Print Version    Email to Friend
Catholics and Orthodox must work to heal divisions pope says

SOFIA (CNS): On the day the Bulgarian Orthodox celebrate St. Thomas Sunday and read the gospel about the apostle asking to touch the wounds of the risen Lord, Pope Francis said the divisions within Christianity are “painful lacerations on the body of Christ, which is the Church.”
 
Arriving on May 5 for his visit, the pope was welcomed by the prime minister, Boyko Borissov, before heading for a private meeting at presidential palace with the president, Rumen Rade.
 
Pope Francis then went to the Palace of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to meet with Patriarch Neophyte and top bishops. Also present was 81-year-old King Simeon II, who ruled only as a child in the 1940s, was exiled and returned to his homeland in 1996.
 
Speaking of St. Thomas and the wounds of Jesus, Pope Francis prayed that Catholics and Orthodox, like the apostle, would “touch those wounds, confess that Jesus is risen and proclaim him our lord and our God.”
 
Patriarch Neophyte welcomed the pope with kisses on each cheek and the greeting, “Christos vozkrese” (Christ is risen). According to reporters present, the pope kissed the patriarch’s engolpion—an icon on a chain worn instead of a pectoral cross.
 
The patriarch thanked the pope for the special attention the Vatican has shown to his country and his Church for decades. “This is the second visit of a pope to Bulgaria, which we cannot explain except as truly special attention,” he said. Pope St. John Paul II visited in 2002.
 
Although his Church has withdrawn from the World Council of Churches and has a limited international ecumenical involvement, the patriarch told the pope that “here in the capital of Bulgaria—Sofia, which is named for God’s wisdom—we always pray for the unity of the world in Christ and so that united, Christians will be stronger.”
 
In his speech to the patriarch and synod, Pope Francis expressed hope that one day Catholics and Orthodox could celebrate the Eucharist together, but he pointed to signs that show there already exists a level of oneness in faith.
 
First, he said, are the “witnesses of Easter,” the Catholic and Orthodox martyrs who gave their lives freely for the faith, especially during the times of communist persecution.
 
“I believe that these witnesses of Easter—brothers and sisters of different confessions united in heaven by divine charity—now look to us as seeds planted in the earth and meant to bear fruit,” the pope said.
 
The pope noted that an ecumenism of service to the poor also exists and must be encouraged to grow. 
 
While doctrinal and disciplinary issues divide Christians, their call by Christ to assist those in need unites them.
 
The 9th-century missionary brothers, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, are highly venerated in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia, where the pope was scheduled to travel on May 7. The brothers, who evangelised central and eastern Europe before the Great Schism of 1054, are considered saints by both Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
 
That shared veneration, the pope said, flows from an “ecumenism of mission,” especially in a form that respects the traditions of different cultures, but preaches the one gospel of Jesus.
 
The saints’ respect for differences, he said, also teaches today’s Christians a way to approach the process of increasing European unity while respecting the variety of languages, faiths and cultures present on the continent.
 
“We too, as heirs of the faith of saints, are called to be builders of communion and peacemakers in the name of Jesus,” the pope said.
 
After the formal meeting, Pope Francis was accompanied by Metropolitan Antoniy of Western and Central Europe to the nearby St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral. The Orthodox synod had said their clergy would not participate in any joint prayer with the pope, so a chair was placed before the altar and the pope prayed alone in silence for several minutes.
 
Later, in the square outside, the pope led an estimated 3,000 people in praying the Regina Coeli prayer.
 
Pope Francis noted that the country is “a crossroads where various religious expressions encounter one another and engage in dialogue.” 
 
He prayed that Mary would intercede with her son to ensure Bulgaria always would be “a land of encounter, a land in which, transcending all cultural, religious and ethnic differences, you can continue to acknowledge and esteem each other as children of the one heavenly Father.”
 
At his last public appointment in Bulgaria, Pope Francis told an interreligious gathering at Nezavisimost (Independence) Square, in the capital, Sofia, that prayers for peace are important, but they must lead those praying to roll up their sleeves, reach out their hands and open their hearts.
 
The May 6 gathering, a tribute to Pope St. John XXIII, who was apostolic delegate to the country from 1925 to 1935, featured children representing Catholics, Bulgarian Orthodox, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities; organisers insisted that participants were not praying together, but in their own way.
 
Armenian Bishop Datev Hagopian and Sofia’s grand mufti, Mustafa Hadzhi, joined Pope Francis on the stage along with a government official, a Protestant minister and a woman representing the Jewish community.
 
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was represented by an Orthodox layperson working for the government department overseeing religious affairs.
 
Pope Francis noted that from the square, a gathering place for centuries, people can see a Catholic church, a Bulgarian Orthodox church, an Armenian church, the synagogue and a mosque, and people today can make the square a symbol of peace.
 
“With the fire of love we can melt the icy chill of war and conflict,” he said.
 
Members of different religions must “focus on what unites us, show mutual respect for our differences and encourage one another to look to a future of opportunity and dignity, especially for future generations,” the pope said. 
 
Bulgaria is around 80 per cent Orthodox, while some 10 per cent of the population is Muslim and about one percent of the people are Catholic.

More from this section