Bulgaria: A heartfelt meeting of the religions

Father Martin Jílek on the motto of the papal visit “Peace on Earth”: “When peace becomes a matter of course for us, that is when we are most in danger of losing it.”

On Sunday morning, Pope Francis arrived in Bulgaria for his 29th trip abroad. During his two-day stay in Bulgaria, the Pope visited Sofia and Rakovski. The media was primarily interested in political and social issues such as migration or poverty; these were addressed. However, the leader of the Catholic Church is also a shepherd and travelled to Bulgaria to visit the common people and to strengthen the small flock of Catholics.

“In my opinion, our Catholics need to become more confident. It was a heartfelt meeting of the religions. I believe that it was also important for the Pope to see how strong our faith is,” explained Salesian Father Martin Jílek. The project partner of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) had travelled the 230 kilometres from Stara Zagora to the capital city of Sofia to take part in the festivities.

Bulgaria’s population strongly identifies itself with the Christian faith, but 80 per cent belong to the Orthodox Church. Muslims make up the second largest group with about ten per cent of the population. Catholics are a small minority. “In spite of this, there is a strong feeling of euphoria. A survey taken before the visit found that 54 per cent of the population supports the Pope and his mission,” the missionary said.

For many, the joy of anticipation was dampened by the attitude taken by the Orthodox Church, which made a statement that it would not join the Holy Father in prayer. However, Father Jílek is certain “that this opinion is not shared by all Orthodox. The Bulgarians are open and tolerant people.” However, he did point out that patience would be necessary because ecumenism has yet to take root. “On a personal level, we have established a good relationship with Orthodox priests. Moreover, almost two million Bulgarians live in other countries and are well acquainted with the Catholic Church, especially that in western Europe. Our experiences have been very positive.”

The motto chosen for the trip, “Peace on Earth”, came somewhat as a surprise for those living in other countries; after all, Bulgaria has not drawn the attention of the West because of violence, as other Balkan states have, or because of war, as is the case for Ukraine. Father Jílek explained the background: “The motto ‘Peace on Earth’ was derived from the papal encyclical Pacem in terris, which was written by Pope John XXIII. He was the Apostolic Nuncio in Bulgaria from 1925 to 1935. This is why we call him the ‘Bulgarian’ Pope.”

The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis to Bulgaria on May 5- 6 2019: Youth from Stara Sagora during the visit of Pope Francis in Sofia on 06.05.2019.
The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis to Bulgaria on May 5- 6 2019: Youth from Stara Sagora during the visit of Pope Francis in Sofia on 06.05.2019.

According to Father Jílek, the motto shows that Bulgaria can be an example to others, because all the different religions and cultures have been living together in peace for many years. A number of minorities still live here in Bulgaria today. The largest of these are the Rom; as a percentage of the population, their numbers are growing steadily. “This has led to a palpable rise in tension. For example, 40 per cent of the children in the first grade in Bulgaria are Romani children – a trend that has continued for the last three years. This is, of course, quite a large number and presents a great challenge. A way must be found to provide a good education. There is no such thing as a quick solution. The only ones offering these are the radical politicians.” He believes that it would be important to reflect on the motto, because “peace is always possible, but you have to work at it every day. When peace becomes a matter of course for us, that is when we are most in danger of losing it,” the Czech missionary warned.

He takes care of adolescents and children living in poor districts, including Romani children. The papal visit was an occasion of great joy for them as well. “At the beginning, many of the children quite innocently asked whether the Pope would also visit our city of Stara Zagora. It was very nice.” One hundred people from Father Martin’s parish travelled to Sofia and 40 to Rakovski. Among them were about 20 boys from the Romani settlement. “This was, of course, a great opportunity for evangelisation.” According to Father Jílek, almost all Bulgarians – including the Romani people – can be said to be devout. “Sometimes it is superstition, which means they need a lot of support on their way to the faith, but the foundation is there.”

Unfortunately, none of the children from Stara Zagora took part in the First Communion Mass held at the Sacred Heart Church in Rakovski. “We have a group of ten young people and young families who are preparing themselves, but they are not ready and we don’t just want it to be a festive day with pretty pictures,” explained the priest. However, there was still cause for great joy because in Sofia, “our young people were able to assist during Holy Mass as volunteers.” All of the participants were very enthusiastic upon their return. “The Pope also had a surprise for us. After Holy Mass, he unexpectedly went up to the young people to say a few words. The young people called out to the Pope very loudly and so he went to them, saying that in order for them to be able to hear, they needed to achieve silence in their own hearts. After all, that is where God speaks. Then he told them to go back to making a lot of noise.”

Father Martin would like to thank the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need for their support for a large project: the construction of a new church and training centre. “In particular for the Romani children, but of course for all Bulgarians.” He would like to open a primary school in two years. “We are very thankful that we can feel the Church as a world Church. It is not only a source of financial aid for us, but also spiritual support. Who knows, one fine day we may be sending new priests and sisters from Bulgaria out into the world as missionaries. That is the dynamic of the Holy Spirit.”

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