.” This means that there will be no participation from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the prayer service for peace presided over by Pope Francis on May 6, 2019, with representation from Bulgaria’s Muslims and Jews. The Orthodox majority will not be represented.
Second, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not participate in the most recent Catholic-Orthodox 2016 meeting in Crete, siding instead with Moscow. The situation with the Autocephaly of Ukraine has direct consequences on ecumenism and dialogue between Rome and the Eastern Churches. The members of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria condemned the decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to Ukraine. The Bulgarian hierarchy raised the issue of the canonicity of such a unilateral action undertaken by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew without the consent of the other Orthodox Churches or a pan-Orthodox discussion.
Third, the same charged ecclesial-political situation will follow Francis to Macedonia, especially with regard to the uncertain status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s autocephaly and the canonical irregularity of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. When initially approached by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit of Bulgaria explained: “The Macedonians are our brothers and accepting the outstretched hand of the Macedonian Orthodox Church is the least we can do.” Later, the Bulgarian Holy Synod changed its position for fear of schism in the Orthodox world if the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were to grant autocephaly to the Macedonian Church and if the promised help from Bulgaria would “provoke… negative reactions from the Serbian, Greek, and Constantinopolitan churches.”
The Patriarch of Moscow also has stakes in Macedonian Orthodoxy. His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations considers resolving the Macedonian Church matter “inconceivable” without the Serbian Orthodox Church participation, as the Macedonian Orthodox Church was under the Patriarchate of Serbia until 1967. The Patriarch of Serbia Irinej met recently with Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Vatican’s Secretary of State and thanked Pope Francis for the official position of the Vatican, which prefers dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to unilateral recognition of independence of Kosovo. Patriarch Irenej of Serbia has also expressed his disagreement with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew regarding the Ukraine autocephaly. Francis will not want to risk jeopardizing relations with Kirill and Russia after the historic February 12, 2016, Cuba meeting.
Is it good that Francis’ visit to Bulgaria is taking place? I think the answer is “Yes”: walking ecumenism; personal contacts with the Orthodox leaders and the Bulgarian people; and raising awareness of the legacy of peace and dialogue with the Orthodox and faithful of other religions, including Jews and Muslims, that St. John XXXIII built in Bulgaria are beneficial. For all these reasons and more, Francis’ visit to Bulgaria will be worth it. Francis wants to tend to the candle in the window lighted by St. John XXIII and keep the flame aglow. His waiting for peace is active anticipation; his eagerness for peace impels him to travel to Bulgaria and follow the lead of John XXIII, staying the course to help build a bright future for all Bulgarians.
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