BULGARIA, MAY 5-6, 2019
With a population of 7 million people, of which nearly 80% are Orthodox and 9% are Sunni Muslims, the Catholic minority represents less than 1%, including the Eastern rite, Greek Catholic faithful, along with the Latin faithful. Pope Francis used the occasion of this trip to reiterate his commitment to ecumenical dialogue in the name of John XXIII, visitor and apostolic delegate to Bulgaria (1925-1935). Pope John Paul II also visited Bulgaria in 2002.
On Sunday, May 5, upon his arrival in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, the Pope addressed the civil authorities of the country. “Thirty years after the end of the totalitarian [Communist] regime that imprisoned its liberty and initiatives, Bulgaria faces the effects of the recent decades’ emigration of over two million of her citizens…At the same time, Bulgaria… must deal with what can only be called a…demographic winter that has descended like a curtain of ice on a large part of Europe…and confront the phenomenon of those seeking to cross its borders in order to flee wars, conflicts or dire poverty…” Then Francis addressed President Rumen Radev, “[You] are familiar with the drama of emigration, I respectfully suggest that you not close your eyes, your hearts or your hands…to those who knock at your door.”
FRANCIS FACES THE RIGOR OF OXTHODOX BULGARIANS
The pontiff was then received at the Holy Synod Palace in Sofia by the Orthodox Patriarch Neofit and the members of the Holy Synod—a simple official visit. Indeed, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, adverse to any ecumenism, had notified the Vatican of its unanimous refusal to associate itself with any communal liturgical act by Pope Francis.—A healthy reaction that one would like to see in those who profess the divine and Catholic Faith.
Metropolitan Neofit thanked him for this visit, which he hailed as a mark of “mutual respect.” In his address, the Patriarch said, on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, “We are making every effort not to engage in a compromise on matters of faith. We rejoice each time we learn that other spiritual leaders share similar convictions!” As a reminder, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church withdrew from the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1998. Similarly, it did not participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council that took place in June 2016 in Crete, calling it “Neither great, nor holy, nor pan-orthodox.” Unlike the other Orthodox churches, the Bulgarian Church does not participate in the Theological Commission of Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue.
Francis emphasized that “the wounds, which throughout history have opened between us Christians, are painful tears inflicted on the Body of Christ, the Church...But perhaps if together we put our hands in these wounds and confess that Jesus is risen, and if we proclaim Him our Lord and our God, if, by recognizing our deficiencies, we immerse ourselves in His wounds of love, we can rediscover the joy of forgiveness.”—Of course, the tears of the past have been unhappy and painful, but the unity of the Church could not suffer, while post-conciliar ecumenism sees the Church as a broken vase whose pieces should be glued back together.
The Pope then invoked “the ecumenism of blood”—the common persecution suffered by Christians of various confessions under Communism—where, “brothers and sisters of different confessions united in Heaven by divine charity, now look on us as seeds planted in the earth and meant to bear fruit.”—The ecumenism of blood is based on an equivocation. That Catholics and non-Catholics have suffered under Communism is one thing, but the Church cannot in any way prejudge the salvation of the latter.
After this interview, the pope went to Knyaz Alexander I Square in Sofia, where the Sunday Mass was celebrated in front of 8,000 faithful whom he exhorted “to be saints,” “which the Father dreamed when He created you.”
On the morning of Monday, May 6, the Supreme Pontiff visited the Vrazhdebna Refugee Reception Center on the outskirts of Sofia. There he met some 50 refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq. Then he went to the city of Rakovski, with 28,000 mostly Catholic inhabitants. He celebrated Mass in the Sacred Heart Church where 245 children made their first communion. “This is our identity card: God is our Father, Jesus is our brother, the Church is our family. All of us are brothers and sisters, and our law is love,” he said.
In the afternoon, he met the Catholic community in St. Michael the Archangel Church in Rakovsky. He referred to his early morning visit to the Vrazhdebna refugee camp, where there “is the recognition that every person is a child of God, regardless of ethnicity or religious confession.”—A new equivocation. “Child of God” usually means the soul in a state of grace; the expression can also designate any man coming from the hands of God. This second sense is of nature, the first of the supernatural. This ambiguity is a platitude of ecumenism.
