Despite delicate ecumenical relations, Bishop Christo Proykov, of Sofia, and president of the Bulgarian Bishops’ Conference, says Pope Francis will be welcomed with joy.
Here is our exclusive interview with Apostolic Exarch of Sofia:
ZENIT: Your Excellency, how would you describe the welcome which had been prepared for Pope Francis in Bulgaria, even by the non-Catholic majority of Bulgarians?
We are happy to welcome Pope Francis! In more than a thousand years of Bulgarian Christian history, this is the second time in less than 20 years that we have received the Pope’s visit. St. John Paul II came in 2002, now Francis has accepted our invitation and we are very happy. In 2013, when [Cardinal] Bergoglio was elected Pope, we immediately sent an invitation. It was clear that we could not immediately receive an answer, but already the following year, in 2014, during our ad limina visit to the Vatican, we renewed the invitation. Then, according to the protocol, an invitation from the President of Bulgaria is also necessary. This invitation was also given, and the Pope accepted! We are very happy!
ZENIT: Who are the Bulgarian Catholics?
We are Catholics and we are Bulgarians, and this is nice, because in Bulgaria, where the majority of the population is Orthodox, there are also those who think we are foreigners. And instead we are true Bulgarians, children of this nation, born according to the history in 681 after Christ. The presence of Catholics dates back to the 15th Century, with the arrival of Franciscan missionaries from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, along with foreign miners who settled in Bulgaria at that time.
Besides the Catholics of the Latin rite, there are also those of Greek rite, since a group of Bulgarians was received in the Vatican by Pope Pius IX, in 1860, and consecrated the first bishop of the Greek-Catholic Bulgarian Church, of which I am the tenth successor.
As Catholics we are few, about 1% of the population. The majority is Orthodox, then there are about one million Muslims, out of about 7-8 million inhabitants. They are Bulgarians forcibly converted during the period of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted five centuries, known as the Pomaks.
ZENIT: What are the sectors in which the Bulgarian Catholic Church is most active in society?
First of all, we must say that during the era of Communism, all the activities of the Church were forbidden. Only the churches were open, instead schools and seminaries were closed, hospitals confiscated, until 1989, when the Church began to enter again normally into the life of society. There is Caritas, which is very active. We have several projects started for the poor, migrants, disabled people, mothers, and the unemployed or even those starting, or trying to, work. There are also Salesians, who arrived after Communism, who mainly deal with Rom.
On a social level, the Catholic Church is very active, we should be equally active at a pastoral level, but we have not yet recovered the buildings that were used for seminaries. Thanks be to God there are vocations to the priesthood, not many, but sufficient for our communities, young people whom we send abroad to study. And all the social activities of the Catholic Church, to conclude, are very well seen in our country.
ZENIT: Also in the field of education?
We do not yet have Catholic schools, because we do not have staff prepared to manage them. The number of priests, around 60 in all in the three Bulgarian dioceses (two Latin and one Greek-Catholic), is sufficient only for pastoral activities in the parishes. The religious brothers and sisters instead are about 120, including especially the Missionaries of Charity of St. Teresa of Calcutta, in the main cities of the country, who arrived after Communism.
ZENIT: And the young people?
We have young people who grow in faith with enthusiasm and good will, we hope they remain in Bulgaria, instead of emigrating abroad, because they can be of great help to the Church, as catechists for example, since we do not have many religious to teach catechism, and at the moment, they mostly deal with family mothers. I like to recall the very active participation of Bulgarian youth in the World Youth Days, established by St. John Paul II. In Krakow in 2016 we were 300, which for us is a big number!
ZENIT: You mentioned the phenomenon of emigration, especially of young people. How does this phenomenon affect the Church?
Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon and the number of Catholics has also decreased due to emigration. But the new fact is that many young families return to Bulgaria from abroad, from Western European countries, perhaps also due to the global economic crisis, to make their contribution to the future of Bulgaria, and this is a positive fact. I would like to add in brackets that there are also those who return provisionally just in these days, for the Pope’s visit!
ZENIT: What memory do people have of John Paul II’s visit in 2002?
I am happy to keep a beautiful memory of the visit of Saint John Paul II in 2002. I was already a bishop, ordained by John Paul II in 1994, it was a memorable event to welcome the Pope to my cathedral. Then I remember the enthusiasm of the people! Even the children who now see the Pope for the first time and are so happy make me remember the enthusiasm of 2002. Two-hundred and fifty people will receive the first communion during the Pope’s Mass. We are also amazed, as bishops and priests, that also many Orthodox and Protestants, Muslims and even non-believers, or indifferent, have requested to participate in the events of the papal journey.
ZENIT: But who is it for the Bulgarians – who are mostly Orthodox – Pope Francis? What do they know or what do they appreciate most about him?
