“I would like to thank you for helping me to see better and to understand a little more fully why this land was so dear and important to Saint John XXIII.,” Pope Francis said on May 6, 2019.
His remarks came in a meeting with the Catholic community in Rakovski, Bulgaria at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. His thoughts of Saint John XXIII are grounded in history.
The theme of Pope Francis’ journey is “Peace on Earth,” which is also the tile of an encyclical of Pope John XXIII, first Apostolic Visitor in Bulgaria. The appointment of Monsignor Angelo Roncalli (future Pope John XXIII) as Apostolic Visitor in Bulgaria took place after his Episcopal Ordination, held in Rome on March 19, 1925.
“His first visit to the Orthodox Holy Synod took place very early, in August 1925. The future saintly Pope wished to insist on the need to seek what unites rather than what divides,” said Kiril Kartaloff, a correspondent of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, in an April 30, 2019, article in Vatican News.
“From the first days of his arrival in Bulgaria, the Holy See’s representative began to meet the Orthodox, the separated brothers” and “to believe that the path to follow was to develop friendly relations between Christians,” continued Kartaloff. During his stay in the country, which lasted 10 years, Monsignor Roncalli laid the basis of the foundation of an Apostolic Delegation, of which he was appointed the first representative in 1931. He succeeded, not without effort, in re-organizing the Catholic Church, to establish friendly relations with the government and the Bulgarian Royal Household and to establish the first ecumenical contacts with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
“His stay in Bulgaria, therefore, contributed to the development of the ecumenical sensibility that he had the occasion to develop further in the course of the years spent in Turkey and in Greece, up to the convocation of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council,” explained Kartaloff.
“This message of faith is and remains the end sought so that the Christian East and West can come together fully to make “ the Gospel” shine better together, he concluded.
Pope Francis recognized the impact of his predecessor on the Church in Bulgaria – and the impact of Bulgaria on the future pope.
“To see with the eyes of faith. I would like to recall something that ‘Good Pope John’ once said,” Pope Francis recalled. “His heart was so attuned to the Lord that he could register his disagreement with those around him who saw nothing but evil and to refer to them as ‘prophets of doom’. He was convinced of the need to trust in God’s providence, which constantly accompanies us and even in the midst of adversity is capable of bringing about his deeper and unforeseeable plans (Opening Address of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962).
“God’s people learn to see, trust, discover and let themselves be guided by the power of the resurrection. They recognize, of course, that there will always be painful times and unjust situations, yet they do not wring their hands, shrink back in fear or, even worse, create a climate of scepticism, discomfort or disruption, since this does nothing but harm the soul, causing hope to flag and hindering every possible solution. Men and women of God have the courage to take the first step in finding creative ways of directly testifying that Love is not dead, but has triumphed over every obstacle. They get involved because they have learned that, in Jesus, God himself gets involved. He put his own flesh at stake so that no one will feel alone or abandoned.”
The Holy Father also mentioned his visit earlier in the day to the Vrazhdebna refugee camp, where he met asylum-seekers and refugees from various countries. He cited the Caritas volunteers running the camp and their “recognition that every person is a child of God, regardless of ethnicity or religious confession.” The Pope also admitted he has a “job” for the Catholic community:
“You are the children, in faith, of the great witnesses who testified by their lives to the love of the Lord in these lands. The brothers Cyril and Methodius, holy men with great dreams, were convinced that the most authentic way to talk to God was in one’s own language. This made them boldly decide to translate the Bible so that no one would be without the Word of life.
“Being home with open doors, in the footsteps of Cyril and Methodius, means that today too, we need to be bold and creative. We have to ask how we can translate the love God has for us into concrete and understandable language for the younger generation.”