‘Let us throw ourselves into history’: Francis in Bulgaria and North Macedonia

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Full Text Article / Published Date:5 June 2019/Last Updated Date:28 July 2020

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The 29th apostolic journey of Pope Francis had as its destination Bulgaria and North Macedonia.[1] At 7 a.m. on Sunday, May 5, an Alitalia flight took off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport with the pope, his entourage and accredited journalists on board. At 10 a.m. it landed in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Pope Francis thus became the second pope to visit Bulgaria: Saint John Paul II had visited the country in May 2002.

In Bulgaria there are about 68,000 Catholics, or 0.95 percent of the population. There are 55 parishes and 57 priests (36 of whom are religious) and 63 religious sisters. The Bulgarian Bishops’ Conference, established by Paul VI in 1970, brings together the bishops of the two Latin rite dioceses – that of Nicopolis, led by Bishop Petko Jordanov Christov and that of Sofia and Plovdiv led by Bishop Gheorghi Ivanov Jovčev – and the exarchate for the Slavic-Byzantine Bulgarians whose bishop, Christo Proykov, is also president of the  bishops’ conference.

Bulgaria, a bridge country

At 10 a.m. the pope was welcomed by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as he disembarked from the plane. Four children in traditional dress offered him flowers. A private meeting took place between the prime minister and the pope in a lounge of Sofia’s airport. Then Francis went to the Presidential Palace, where he was welcomed at the entrance by the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev.

The Presidential Palace, built in the mid-1950s in the center of Sofia, is characterized by the colors white and red and is decorated with brick arches. The private meeting with the president, the presentation of his family and the exchange of gifts took place in the Green Room on the second floor of the Palace.

Afterward, the president accompanied the pope to the main entrance to Atanas Burov Square (Burov was a statesman “who suffered under a regime that could not tolerate freedom of thought,” said Francis), where he met with representatives of government, of civil society and the diplomatic corps. Both President Radev and the Holy Father gave speeches.

The Head of State described a nation with a dramatic history, full of wars and suffering. “Therefore,” he said “we know the price of peace and we know that peace lasts only when humanism and tolerance between different religions, ethnic groups and peoples triumph, because Bulgarian society does not tolerate xenophobia and racism.” And he went on: “In your Easter message you asked ‘to build bridges, not walls.’ This is the mission of our time. The walls are easy to build, but building bridges takes time and patience.”

Francis, in turn, painted the picture of a Bulgaria understood as a country in which “diversity, combined with respect for distinctive identities, is viewed as an opportunity, a source of enrichment, and not as a source of conflict. . . a place of encounter between many cultures and civilizations, a bridge between Eastern and Southern Europe, an open door to the Near East, and a land of ancient Christian roots that nourish its vocation to foster encounter, both in the region and in the international community.”

Francis wanted to link his visit to the country to that of John Paul II, and especially to the presence of about a decade in the country of the then apostolic delegate, Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became pope taking the name of John XXIII. At the very beginning of this apostolic journey, he clearly wanted to place at the center of his reflection the document signed in Abu Dhabi on 4 February last with the Imam of al-Ahzar and centered on the values of “mutual knowledge, human fraternity and life together.”[2] Francis hoped that every religion “can contribute to the growth of a culture and an environment of complete respect for the human person and his or her dignity, establishing vital links between different civilizations, sensibilities and traditions, and by rejecting every form of violence and coercion. In this way, those who seek by any means to manipulate and exploit religion will be defeated.”

The pontiff’s speech looked at the geopolitical framework within which Bulgaria is inserted. He presented Saints Cyril and Methodius, co-patrons of Europe, as “an inspiration for fruitful dialogue, harmony, fraternal encounter between Churches, States and peoples.”[3] There is a clear reference here to Europe, and in particular to the European Union, of which Bulgaria is a member. But Francis also referred to the “solid links” that the country has with Russia and Turkey.

Then the pope went to the Palace of the Synod, built in the early 20th century, home of the Patriarchate of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Recognized in its independence by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927, today this Church has 6.5 million faithful in Bulgaria and more than 1.5 million members outside the country.

