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Pope pushes unity in Bulgaria

Sofia, Bulgaria

Analysis of John Paul II’s ventures onto historically Orthodox territory is often clouded by the quest for immediate reaction. Some observers insist on seeing results from the visit, when, from a historical point of view, the visit may well be the most important result.

The pope’s May 23-26 trip to Bulgaria, which followed a one-day stop in Azerbaijan, illustrates the point.

The trip also revealed a badly weakened, struggling pope, and for the first time Vatican officials were forced to acknowledge that John Paul may not be able to keep existing travel commitments.

The split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, whose healing has become the defining aim of this phase of John Paul’s pontificate, is traditionally set in 1054, but that is largely a matter of convention. The date marks the excommunication of an Eastern patriarch by a papal ambassador, who condemned Eastern traditions of married priests and leavened Communion bread, plus the Eastern refusal to accept a papal formula about the Holy Spirit.

Most observers see these as relatively minor differences that could have been resolved with good will on both sides. It’s precisely the lack of good will that other historical factors help explain.

The two halves of the Christian world had been growing apart since 395, when Theodosius split the Roman Empire between East and West. The linguistic divide between Greek in the East and Latin in the West produced distinct cultures that were often economic and political rivals.

The Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Western knights sacked Constantinople and desecrated the Orthodox cathedral, further poisoned the atmosphere. (Alleged Crusader atrocities included having a prostitute dance on the Orthodox patriarch’s throne.)

From the mid-19th century onward, the Orthodox/Catholic relationship has been complicated by a confluence of factors, both political and theological. The 1870 declaration of papal primacy and the steady centralization of power in the papal office created deep suspicion among the Orthodox who worry about Catholic ecclesiastic imperialism. In addition, Western secularism and liberalism have left many Orthodox convinced that the true faith has been preserved only in the East.

All this means that a rupture that took some 1,600 years to develop is not going to be undone in a weekend.

In such a context, a visit of the “pope of Rome,” long reviled as the heretical enemy of the Orthodox East, to Romania and Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine, and now Bulgaria -- even if the crowds are often small, and more curious than impassioned -- is itself a triumph for détente.

In Bulgaria, the pope took every opportunity to push his ecumenical message.

“The estrangement between Orthodox and Catholics has never extinguished in them the desire to restore full ecclesial communion, so that the unity for which the Lord prayed might be manifested more clearly,” he said. “Today we can give thanks to God that the bonds between us have been much strengthened.”

During his visit to the Holy Monastery of Rila, a symbol of the Bulgarian church nestled high on a mountaintop outside Sofia, the pope offered a lengthy, evocative reflection on Eastern monasticism.

“What would Bulgaria be without Rila, which in the darkest periods of your national history kept the flame of faith burning?” the pope asked. “What would Greece be without the Holy Mountain of Athos? Or Russia without that myriad of dwelling places of the Holy Spirit, which enabled it to overcome the inferno of Soviet persecution?”

“The bishop of Rome,” he said, “is here today to tell you that the Latin church and the religious of the West are grateful for your life and witness!”

The pope also emphasized the “ecumenism of the gulag,” his conviction that the suffering shared by Orthodox and Catholics during the state-enforced atheism of the Soviet period should now bear fruit in closer ties. In Plovdiv, the heart of Bulgaria’s Catholic community, he beatified May 26 three Assumptionist priests who were shot in 1952.

A host of smaller gestures underlined John Paul’s desire for unity. For example, he informed the Bulgarian Orthodox that he plans to let them use the church of Ss. Vincent and Anastasius, near the fashionable Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Naturally, not everyone was wowed. One Orthodox metropolitan told reporters that for some in the Orthodox church, “the pope is a heretic,” and that explained why a few bishops were no-shows for the papal meeting with the head of their church, Patriarch Maxim, May 24.

Maxim himself, while quite hospitable (he served plum brandy, which John Paul politely declined), could not resist some of the old polemics.

“We cannot disregard the sad fact dating back from the middle of the 11th century, when the West separated from the East,” he said, leaving little doubt about which side was to blame for the rupture. He said that he anticipates the moment when everyone will accept “the truth preserved and preached by the holy Orthodox church.”

At the same time, however, other Orthodox figures struck positive notes. Metropolitan Arsenij of Plovdiv, for example, attended the May 26 papal Mass, an unusual gesture for an Orthodox prelate, while Metropolitan Simeon of Western and Central Europe told the pope during his visit to the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Sofia that for the Bulgarian Orthodox, he is “an apostle.”

In the end, the point/counterpoint seems to prove only that the Bulgarians, like Christians on both sides of the East/West divide, have varying degrees of enthusiasm for getting back together.

Bulgaria has an encouraging ecumenical history. Relations between the Orthodox majority, 85 percent of the population of 7.9 million, and the tiny Catholic minority of 80,000, are good. Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, told NCR that after the communist takeover following World War II, the Bulgarian Orthodox patriarch prevented the forcible incorporation of Eastern-rite Catholics into the Orthodox church, as happened in other Soviet satellite states.

As is often the case, ordinary people on both sides seemed impatient for progress. A small crowd of Catholics outside Maxim’s palace in Sofia chanted “Unity! Unity!” when the pope visited May 24.

Meanwhile, Irina Mamedova, 67, a retired geologist and a member of the Russian Orthodox church who attended the papal Mass in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 23, summed up a reaction reporters heard time and again.

Was she aware that the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches have deep theological differences?

“Yes,” she said.

Did any of that matter to her?

“Of course not.”

For many locals, however, the biggest news from the trip was not ecumenical healing, but John Paul’s public rejection of the “Bulgarian connection” theory about the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, shot the pope three times, and later claimed that the Bulgarian secret service had put him up to it on behalf of the KGB. Three Bulgarians were jailed and tried in Italy, only to be acquitted for lack of evidence. The accusation that Bulgaria was involved has been seen here as a stain on the national reputation ever since.

After a May 24 meeting between the pope and President Georgi Parvanov, Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls told reporters that the pope said the following to Parvanov: “I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection, because of my esteem and respect for the Bulgarian people.”

Foreign Minister Solomon Passy called the absolution “Bulgaria’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment since World War II.”

For the rest of the world, a dominant storyline was John Paul’s physical infirmities, which were often painful to watch. He breathed with difficulty, struggled to move short distances, and read only the first few lines of his speeches, turning the rest over to someone else.

The pope’s physical deterioration took a toll also on his Vatican aides, who struggled to respect the pope’s insistence on going forward while making a realistic appraisal of what the future might hold. In a departure from previous statements, Navarro-Valls told reporters May 26 that while the pope’s upcoming trip to Toronto for July’s World Youth Day is “certain,” planned stops in Mexico and Guatemala are now up in the air.

The pope’s obvious suffering prompted some unsolicited advice from his hosts.

“I think the people around him must tell him he should stop,” Orthodox Metropolitan Simeon told reporters. “He is suffering like Christ.”

While Simeon’s concern was heartfelt, he may have reached for the wrong comparison to persuade John Paul to stand aside. One of the pope’s top aides recently told reporters that he had heard John Paul respond to resignation rumors by invoking the same model.

“But Christ did not come down from the cross!” the pope said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002