Many people probably glossed over the headlines reporting that Pope Francis visited Bulgaria and North Macedonia last week. Unless you are of Balkan descent, or a Börek aficionado (the common pastry of the region. I’m a fan!) then the trip likely didn’t occupy much of your mental space with so much else going on in the news. But it was an important pastoral visit for a number of reasons.
First, Bulgaria and North Macedonia are among the poorest places in Europe which, if we take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously, mean they are more sacred than many of the famous cathedrals, shrines and repositories of art elsewhere around the continent. Conflicts about their EU membership and use of the monetary Euro, and the impact it has on transcontinental migration are still political powder kegs.
When Pope Francis fosters a culture of encounter by shining the glare of the papal spotlight on people in places that suffer exclusion as the dark underbelly of modern globalization and economies of indifference to human costs, he is exercising the “preferential option for the poor” that is so present in his Jesuit roots and in the experience of the Second Vatican Council and the Catacombs Pact. Bulgaria and North Macedonia are such places.
Second, less than 1 percent of the population in each country is Roman Catholic. Orthodox Christianity is the majority religion in both places, with each having substantial Muslim minorities. The trip was incredibly important for Pope Francis’ ecumenical and interreligious initiatives.
During a meeting with young people in Skopje, Pope Francis said the local tradition of ornate stone-carving at the hands of practiced artisans could inspire the “weary world” to become “expert carvers of our own dreams.” These dreams of a world of peace and dialogue reflect the pope’s earlier meeting with Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, while in Abu Dhabi. He noted that when Mother Teresa Bojaxhiu was born and raised there, “she could not have imagined where her life would have ended up.” But trust in God, who can always craft a life of beauty from even the most humble starting materials, demands that we leave the solitude of our egoistic concerns, and continually force ourselves to be outward-facing.
Such a committed posture of “involvement” in one another’s lives is the “the best antidote to discouragement and manipulation, to too many contacts without communication, to the culture of the ephemeral and to all those false prophets who proclaim only misfortune and destruction. The antidote is listening, listening to one another. … Give yourselves a chance to share and enjoy a good face-to-face with everyone.” He encouraged these exchanges to take place not only between cultures and religions, but also between generations, where the young can learn from the experiences of the aged, and the elderly can be vivified by the dynamism and energy of the youthful.
Whether or not you can find Bulgaria and the landlocked North Macedonia on a map without the aid of Google, they are places with much to teach the world about what pluralism can bring to a culture, and what people who have materially little can share with the world. The pope sought to highlight just such realities during his time there, and we would benefit to pay attention to them.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.