The final stage of the pastoral visit to Bulgaria, the interreligious meeting for peace was held on Monday evening, at Independence Square in Sofia. At this ceremony were gathered representatives of the main religions of Bulgaria: the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, representatives of Islam, Protestantism, and Judaism, but the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was represented only by a simple layman. The sovereign pontiff asked that “the fire of love that burns within us…become a beacon of mercy, love and peace.”—The repetition of error is rooted in it: what is this “fire of love”? Charity that supposes the true Faith? The Holy Ghost who vivifies the Church? And who is found neither in Islam, nor in heresy, nor in schism, nor in Judaism?
NORTH MACEDONIA, MAY 7, 2019
The Catholics of North Macedonia, the smallest state in the Balkans, represent less than 1% of the population, of which 65% are Orthodox and 33% are Muslim. With the Communists of Marshal Tito coming to power in 1945 and until independence 46 years later, the situation of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia deteriorated considerably. At the proclamation of independence in 1991, the Church was able to resume its activities and the new State established diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Today, the country has about 20,000 Catholics, 15,000 Byzantine Rite and 5,000 Latin Rite. Bishop Kiro Stojanov is Bishop of Skopje and Eparch of the Eparchy of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Assumption of Strumica-Skopje.
In North Macedonia, the Pope's journey was placed under the “strong spiritual presence” of Mother Teresa, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje—then a part of the Ottoman Empire, capital of the Republic of Macedonia.
Received at the presidential palace, on his arrival in Skopje, the Pope addressed the civil authorities and members of the diplomatic corps. Francis evoked this very “precious patrimony: the multi-ethnic and multi-religious countenance of your people,” which “has resulted in a peaceful and enduring coexistence.” The pontiff emphasized the “the generous efforts made by your Republic…to welcome and provide assistance to the great number of migrants and refugees coming from different Middle Eastern countries,” particularly “in the years 2015 and 2016”—“a ready solidarity.”
Then, Francis went to the Mother Teresa Memorial in downtown Skopje. He prayed that Jesus “grant us the grace…to become signs of love and hope in our own day, when so many are poor, abandoned, marginalized, and migrants.”
The pontiff then celebrated Mass on Skopje's Macedonia Square in the presence of 15,000 people. In his homily, he warned against modern temptations that make us “prisoners of a virtual reality,” losing “the taste and flavor of the truly real.” The pope emphasized that Mother Teresa had based her life on “the twin pillars of Jesus incarnate in the Eucharist and Jesus incarnate in the poor!” And to urge the faithful to experience the abundance of Christ’s love: “Let Him satisfy our hunger and thirst in the sacrament of the altar and in the sacrament of fraternity.”
The pope then met the young North Macedonians of different denominations in the courtyard of the pastoral center behind the Catholic cathedral of Skopje. Francis urged them “to give hope to a weary world, together with others, both Christians and Muslims.” “A person can never, never dream too much,” he said. And he quoted as an example the dream he had with “a friend of mine, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar,” which led them to “sign together” the Document on Human Fraternity, in Abu Dhabi, last February 4th. (See DICI No. 381, February 2019) “Dreaming and encountering: these are the main recommendations addressed to young people during this ecumenical and interreligious meeting,” summarizes Vatican News.—We cannot better present the utopia advocated by Pope Francis, that of an irenic globalism where a universal brotherhood is built outside of all Christianity, that is to say outside of any social kingship of Jesus Christ. The Son of God is asked to coexist “in peace, justice, and love” with Muhammad.
At the end of his visit to North Macedonia, the sovereign pontiff met with the country’s men and women religious and the 30 or so Catholic priests. Francis asked all of them not to rush from one meeting to another, spending energy and resources. He asked them to “leave behind all the burdens that keep us from the mission and prevent the fragrance of mercy from being breathed in by our brothers and sisters,” to not stifle the heartbeat of the Spirit.
On May 8, the Holy Father explained at the general audience on St. Peter’s Plaza that he took advantage of his trip to Skopje to pay tribute to the Macedonians’ “traditional capacity to host different ethnic and religious affiliations,” and especially to the “critical” period of 2015-2016, “to welcome and help a large number of migrants and refugees.” The Macedonians “have a big heart, the migrants created problems for them, but they welcomed them, loved them and solved the problems,” improvised the pope asking the faithful present to applaud this people.
Behind these manifestations of easy sympathy lies another reality, that of the Macedonian government’s struggle to stem illegal immigration. On June 12, 2019, a month after the pope’s arrival, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, visiting North Macedonia, thanked the Macedonian government for having de facto halted illegal migration. He welcomed the policy of returning migrants to their countries of origin. When reality prevails over utopia...