Pope Francis' Bulgaria trip will have an ecumenical focus

Pope Francis addresses participants in a course on the internal forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vaticans Paul VI Hall March 29 2019 Credit Daniel Ibanez CNA Pope Francis speaks at the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, March 29, 2019. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Pope Francis said Friday that his visit to Bulgaria next week will be a pilgrimage of faith, unity, and peace, with an ecumenical focus.

"My pilgrimage will be all in the memory of St. Pope John XXIII," Pope Francis said in a video message sent to the people of Bulgaria May 3.

Pope Francis will visit Bulgaria and North Macedonia May 5-7.

The motto for Pope Francis' Bulgarian trip is "Pacem in terris," recalling St. John XXIII's 1963 encyclical of the same name.

St. John XXIII, pope from 1958-1963, was canonized together with St. John Paul II in 2014. Before becoming pope, St. John XXIII was the first apostolic visitor and then apostolic delegate to Bulgaria, from 1925 to 1931.

Much of the pope's three day trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia will be dedicated to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His visit includes an interreligious meeting with youth in Skopje, North Macedonia, and a meeting with the Patriarch Neophyte and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Pope Francis said he also plans to spend time praying in silence before the throne of Sts. Cyril and Methodius within the Eastern Orthodox cathedral.

"Your land is home to witnesses to the faith, since the time when the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius sowed the Gospel there: a fruitful sowing that brought abundant fruit even in the difficult periods of the last century," Pope Francis said in the video message.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius are called the "Apostles of the Slavs" for their dedication to spreading the Gospel throughout Eastern Europe in the ninth century. John Paul II named the brother saints co-patrons of Europe, along with St. Benedict.

Pope Francis' trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia will be the pope's first visit to a European country of 2019 after already traveling to three other continents for pastoral visits to Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco this year.

The pope will spend the bulk of the trip in the Bulgarian cities of Sofia and Rakovski (outside Plovdiv) before visiting Skopje, North Macedonia, the birthplace of Mother Teresa, May 7.

While Mother Teresa is commonly associated with Kolkata, where she performed much of her apostolate, she spent the first 17 years of her life as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje before receiving her call to a vocation as a missionary sister in 1928.

The Mother Teresa Memorial House in Skopje, the saint's former home-turned-museum, has welcomed visitors who desired to learn about St. Teresa and venerate one of her relics since 2009.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit North Macedonia, and the second pope to visit Bulgaria, after St. Pope John Paul II's visit in 2002.

According to the U.S. State Department, Bulgaria's Catholics make up only 0.8 percent of its population. Seventy-six percent of Bulgarians are Eastern Orthodox, mostly in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The second largest religious group in the country are Muslims, at 10 percent of the population.

In North Macedonia, an estimated 65 percent of the population is Eastern Orthodox Christian and 33 percent is Muslim. Fewer than 1 percent are Catholic.

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