Francis enjoys great sympathy among the people. Almost every day in the TV news there is talk of him, and not only now that he is preparing for his arrival in Bulgaria. Francis has attracted attention since the beginning of the pontificate, many people are surprised at the positive of his way of doing, of being, when he breaks protocols, people are enthusiastic! And thanks to him this general sympathy is also transmitted to the local Catholic community!
ZENIT: Some are surprised that Pope Francis has decided to visit your country. The local Catholic Church is very small and Bulgaria is a country on the periphery of Europe …
For me, it’s not! I think that the famous phrase, when he said that we must look to the periphery of the world, corresponds to his own way of looking at the world. He too in a certain sense comes from the periphery of the world! He has already visited countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Georgia, now Bulgaria, from where he will go to Northern Macedonia. Moreover, we are not really the periphery. Bulgaria is the gateway to Europe, coming from Turkey and Asia. In Bulgaria, however, there is also so much poverty, it is good for us to feel ourselves under the Pope’s eyes.
Francis will follow in the footsteps of a predecessor, Pope John XXIII, who before being elected Pope, lived in Bulgaria 10 years …
The motto of the visit of Francis is precisely “Pacem in terris”, the title of the famous encyclical of Pope John XXIII. It is evident the intention of Francis to put himself in the footsteps of John XXIII, coming to Bulgaria. We are a country that thanks to God has peacefully crossed the transition from atheistic communism to democracy, without bloodshed. We can be a model of peace for the entire Balkan region. That’s why the Pope chose to come here. The travel logo depicts the earth in the hands of God, with the tricolor of the Bulgarian flag that envelops the whole world. It means that from Bulgaria, the Pope will appeal to the whole world for peace.
ZENIT: The theme of the papal journey to Bulgaria will certainly be ecumenism. How would you describe the daily ecumenical relations with the Orthodox?
Here we touch on a delicate question, because ecumenism, both in theory and in practice, was a living reality during the era of communism. Every year, for the week of prayer for Christian unity, we met with the Orthodox church, prayed together. Then something changed after 1989, often now it is said that the word ecumenism means something not right, not true. It’s a shame! This was not the case in the past, and I believe that in the future it will no longer be the case. But at least for now this is the reality, even if more at the level of hierarchies than of simple believers. Indeed, among them there are many activities promoted and carried out together, in addition to prayer together.
ZENIT: The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has made it known that there will be no common prayers during the Pope’s visit, which many see as cold or taking distance … how do you interpret it?
It has been like this for 1,000 years. The Orthodox church does not pray together with the Catholic church. It is also true, however, that in recent years we have witnessed important meetings between the Pope and Orthodox hierarchs: I am thinking of Kirill of Moscow, of Cuba, of Bartholomew of Constantinople, with whom the Pope meets very often. This is an important encouragement for the future, as when in 1964 in Jerusalem Paul VI and Athenagoras met and canceled each other’s anathemas. That fact was a source of enormous joy here in Bulgaria.
Now Francis in Sofia will also have a meeting with the Patriarch of Bulgaria Neofit. I have known him since we were young, since we have almost the same age. He is a very friendly man, sincere, I always talk with him friendly when I meet him. And the meeting he will have with Francis is already enough for us to transmit courage and confidence for the future.
The rest, the decision that there will be no prayers together, we Catholics take it with respect, as we respectfully accepted the decision of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church not to go to the Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete in 2016.
ZENIT: But exactly what are the activities you mentioned that Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants carry out together?
The lay people of the different Churches work a lot together on a social level. In our Caritas, for example, Orthodox also work. In the project I mentioned earlier for single mothers there is no single Catholic girl, all are Muslim, or Orthodox, or Protestant. I also like to point out that when there are decisions to be taken under the pressure of the West, on issues such as children’s rights, abortion, euthanasia, then all of us, Protestant and Orthodox Catholics speak with one voice. The Bulgarian parliament did not vote for euthanasia precisely because we opposed together as Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. The Istanbul Convention was not ratified here in Bulgaria by the Parliament because we were all against it. So even if we do not talk about praying together, there is a vast field of action in which we already work together.
ZENIT: What fruits will the Pope ultimately bring to Bulgaria? Do you have a particular hope?
Since we learned that the Pope had accepted our invitation, we have prepared a prayer for peace that we recite every day, throughout Bulgaria, even after Mass, which says in conclusion: “God of peace, give us peace in our souls, to show with our life that peace is possible in the world”. I believe that as a fruit of the Pope’s blessing, not only in us Catholics but in all Bulgarians will remain a spirit of peace. Thus, we can truly show that peace is possible in our souls, in our families, in our communities, in our country!