Rebuilding From Scratch: Pope Francis Meets a Hardy Catholic Legion in Bulgaria

NEWS ANALYSIS: Bulgaria’s Catholic Church is small, but it has had monumental interactions with contemporary Church history and today, it exemplifies Christ’s hope that believers serve as “salt of the earth.”

A woman walks past a billboard in downtown Sofia advertising Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Bulgaria, May 4. Pope Francis will arrive Sunday for a three-day visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
A woman walks past a billboard in downtown Sofia advertising Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Bulgaria, May 4. Pope Francis will arrive Sunday for a three-day visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia. (photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)

For Pope Francis there is no Catholic community too small to be ignored. Each voyage taken by Francis presents new circumstances — unique hopes and fears.

Even neighboring countries that share a Christian faith, such as Bulgaria and Macedonia, where the Pope will visit Sunday through Tuesday, and Romania (where he will visit May 30-June 2) can be facing widely different situations. 

One hundred years after the fall of three empires (Austro-Hungary, Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire) and formation of new nations, followed by disintegration of atheist empires (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), new challenges and opportunities for the Holy See are created yet again.

How are Catholics in Bulgaria faithful witnesses?

Pope Francis will find out firsthand during his visit.

In at least three ways: First, there is unity.

Unlike Ukraine to the north — where complex rivalries between Latin Catholics, Greek Catholics and Orthodox Christians require a diagram to follow — the 50,000 Latin Catholics and 20,000-25,000 Byzantine-rite Catholics (known throughout the region as Greek Catholic, although not ethnically Greek) collaborate seamlessly and cultivate friendly ties with other faiths, according to Ambassador Vladimir Gradev, Bulgaria’s former representative to the Holy See (2001-2006).

During the first day of the Holy Father’s three-day visit, he will meet with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and President Rumen Radev, and meet with Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Neophyte and members of the Holy Synod at the Palace of the Holy Synod in Sofia.

Later in the day, he is scheduled to pray before the throne of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky. Following the recitation of the Regina Coeli prayer in Alexander Nevsky Square, he will celebrate Mass in Battenberg Square. He will also deliver the homily.

On Monday, the Holy Father will visit a refugee camp in Sofia. He will celebrate Mass in Rakovski at the Church of the Sacred Heart.

After a lunch with the bishops of Bulgaria at the Convent of the Franciscan Sisters, the Holy Father will meet with members of the community at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Back in Sofia, he will offer prayer at a meeting with representatives of various religions in Nezavisimost Square.

“I met last week with the Grand Mufti [Mustafa Hadji], who can’t wait to see Pope Francis,” Gradev excitedly told the Register.

About 10% of Bulgaria’s population is Muslim.

Although the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced April 3 it would not participate in benedictions with the Holy Father or allow its priests to attend a public “Prayer for Peace” Monday afternoon, relations between Catholics and Orthodox citizens are solid, according to many, including Gradev and Bishop Christo Proykov, the local head of the Byzantine-rite Greek Catholic Church in Sofia.

“Catholics and non-Catholics are extremely enthusiastic [about the papal visit],” said Gradev. “The Holy Synod [of Orthodox bishops] has taken a position very hard to understand.”


Caring for the Forgotten

Second, Catholic charity is diverse and generous. The Church in Bulgaria is one of the largest non-government social service providers, but it always wasn’t the case.

Caritas Bulgaria was founded 26 years ago by the bishops’ conference to link a network of local Catholic efforts and help them increase efficiency. Post-communist officials were dubious about the Church’s motives. Then a saint gave them further encouragement.

On a visit in 2002, “Pope John Paul II inspired us,” Bishop Proykov told the Register. “He was clear. Love is shown through unselfish acts, giving of yourself and we listened.” Bishop Proykov is the apostolic exarch of Sofia and the  longtime president of the Bulgarian Bishops Conference.

Across the country, the Church’s charitable network has eight care centers for the elderly poor, including mobile units to deliver home health care. It has five centers providing physical therapy to disabled children and youth.

Some towns have Church-run homeless shelters or income-generating activities for single mothers. In the capital city of Sofiia, a Catholic group runs a drug addiction program with street-level presence.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sofia during his stay.

He will probably go to the Busmantsi detention center, where Church volunteers and staff are allowed by the State Agency for Refugees to provide classes to refugees who cannot leave the jail-like facility.

Caritas is also active at several “open camps,” where refugees and migrants are able to circulate more freely, learn Bulgarian and look for work — with guidance managed by the Church.


New Generations

Third, the Body of Christ is visible, and will be very visible during Pope Francis’ visit.

Several hundred children will receive their First Communion from the Holy Father in Rakovski, the country’s only Catholic-majority town (actually three villages merged into one by the communist Bulgarian regime in 1966) in the center of the nation.

