Patriarch Maxim Shows Unexpected Welcome for John Paul II

Both Sides Speak Hopefully of Unity

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SOFIA, Bulgaria, MAY 24, 2002 ( Patriarch Maxim, the leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who long opposed a visit by John Paul II, gave his Roman guest a solemn welcome today.

The Pontiff responded in turn by offering the Bulgarian Orthodox Church two gifts: the use of the Church of Sts. Vincent and Anastasius, located near the Trevi Fountain in Rome; and a relic of St. Dasius, a Roman soldier and martyr of the first centuries, to whom Bulgaria is profoundly devoted.

«I come to you with a sense of esteem for the mission which the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria is undertaking, and I wish to express my respect and appreciation for your commitment to the good of the people of this land,» the Pope said when greeting the 87-year-old patriarch of Sofia.

Following a handshake by the two religious leaders, the majority of the 12 Bulgarian metropolitans kissed the Pope´s hand. The atmosphere was much warmer than had been anticipated by observers.

In fact, Patriarch Maxim surprised Catholics and Orthodox when he participated Thursday in the welcome ceremony for the Pontiff, although the patriarch was not included in the program.

Orthodox Metropolitan Simeon, responsible for the faithful of Western Europe, had earlier received the Pope in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski. He also delivered the welcome address, on behalf of the patriarch and the Holy Synod.

«We, Christians, must together save the world, threatened by rampant materialism,» the metropolitan said.

«We esteem you, Holiness, and consider you as an apostle,» he added before exchanging an embrace of peace with the Pope.

John Paul II replied by saying that the meeting «is a sign of a gradual growth in ecclesial communion.»

«Yet this cannot distract us from sincerely recognizing that Christ our Lord founded a single Church, while we today appear to the world divided, as if Christ himself were divided,» John Paul II added.

«Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature,» the Pope said.

It was the national feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the day of Bulgarian culture and letters. The two brothers, inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet, left from these lands in the ninth century to evangelize the Slav peoples.

The Holy Father proposed the two saints, whom he proclaimed co-patrons of Europe at the beginning of his pontificate, as the means to attain unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. They were sent by the patriarch of Constantinople to evangelize, but they authenticated their mission by visiting the Pope.

For Christians today they are a «spiritual bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions, which both come together in the one great Tradition of the universal Church,» the Pontiff added.

When John Paul II bid Patriarch Maxim farewell outside the Patriarchal Palace, some 12 Catholics cried out enthusiastically: «Unity! Unity!»

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