At the ‘spiritual crossroads’ : the meeting with the Patriarch and the Holy Synod

The pope was welcomed at the main entrance of the Palace of the Holy Synod, which is built in the Moorish-Byzantine style. Welcoming him was the Metropolitan of Western and Central Europe, Anthony, who accompanied him to the Hall on the first floor, where he was awaited by Neofit, Metropolitan of Sofia and Patriarch of all Bulgaria.[4] Only the members of the Holy Synod and the ecclesiastical members of the papal entourage were present at the meeting. Former Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria also participated in the event. The Patriarch addressed his greeting to the Holy Father and “to his fellow travelers”: “Welcome,” he began, “to the lands that bear the heritage of Saint Boris-Michael Evangelizer, St. Clement of Ocrida and many other saints and God-fearing men and women, thanks to whose educational work in the ninth and tenth centuries Christianity has spread in Europe and beyond its borders.”

Francis spoke next and addressed an Easter greeting on “St. Thomas’ Sunday.” Contemplating the apostle who was invited to put his hand in the side of the Lord and touch his wounds, he said: “The wounds that have opened up among us Christians throughout history remain painful lesions on the Body of Christ which is the Church. Even today, their effects are tangible; we can touch them with our hands. Yet, perhaps together we can touch those wounds, confess that Jesus is risen, and proclaim him our Lord and our God. Perhaps together we can recognize our failings and immerse ourselves in his wounds of love. And in this way, we can discover the joy of forgiveness and enjoy a foretaste of the day when, with God’s help, we can celebrate the Paschal mystery at one altar.”

Thus he evoked three forms of ecumenism, which does not wait for theological dialogue to take place and which appeals to the direct experience of the Christian people. They are: the “ecumenism of blood,” lived during the years of persecution in the 20th century; the “ecumenism of the poor,” lived in the service of the poorest and most forgotten; and the “ecumenism of mission,” lived in exemplary fashion by Saints Cyril and Methodius, who put the proclamation of the Lord first. This ecumenism is inspired by a “fraternal nostalgia” typical of those who are “children of the same Father,” and with whom Pope John lived in his years in Sofia, Francis recalled.

The pontiff’s discourse expanded to include a look at Europe, thanks to Saints Cyril and Methodius and their work. They are the promoters of “a united Europe and of a profound peace among all the inhabitants of the continent, showing the basis for a new art of living together, with respect for differences, which are in no way an obstacle to unity,” he said, quoting Saint John Paul II. And Francis also recalled that these two saints of the Greek tradition and apostles of the Slavs are venerated in the Russian tradition along with Saint Aleksander Nevsky. This interweaving of traditions reveals how Bulgaria is a “bridge country,” which has a “lofty vocation.”

After the speeches, there came the exchange of gifts and the cordial presentation of the members of the Synod to the pope and the ecclesiastics of the papal entourage to the patriarch. The meeting ended with a group photo. At the end, the pope went on foot, together with Metropolitan Anthony, to the famous Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Aleksander Nevsky, which is the seat of the Patriarch of Bulgaria.[5]

Upon entering the cathedral, Francis briefly stopped in front of the Throne of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the middle of the nave, before going to the altar dedicated to the saints. Here, sitting down, he prayed in silence. Then he went outside the cathedral for the recitation of the Regina Coeli. He climbed to the podium, where there was the icon of Our Lady of Nessebar – which means “Gate of Heaven” – so dear to St. John XXIII, and made a brief silent prayer, while the choir sang a Marian hymn. In his brief speech he cited again the document signed in Abu Dhabi, framing the country as “a crossroads where various religious expressions encounter one another in dialogue.” For this reason, he prayed that the Risen One might “grant this beloved land the necessary impulse always to be a land of encounter.” At the end, the pope greeted 10 members of the religious confessions present in Bulgaria.

After a lunch break in the Nunciature, the pontiff resumed his activity around 4 p.m., when he went to Knyaz Alexandar I Square, located in the center of Sofia, to celebrate Mass after spending time among the approximately 12,000 faithful present.