One explanation for how religious devotion survived the atheist regime for more than 40 years is the fact that people of the same faith often lived together, especially in rural villages, making it harder to suppress devotion.

“Our experience of atheism was harsh, but God was always with us,” explained Bishop Proykov. “We basically started from nothing in 1989,” when the Bulgarian communist regime fell.

Bishop Proykov has proven to be a capable leader: An easygoing workaholic, he has developed a wide network of international supporters. This has helped him achieve several major Church renewal projects, including the entire reconstruction of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in downtown Sofia.

Allied bombers destroyed the church when they strafed the city in 1943-1944, punishing Bulgaria for siding with Germany in World War II.

Pope John Paul II made getting permission for the reconstruction a key request of Bulgarian authorities. Four years after he visited the country in person, the church was completed.

Secretary of State Angelo Sodano consecrated the cathedral. In front, there’s a bronze statue of Pope John XXIII, which Pope John Paul II blessed.

In 2016, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin consecrated the Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral for the apostolic exarch.

And just two years ago, Bishop Proykov — together with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches — consecrated a new Church of Our Lady of Fatima in the city of Pleven, having prayed for such a local Marian shrine some 20 years ago at Fatima. Local Franciscans transport a large statute of the Virgin Mary to various events and homes to make devotion even more accessible.


Pacem in Terris

The motto for Pope Francis’ pastoral visit is “Pacem in Terris,” recalling Pope St. John XXIII’s last encyclical, which Georgetown professor Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen has called, “the lynchpin of modern Vatican diplomacy.” It was released just two months before John XXIII’s death in June 1963.

Addressed not just to Catholic faithful, but to “men of goodwill,” the text crystalizes key ideas, both ancient and modern, that provide enduring guidance. It makes peace the common work of all and situates human rights in natural law, which is part of the divine order.

John XXIII updated the application of subsidiarity in Pacem in Terris, explaining that although an entity such as the United Nations is necessary to help solve some problems, it should not take responsibilities away from an individual state or limit a nation’s sphere of activity.

This observation anticipated the need for the Church to push back against U.N. attempts to, for example, create a “right” to abortion under the rubric of reproductive health, as it attempted in 1994 (blocked by the Holy See and allies in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East) or to erase differences between men and women as it is does through “gender ideology” efforts today.


Traditional Family

Bulgaria has a contentious history with external attempts to redefine sexuality, in ways opposed locally.

A few decades before their caliphate began to disintegrate, Ottoman Turks legalized homosexuality in 1858, when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Twenty years later, independent Bulgaria nullified the Turkish law in an 1879 Constitution.

After the fall of communism, the 1991 Bulgarian Constitution defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, a position strongly supported by the people. A Pew Center survey two years ago found 79% of Bulgarians oppose same-sex “marriage.”

In this spirit, Bulgaria refused to sign the Istanbul Convention promoted by the Council of Europe. The text was declared unconstitutional by Bulgaria’s highest court. Ostensibly about domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention enshrines an unscientific definition of “gender” as “socially constructed roles,” which undermines the traditional family.

Ambassador Gradev told the Register that gender ideology is unpopular with the Bulgarian people: “Our society is against these things. The Church is aligned with the people.”


The Catholic 1%

According to Gradev, one of the biggest problems facing the Catholic community in Bulgaria comes from the government’s unwillingness to recognize its size.

“We are considered a sect, because they say we are fewer than 1% of the population. They undercount the Greek Catholics,” explained Gradev, which results in discrimination. While Orthodox and Muslim clergy receive state salaries and pensions by law, Catholics do not. As well, religious minorities with more than 1% do not have to pay income tax.

In Pacem in Terris, St. John XXIII advises states to do everything possible to respect a minority group’s language, culture, traditions and economic prospects.

Gradev said he hopes that during his visit, Pope Francis will take this topic up with the Bulgarian government.

Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States, Tihomir Stoytchev, a career diplomat, confirmed to the Register that his government has excellent relations with the Holy See on many levels.

“I presented my credentials to President Barack Obama in 2016 together with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio,” said Ambassador Stoytchev. “So we are always seated next to each other when the diplomatic corps comes together” in Washington, D.C. “He is a wonderful man.”


Peace Talk Scheduled

Sunday afternoon, the Holy Father will say Mass in Battenberg Square in downtown Sofia. It’s where communist leaders viewed parades of tanks and battalions during the Cold War.

Based upon his previous visits, Pope Francis is sure to urge greater resolve, by all, to end violence, whether by nations or at home.

As the saint, in whose steps the Pope walks, wrote 56 years ago, “Love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations. … It is principally characteristic of love that it draws men together in all sorts of ways, sincerely united in the bonds of mind and matter; and this is a union from which countless blessings can flow.”

Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international

correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine and The American Spectator.