“John Paul II has restored dignity and hope to a people always considered marginal to Europe,” said Archbishop Antonio Mennini, 55, who has been nuncio for the past two years.
The archbishop made an enormous effort to prepare the visit, especially on the Orthodox front.
Q: Once again the Pope has stretched out his hand to the Orthodox. How do you evaluate their reaction?
Archbishop Mennini: He was received with great respect and also with cordiality. Of course it was somewhat restrained, as seen during the visit with Patriarch Maxim, who wished to emphasize in detail the differences with Rome.
Q: There was no embrace of peace, which perhaps the Pope was expecting.
Archbishop Mennini: It´s true, but we know Maxim makes this gesture only to the Orthodox. However, I would call attention to other facts, which indicate great cordiality: At the end of the meeting, the patriarch wished the Pope a long life and many more years of apostolate.
He then sent the secretary of the Synod and three other metropolitans to the dinner at the nunciature. We must not forget that within the Orthodox hierarchy there are different sensibilities, including a minority that opposed the visit.
Q: Is it another small step in the road of dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox?
Archbishop Mennini: I would say it is an important step toward mutual recognition and acceptance. The objective is always reconciliation. The fact that many Orthodox faithful acclaimed the Pope and cried out their desire for unity consoles us and gives us hope.
Q: Can this visit open the way to Moscow?
Archbishop Mennini: I think that Patriarch Maxim will have the occasion to speak with Patriarch Alexy II about his meeting with John Paul II. And he will be able to explain that the Pope has not come to humiliate or divide the Orthodox Church but to reinforce the bonds of fraternity. It will be a positive sign — we hope it will be taken up.
Q: The Pope has absolved Bulgaria, the newspapers wrote exultantly, when he said that he never believed in the Bulgarian connection [behind the 1981 assassination attempt]. How do you interpret this statement?
Archbishop Mennini: Look, the Pope´s visit was very much awaited also because of this. Bulgaria could not wait to have this weight removed. It was an unbearable national stain, for politicians, but also for ordinary people. They felt humiliated, hindered on their road toward Europe, regarded with suspicion by the whole world. With that statement, John Paul II has restored their dignity and hope.
Q: Has he also absolved the Communist regime?
Archbishop Mennini: We must look at the facts: The secret services´ involvement in the attack on the Pope has not been proved. In any case, as the Holy Father said, when receiving the Bulgarian president in the Vatican a few years ago, responsibilities are always personal, not collective.
Q: And what has this visit represented for Bulgaria´s Catholics?
Archbishop Mennini: They have felt recognized in their historical memory: They have maintained the faith in the midst of so many sufferings and persecutions. The beatification of the martyrs in Plovdiv was an explicit acknowledgment of the identity of Bulgarian Catholicism. On this basis, the Pope has encouraged them to put out into the deep and face the new challenges, reminding them of the need for a pastoral program for youth and for priestly formation that are appropriate to the new times.
Q: In this trip, more than others, the Pope´s health has been the center of attention. What impression do you have, who were close to him for four days?
Archbishop Mennini: Despite the evident physical limitations, the Pope not only has great spiritual energy but also an intellectual lucidity that has impressed me very especially.
For example, during the meeting with Protestants, he recalled his first trip to Prague in 1990, repeating that also here in Sofia one can speak of a “miracle.” He quoted words and dates in a very precise way. I think he wants to spend himself to the limit of his energies in his mission. And this is what has moved and affected millions of Bulgarians.