Pope Francis recently made a pastoral visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia. It was the first papal visit to the newly named North Macedonia and second visit of a pope to Bulgaria, the first being Pope Saint John Paul II in 2002 following the fall of communism. During his visit to Bulgaria he recalled that the then Msgr. Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XXIII, served as the beloved papal representative there for 10 years. While Pope Francis was in North Macedonia he recalled and visited the shrine of one of their most famous native daughters, Saint Teresa of Kolkata. He said Mass in both countries for the less than 1 percent Catholic populations. In North Macedonia he celebrated the first Communion of some 240 children.
Visiting these two countries Pope Francis was well aware of the religious and political landmines that would await him. North Macedonia, a poor Balkan country that declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, is predominantly Orthodox. This Orthodox community in North Macedonia is looked upon as schismatic since they broke away from the Serbian Orthodox Church and declared themselves autocephalous or independent. Because of this tension in the Orthodox Church in the area he visited, he could not meet with Primate Stephen, head of the autocephalous North Macedonian Orthodox Church. In Bulgaria the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church instructed Orthodox faithful not to participate in any of Pope Francis’ celebrations.
Despite these difficulties, Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Neofit in Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon entering the room where Patriarch Neofit and his synod were waiting, Pope Francis kissed the Patriarch’s cheek and the icon of Christ worn around his neck. As he always does in these tense relationships with separated Christians, he accentuated the positive that which unites us all. In his address to Patriarch Neofit and the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, he proposed three simple yet powerful ties that unite us. He termed them the ecumenism of blood, the poor and mission. He recalled the Bulgarian Christians who “endured suffering for the name of Jesus, particularly during the persecution of the last century,” referring to the communist persecutions, the ecumenism of blood. He also spoke of an ecumenism of the poor, “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.” And ecumenism of mission, as he brought to mind the great Saints Cyril and Methodius, the great “Apostles to the Slavs,” brothers who were Byzantine theologians and missionaries. Pope Saint John Paul II declared them co-patron saints of Europe in 1980, along with the great Saint Benedict of Nursia.
Patriarch Neofit welcomed Pope Francis, saying, “in the name of the Holy Synod, to a land that bears the patrimony of Saints Cyril, Methodius … thanks to whose educating work in the ninth and 10th centuries, Christianity spread in Europe and beyond.” He added, “We try, insofar as possible, to follow your work and we rejoice when we hear strong words in defense of the Christian roots of Europe and warning against the dangers that are escalating to the point of open fight against God and physical persecution of Christians in their own lands.” In response, Pope Francis reminded everyone that Saints Cyril and Methodius remind us that “a certain diversity of uses and customs are not in any way opposed to the unity of the church, and that the various theological formulations often complete rather than oppose each other.”
Pope Francis also met with a contingent of interreligious leaders representing the Orthodox, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim and Armenian Apostolic traditions to pray for world peace. As children sang the song “We are the World,” Pope Francis reminded the participants and the world, “Peace requires and demands that we adopt dialogue as our path, mutual understanding as our code of conduct and reciprocal understanding as our method and standard.” He added, “Peace is both a gift and a task; it must be implored and worked for, received as a blessing and constantly sought as we strive daily to build a culture in which peace is respected as a fundamental right.” He then recited the prayer of Saint Francis, “Make me an instrument of your peace,” and called Saint Francis “a true peacemaker,” who had “deep respect for the beauty of creation and for all those whom he encountered on his pilgrim way.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.