Pope Francis held talks with Patriarch Neophyte and other members of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at the Synodal Hall in Sofia, after his meeting with Bulgaria’s authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in Sofia on Sunday, May 5.
The lands bearing the inheritance of Sts Cyril and Methodius
Patriarch Neophyte welcomed the Pope on behalf of the Holy Synod ‘ to the lands bearing the inheritance of the holy and pious Cyril and Methodius, Prince Saint Boris Mihail the Baptizer, St Clement of Ohrid and many other saints of God, thanks to whose enlightenment in the ninth and tenth centuries, Christianity spread in Europe and beyond its borders.’
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch noted that Pope John Paul II had visited Bulgaria in 2002 and ‘only 17 years later, you are the second Pope to come to Bulgaria, which we cannot explain except as a special attitude.’
“Your desire to visit us in the Holy Synod is perceived as an expression of respect for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. We assure you that the respect is mutual,” Patr. Neophyte told Pope Francis.
Patriarch Neophyte said that the Bulgarian Church was glad to hear the strong words of Pope Francis in defending the Christian roots of Europe and warning of the dangers and physical persecution of Christians in their own countries. “On these issues, our views are the same,” His Beatitude said.
No compromise in terms of faith
His Beatitude recalled the regret expressed by Pope John Paul II over the lack of communion between the two Churches. “Let us say that here, in the throne of the Bulgarian state of Sofia, bearing the name of the Wisdom of God, we have always prayed for the unity of the world in Christ because united, Christians will be stronger.”
In a clear reference to the continuing schism, the Bulgarian Patriarch said: “The life of the Church is governed by our Lord Jesus Christ. If God has allowed something to happen, He knows why he has allowed it, and expects us to understand why. We, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, are firmly convinced that, in terms of faith, compromises cannot and should not exist.”
Pope Francis calls for recognition of the wounds in the Church body
Pope Francis opened his statement with a paschal greeting, noting that on May 5 the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of St Thomas.
‘Let us consider the Apostle, who puts his hand in the Lord’s side, touches his wounds and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).’
‘The wounds opened in the course of history between us Christians remain painful bruises on the Body of Christ which is the Church,’ the pope added warning that ‘even today, their effects are tangible’.
‘Yet, perhaps together we can touch those wounds, confess that Jesus is risen, and proclaim him our Lord and our God. Perhaps together we can recognize our failings and immerse ourselves in his wounds of love.’
Pope Francis said that ‘this meeting, which I have greatly desired,’ follows that of John Paul II with Patriarch Maxim during the first visit of the Bishop of Rome to Bulgaria.
Ties between the Vatican and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
The pope spoke with the Holy Synod members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church about the ties established during the time of Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, who was an Apostolic Legate in Bulgaria between 1925-1934.
Francis reminded that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church sent observers to the Second Vatican Council and that for fifty years now, Bulgarian delegations have made to the Vatican to celebrate the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, observed by Catholics on Feb. 14, and by Orthodox on May 11.
‘I am confident that, with the help of God, and in his good time, these contacts will have a positive effect on many other dimensions of our dialogue’
Ecumenism of the poor
Pope Francis said that the Churches share an ‘ecumenism of blood’ through martyrdom and that ‘we are called to journey and act together in order to bear witness to the Lord, particularly by serving the poorest and most neglected of our brothers and sisters, in whom he is present,’ calling this act an ‘ecumenism of the poor’.
Saints Cyril and Methodius – a source of common inspiration
Guides on this journey are Saints Cyril and Methodius ‘whose living memory in our Churches continues to be a source of inspiration, for despite adversities they made their highest priority the proclamation of the Lord, the call to mission.’
The courageous apostolic mission of Sts Cyril and Methodius ‘remains today a model of evangelization and a challenge to proclaim the Gospel to the next generation,’ the pope said offering the example of the Enlighteners of the Slavs.
While ‘Saints Cyril and Methodius also have much to say to us about the future of European society,’ Francis noted, ‘we are called to be builders of communion and peacemakers in the name of Jesus’.
Prayer at St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Ending his speech, Pope Francis told the Bulgarian Orthodox Church leadership that he would go on to St Alexander Nevsky cathedral for prayer, asking to receive ‘a place in the prayers’ of the representatives of the Orthodox Church.
Pope Francis is paying a three-day visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, two European countries where Catholics are a minority.
Photography courtesy of Vatican News