In his homily Francis urged the congregation not to yield to the temptation of “nostalgia for the past” and not to live the “tomb psychology that tinges everything with dejection and leads us to indulge in a soothing sense of self-pity that, like a moth, eats away at all our hope.” Christian life is called to emerge from the “grim pragmatism of life” that degenerates into “small-mindedness.” Francis’ strong appeal is to a life that does not allow itself to be constrained by failures or that waits for ideal situations. The Lord “does not wait to meet with people without problems, without disappointments, sins or limitations.” When we welcome the Lord, “let us go higher, let us embrace our most beautiful future, not as a possibility but as a reality.” There is a significant image of the Church that emerges from this discourse which asks us to overcome the “paralyzing barriers” and “throw ourselves – not just our nets – into history.”

Loving, without asking for a resume

At 8:15 a.m. on Monday, May 6, the pope went to the Refugee Centre in Vrazhdebna. Opened in 2013, in the old building of a former school on the outskirts of Sofia, it is one of three centers for refugees in the Bulgarian capital. The guests are looked after by international organizations and local NGOs, the Bulgarian Red Cross and the Swiss Red Cross. Until 2012, Bulgaria was not a favored destination for the flow of migrants. Between 2013 and 2015, thanks to the closure of the Balkan route through Macedonia, there was a sharp increase in their presence.

The pope was welcomed by the director of the Centre and by the director of Caritas. Then he went to the refectory, where about 50 children and parents were gathered. After the greeting of a volunteer and a song, the children gifted him some of their drawings. He said a few words spontaneously: “Today the world of migrants and refugees is a bit of a cross, a cross of humanity.”

In his speech to the Catholic community of Rakovsky in the afternoon, the pope commented on this visit as follows: “The heart of the Caritas Centre stems from the awareness that every person is a child of God, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination. In order to love someone, you don’t need to ask them for their curricula vitae; love precedes, it goes ahead, it takes the first step, because it is free. In this Caritas Centre there are many Christians who have learned to see with God’s own eyes. God is not worried about labels, but seeks out and awaits each person with a Father’s eyes.”

Then Francis went to Sofia airport to fly to the Graf Ignatievo air base in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. Historical capital of Thrace, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe, a contemporary of Troy and Mycenae and older than Rome, Athens and Constantinople. From the base he drove to the church of the Sacred Heart in Rakovsky, a city with an overwhelming Catholic majority. Here he celebrated a Votive Mass of the Most Holy Eucharist, during which 245 children received their First Communion from his hands. There were about 700 believers inside, including the children. Outside the church and in the surrounding area there were over 10,000 people. Speaking to journalists about this unique celebration, Francis recalled the day of his own First Communion, October 8, 1944.

The pope welcomed children who had come “from every corner of this ‘Land of Roses’ to take part in a wonderful celebration. I am sure you will never forget: your first encounter with Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist.” The message of his homily on this occasion was again addressed to the future; it was an appeal to come out of hiding: “Some miracles can only take place if we have a heart like yours, a heart capable of sharing, dreaming, feeling gratitude, trusting and respecting other people.” And the pope summarized his homily as follows: “God is our Father, Jesus is our Brother, the Church is our family, all of us are brothers and sisters, our law is love.” Francis also spoke with the children spontaneously, thanks to a translator.

At the end of the Mass, a “snowfall” of white rose petals – the symbolic flower of Bulgaria – rained down from the ceiling over the pontiff’s procession as he walked through the nave to leave the church, greeting the children and their families. After the celebration, the pope went to the convent of the Franciscan sisters where he had lunch, in private, with the three bishops of Bulgaria. 

