May 11, 2019

Did Pope Francis' trip to Bulgaria mark a new phase in the dialogue with Bulgarian Orthodox Church?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis meeting the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Sofia, May 5, 2019 - credit Vatican Media / ACI Group
Pope Francis meeting the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Sofia, May 5, 2019 - credit Vatican Media / ACI Group

During Pope Francis' trip to Bulgaria on May 5-6, the media focused on how the Bulgarian Orthodox Church showed bitterness against Pope Francis' visit. 

Many things seemed to support this scenario.

The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in April underscored that the head of State had invited Pope Francis, and for this reason, his visit had to be considered a State visit. 

Pope Francis' trip schedule included a visit to the Orthodox Cathedral Alexander Nevsky. The Holy Synod stated that the visit was "possible," while it was "unacceptable" any form of liturgical service or prayer. It was also forbidden the participation of every representative of the Bulgarian Church in any other event." 

Before the Papal visit, media in Bulgaria also report that metropolitan Nikolai of Plovdiv was protesting against the visit and labeled Pope Francis' as the anti-Christ. 

There is, in the end, a whole world that goes beyond official declarations and personal reactions to Pope Francis' visit. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church proved to be more eager to welcome Pope Francis than reported. 

Two declarations show that.

Metropolitan Antonij is the primate of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for Central Europe. Metropolitan Antonij is the Orthodox bishop that accompanied Pope Francis from the Holy Synod to the Alexander Nevsky in Sofia. He was also among the authorities in front of the Presidential Palace to welcome Pope Francis. 

Right after Papal visit, Metropolitan Antonij published a long declaration on his official Facebook page.

He underscored that "Pope Francis' visit to Bulgaria generates a strong public response" and that Bulgarian people were won over by "the good, the openness and the message of peace" bore by the Pope. 

Metropolitan Antonik also remarked that the visit showed "how many Bulgarians need for the Church's voice, for its message of grace among people, for the communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, to reinforce the Church's unity." 

The Metropolitan added that it is true that these messages also resonate "in the sermons of the Orthodox churches." He then clarified that "the scope of the visit was not Catholic propaganda in my home," since the trip was not "intended to ignore the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism."

The scope of the visit was instead "the opening to the encounter", that led the Holy Synod to meet Pope Francis, as "Christians are good at being peacemakers." 

Metropolitan Antonij then admonished: "The faithful of Christ have nothing to fear. Nobody can endanger our orthodox faith. Orthodox Christians do not see in their neighbors enemies and threats, but brothers and sons of God."

That of Metropolitan Antonij was the second pro-Pope Francis Orthodox intervention. Before him, Metropolitan Naum of Rousse published on his Facebook page a post titled "What threat is Francis to us."

Metropolitan Naum wrote: "We know that Pope Francis' visit goal is not that of turning Bulgarian into Roman Catholics." He added that the Holy Synod gave a majority vote to the meeting with Pope Francis because "it is good to realize that we need to know each other better, to enjoy of the goodwill between us. This is, in fact, Pope Francis' message. Because God is love." 

These two posts show that even prominent members of the Holy Synod wish to dismiss the idea that the meeting with Catholics is a threat, as many Orthodox faithful think. 

Patriarch Neofit has the same approach. 

In the end, the Bulgarian Orthodox showed their wish to open up. 

Such an opening is difficult since some of the members of the Holy Synod are on apparently very extreme positions. However, the most extreme views are not fed with anti-Catholic prejudice, but they are somewhat committed to preserving their faith. 

In addition to that, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church still feels some influence from Russia, and on the other hand, it needs to keep the national Church strong. 

Even Orthodox faithful are traditionally suspicious in terms of relations with other Christian confessions. 

Metropolitans Antonij and Baum actually reassured faithful with their posts that there was no proselytizing agenda in Pope Francis' trip. 

On the other hand, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had to be consistent with what it always preached, beyond this path of dialogue. 

For these reasons, symbols are significant to understand Pope Francis' trip and the impact it had.

Patriarch Neofit gave Pope Francis a painting of Alexander Nevsky cathedral instead of an icon, which is traditionally presented in the religious meeting. This way, he emphasized the Pope's character of the head of State.

But in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral the Pope sat on chair displaced on a round carpet with the two-headed eagle that is used for Orthodox bishops. The eagle symbolizes that shepherds need to look from above, with the eye of God. For the prayer, Pope Francis was then considered as a bishop. 

They seem nuances, but they are significant. 

Pope Francis also made symbolic actions. Celebrating Mass on May 5 in Sofia, he wore the omophorion that Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov donated to him. 

The omophorion is a liturgical vestment used by Orthodox bishops and Eastern Catholic bishops of the Byzantine Rite, but also by those of Latin rite.

Unlike the pallium, the omophorion can be worn by all the priests. Pope Francis juxtaposed it to the pallium, that is the vestment of Metropolitan bishops and the Pope. 

The pallium is made of white wool, the symbol of the bishop as the good shepherd and, at the same time, of the Lamb Crucified for the salvation of the human race. 

Seeking what unites, Pope Francis combined two vestments in an ideal ecumenical brotherhood. 

The fact that there was no Orthodox clergy at the prayer for peace in Sofia on May 6 was in line with Orthodox decision to treat Pope Francis' visit as a State visit. Orthodoxy was represented by the government's director for the religious affairs. 

Coming back from Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Pope Francis underscored he was very stricken by how religions lived together in Bulgaria and praised Patriarch Neofit, saying that the meeting with him was excellent. 

Pope Francis was generally satisfied with the trip and enjoyed the dialogue with the Holy Synod. 

Despite this general positivity, official positions should stay as they have been until now. Bulgarian Orthodox Church approach will not likely change, not even n theological issues. There is however the feeling that Pope Francis' visit helped to break a wall of mistrust.

Pope Francis' could not do that without the patient work done before by the Catholic Church in Bulgaria, that acts as a natural bridge, as it has both the Byzantine and Latin rite. The ecumenical dialogue goes on, in the end, step by step. So Pope Francis trip to Bulgaria was hopefully a particularly important step. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.