SOFIA, Bulgaria, MAY 23, 2002 (ZENIT.org).- John Paul II arrived here from Azerbaijan, praising Bulgaria´s Christian heritage and assuring its people he has never stopped loving them.
As a symbolic salute to the land, on this, his first visit to Bulgaria, the Holy Father kissed a basket of soil offered to him at the airport this evening by youngsters clothed in traditional customs.
The Pope then headed to St. Alexander Nevski Square for the official welcoming ceremony. Among the political and religious leaders waiting to greet him was Orthodox Patriarch Maxim, who in the past had not been favorable to a papal visit.
President Georgi Parvanov, a former Communist and Socialist leader, welcomed the Pope and noted the importance of the visit for European unity. This republic of 7.7 million people north of Turkey and Greece is hoping to enter the European Union.
John Paul II at one point joked with the crowd. “The president is young, and that´s why he is standing,” the 82-year-old Pontiff told the 5,000 people on hand. “He asked the Pope to sit because the Pope is old.”
Also on hand were Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and members of Protestant, Islamic and Jewish communities. Catholics, including Eastern-rite faithful, number about 80,000.
John Paul II made no mention of the 1981 assassination attempt that many have linked to Bulgaria´s secret service. In a speech read to the crowd by a Bulgarian priest the Pope said: “I say to all that I have never ceased to love the Bulgarian people, lifting them up always in my prayer to the Throne of the Most High.”
The Holy Father also noted the rich, spiritual heritage of the country, which is 85% Orthodox. He also noted its aspirations in Europe.
“I express my hope that the efforts to achieve social renewal, which Bulgaria is courageously undertaking, will be wisely received and generously supported by the European Union,” he said in the speech.
On Friday, after meeting with the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, the Pope will meet with 4,500 intellectuals and citizens who helped make his visit possible.
On Saturday he plans to visit an Orthodox monastery near Rila in the south. He will end his 96th international journey Sunday with the beatification of three Bulgarian religious executed in 1952 by the Communist regime.