A message of trust in a Church that is a small seed

At 3.20 p.m. Francis went to the church of St. Michael the Archangel, consecrated on December 8, 1931, after reconstruction following a major earthquake in 1928. Here he met with the Catholic community. After a brief greeting from Bishop Gheorghi Ivanov Jovčev, Bishop of Sofia and Plovdiv, the testimonies of a nun, a priest and a family followed one another, alternating with songs and choreographed movements. Then Francis made his speech, giving thanks for the warm welcome: “It is always a source of joy to be able to meet the holy People of God with its myriad faces and charisms.” He once again recalled Pope John, the good pope, “whose heart was so attuned to the Lord that he could register his disagreement with those around him who saw only evil and called them prophets of doom.” Again he addressed a positive and confident message to a small Church, which is like a seed in a land that is a “crossroads” and a “bridge.” Francis has always expressed a particular predilection for these Churches.[6] He invited us to launch ourselves into history, on the basis of deep roots: “It is good to know that you can count on a great living history, but it is even more beautiful to realize that you are being asked to write its next chapter. Never tire of being a Church that continues to give birth, amid contradictions, sorrows and also much poverty, the Church-who-is-a-mother that continually has children, that gives life to the sons and daughters that this land needs today, at the start of this twenty-first century. Always listen with one ear to the Gospel and the other to the heart of your people.”

The pontiff made various statements off the cuff. In particular, recalling what a priest and poet, Amelio Luis Calori, wrote of a Church that, if it closes the door, never does so from within: “If they close the door, the key is on the outside: you can open it. And that is our hope. The hope of reconciliation.”

Finally, he walked down the central nave while the choir was singing. When he went outside, some sick boys were waiting for him with volunteers. They released balloons while the bells were ringing.

At the end of the meeting, the pontiff returned by plane to Sofia and, from the airport, around 6 p.m. arrived in Nezavisimost Square – formerly Lenin Square – which is the center of Sofia. The monumental buildings surrounding the square are built in the characteristic style of socialist realism. Here, on an afternoon of wind and rain, the meeting for peace took place, presided over by the pope and attended by representatives of religious denominations present in Bulgaria: the Jewish, Armenian, Protestant and Islamic communities. The Director for Religious Affairs of the Government was also present. On the stage there was a candle with the logo of the pope’s visit, an olive tree as a symbol of peace, and roses, a symbol of Bulgaria. The Canticle of the Creatures of Saint Francis was recited in Italian and Bulgarian, and Psalm 122. Then a candle and six torches were lit, symbolizing all the religious denominations of the country. This was followed by prayers formulated by the various confessions.

The pope recited the Prayer of St. Francis and then addressed his message. Quoting once again the document signed in Abu Dhabi, he said that “peace requires and demands that we make dialogue a way, that we make common collaboration our conduct, that we make mutual knowledge the method and the criterion for meeting each other in what unites us, for respecting each other in what separates us and for encouraging us to look to the future as a space of opportunity and dignity, especially for future generations.”

Francis’ journey to Bulgaria ended with this speech and with the “hope that the dream of Saint John XXIII will come true: the dream of an earth where peace is at home.” These are the splendid words of Francis, who hopes for a future, rereading the past: “Our celebration of peace takes place here on the ruins of ancient Serdika, in Sofia, the heart of Bulgaria. From here we can see the places of worship of the different Churches and religious Confessions: Saint Nedelya of our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Saint Joseph of we Catholics, the synagogue of our elder brothers, the Jews, the mosque of our Muslim brothers and sisters and, closer to us, the church of the Armenians. For many centuries, the Bulgarians of Sofia belonging to different cultural and religious groups gathered in this place for meetings and discussions. May this symbolic place become a witness to peace. Tonight our voices blend in expressing our ardent desire for peace. Let there be peace on earth!”

After the meeting for peace, returning to the Nunciature, Francis drove past all the places he had mentioned in his speech.

The farewell from Bulgaria ceremony took place on the morning of the following day, Tuesday 7. Around 8 a.m., the pope was welcomed by the Prime Minister and, after a guard of honor, departed for Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia.

North Macedonia, a melting pot of cultures and belonging

Around 8:15 a.m., the papal flight landed at Skopje airport. Francis was the first pope to travel to North Macedonia, and the journey took place on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, a few years after independence, achieved in September 1991.

In North Macedonia, Catholics are approximately 0.7 percent of the population, or about 15,000. There are 10 parishes, 22 priests (including one religious) and 30 religious sisters. In May 2018, Pope Francis elevated the apostolic exarchate for the Byzantine Catholic faithful living in North Macedonia to the status of eparchy, assigning the new province the title of “Blessed Virgin Mary of the Assumption in Strumica-Skopje.” He nominated as first eparchal bishop Kiro Stojanov, bishop for Catholics of the Latin rite, who was already apostolic exarch of the same province. So there is a single bishop of both the Latins and the Byzantines.

