Bulgaria Getting Ready for Papal Visit in May

Vatican Delegation Visits Orthodox Patriarch

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SOFIA, Bulgaria, JAN. 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Preparations are under way for John Paul II´s May 23-25 visit to Bulgaria, a trip that could signal improving ties between Catholics and Orthodox.

A Vatican delegation led by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, and including Monsignor Renato Boccardo, has just visited Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Maksim.

In recent years Bulgarian politicians have invited the Holy Father to visit their country, but John Paul II has responded that his visit would depend on a friendly attitude on the part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passi has now expressed the wish of Prime Minister Zar Simeon that «the new Bulgarian government supports the visit and will make the greatest efforts» to receive the Pope.

Archbishop Antonio Menini, the apostolic nuncio, has worked for many years for this objective. Visits to Sofia by Bishop Josef Homeyer of Hildesheim, Germany, organized by Monsignor Nikolaus Wyrwoll of the Catholic Institute for Eastern Churches in Regensburg, fostered a positive atmosphere between the two Churches.

As the Orthodox see it, the program for this visit should be prepared by a joint commission of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in the country «working in synchrony with the Bulgarian government to give a good impression of the hospitality of the Bulgarian people and the Bulgarian Church.»

Bulgaria is much linked with the memory of Pope John XXIII, who came in contact with Bulgarian Orthodoxy during his years as nuncio. This is also the topic of a movie being produced in Bulgaria by an Italian-U.S. team.

The Holy Father plans to be in Bulgaria on the occasion of the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius (who, together with St. Benedict are co-patron of Europe). Bulgaria is the cradle of Eastern, Northern and Southern Slav Christianity.

The Pope may also make a pastoral visit to the few Bulgarian Catholics in this land of 7.7 million people. Catholics, who comprise 2% of the country´s Christians, have been organized since 1994 in three dioceses (one of Byzantine and two of Latin rite). About 90% of the Catholics are of the Latin rite.

Protestants make up about 2% of the population. They have been increasing recently and number more than 20 denominations.

But 96% of Bulgarian Christians are traditional Orthodox. Christians represent over 80% of the Bulgarian population.

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