Bulgaria: Bridge Between Rome And Orthodoxy

Papal Visit Is Free of Controversy

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SOFIA, MAY 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).-Bulgaria, slow in its post-Communist transition, speeds up its opening to the West with the greatly anticipated visit of the Pope on May 23-26.

This 96th international trip is extremely significant for John Paul II. Of all the Orthodox nations of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has been the closest to Russia. It also maintains historical relations with Rome, because it was from the Pope that Sts. Cyril and Methodius were sent to evangelize the Slavic world.

In the wake of his trips to Rumania, Georgia, Greece, and the Ukraine, the Holy Father is encouraging a new stage in the reconciliation with Orthodox Churches through this trip to Bulgaria.

Solomon Passy, former president of the Atlantic Club and now Foreign Minister, first suggested the visit. «I regarded this initiative as a mission of mine,» he related proudly.

The Orthodox Church has expressed its position: «We are not worried about the Pope´s visit. He is an illustrious visitor and we will welcome him as he deserves,» Patriarch Maxim said in a distant tone to the newspaper «24 Hours.» The Patriarch is head of the autocephalous (self-governing) Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

One of the most important events of the papal visit will take place on May 25, when John Paul II celebrates the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, laying a floral wreath in the Square of Sofia´s Orthodox Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski, and later visiting both Patriarch Maxim at his headquarters, and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Early this year, letters were exchanged between John Paul II and Patriarch Maxim, who previously had reservations about the timeliness of the papal visit.

When the Patriarch received Cardinal Edward I in the Bulgarian capital in November of 2000, Cassidy, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, expressed his opposition to the visit because «the Pope´s presence in Sofia might encourage the divisions of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria and reinforce the dissidents.»

This internal clash arose with the collapse of Communism. One sector of the Church accused the Bishops of conniving with the former regime and ridiculed Maxim, calling him «Marxism.» Maxim is now close to 90, and was elected Patriarch back in 1971 by party pressure.

With the departure of a dozen Bishops from the Synod in 1996, the schism became official. The faithful became confused when the dissidents presented themselves with the same name: the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The dissidents were led by Metropolitan Innokentij, supported by some politicians of the Union of Democratic Forces. But over time, he lost support. Five Bishops have joined the legitimate Patriarch and now the dispute is virtually reduced to the acquisition of church possessions.

It should be noted that the Pope will not meet with dissident Metropolitan Innokentij. The authorities have decided not to invite him to papal meetings.

Although afflicted by internal disputes, the Orthodox Church coexists peacefully with the Catholic Church in the country. «Relations are very good,» Metropolitan Neofit said, adding, «In Bulgaria there is no proselytism on the part of the missionaries of Rome.»

The Bulgarian Catholic community is the smallest in Eastern Europe, with only 80,000 faithful or 1% of the population. However, it is a presence that is firmly rooted and respected by the Orthodox since the time of the persecutions under the Ottoman Empire.

Neither was there conflict between the two Churches during the Communist years, perhaps in part because the properties confiscated from Catholics were not given to the Orthodox. Even the small Greek-Catholic community continued to exist in Communist Bulgaria: though persecuted, it was not eliminated.

«Many Orthodox come to Mass here. There is an atmosphere of reciprocal understanding. There are many mixed marriages, and many Orthodox have expressed their desire to attend the meeting with the Pope,» Capuchin Fr. Krzystof Kurzov said, who is the parish priest of the Church of St. Joseph.

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