The pope was welcomed at the foot of the plane by President Gjorge Ivanov and two children in traditional dress. They offered him bread, salt and water. President Ivanov and Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, addressed words of welcome. Francis took a piece of bread, broke it, and offered it to the president, saying: “That’s how you make friends, isn’t it?”

From the airport, the pope went to the Presidential Palace, better known as Villa Vodno, named after the mountain overlooking the city of Skopje in the southwest. It has been the seat of the Head of State since 2009. Surrounded by a park, Villa Vodno houses a rich collection of Macedonian art. After the welcome ceremony, a visit to the president and a meeting with the prime minister, a meeting with the authorities, representatives of civil society and the diplomatic corps took place. In the front row was Stevo Pendarovski, who the previous day had been elected as the new president of the Republic and successor to Ivanov.

In his wide-ranging and profound speech President Ivanov declared, among other things: “I am convinced that his efforts for peace and unity, equality and social justice, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, sustainable development and the role of justice make a profound difference because they are symbols of a renewed world. Only people transformed in the spirit can transform the spirit of society.” He added that this “requires a person with important moral authority who can speak to the soul of the nation. I am deeply convinced that Macedonian citizens – Christians, Muslims, Jews or atheists – recognize this type of person in Your Holiness. Many young leaders who leave my leadership school look to you as the leader who best inspires people. That is why symbolically, as a Macedonian, I asked you to come to Macedonia to help us in the spiritual renewal of our country.”

Francis gave a speech highlighting how North Macedonia is a bridge country, “a crucible of cultures and ethnic and religious identities,” and a spiritual crossroads. He said: “Your land, a bridge between East and West and the confluence of numerous cultural currents, embodies many of the distinctive marks of this region. With the elegant testimonies of its Byzantine and Ottoman past, its lofty mountain fortresses and the splendid iconostases of its ancient churches, which speak of a Christian presence dating back to apostolic times, North Macedonia reflects all the depth and richness of its millennial culture.”

In North Macedonia, too, the pope spoke with his eyes turned toward Europe. In this country, “the different religious identities of Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics, Jews and Protestants, as well as the ethnic distinction between Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs, Croats and people of other origins, have created a mosaic in which every tile is necessary to the originality and beauty of the overall picture,” in the construction of a “common destiny.” And this is “highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe.” Francis expressed his “hope that this integration will develop in a way that is beneficial for the entire region of the Western Balkans.”

In his speech the pope offered as a reference figure Anjezë Gonxha Bojaxhiu, that is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, daughter of this land. She is a model of a solidarity that the pope has recognized in the Macedonian people, who have made a generous effort “to welcome and to provide assistance to the great number of migrants and refugees coming from different Middle Eastern countries.”

After leaving, Francis went to the “Mother Teresa Memorial,” inaugurated in 2008, which stands where the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was before being destroyed by an earthquake in 1963. Here the saint was baptized and she used to come to pray. The building has a stone base in which various elements are inserted and, in particular, a sort of glass tower. On the first floor there is a small museum displaying photos, objects that belonged to Mother Teresa, and some of her relics; on the second floor is the chapel with glass walls.

The pope was welcomed by the superior, three nuns and a child, who offered him flowers, which Francis then placed in front of a large statue of the saint. Afterward, he went to the chapel, where the leaders of the religious communities of the country were gathered with their families and the two cousins of Mother Teresa. On the altar were exhibited a relic of the saint, some personal items and five candles to represent the religious confessions. There was a moment of silent prayer before the relic, followed by a prayer of the Holy Father in honor of Mother Teresa. The Orthodox Metropolitan of Skopje, the Reis ul-ulema of the Islamic community, a Methodist pastor, and a representative of the Jewish community also participated.

At the end, the pope reached the courtyard, where there were about 100 poor people assisted by the Missionary Sisters of Charity. Here, after a brief greeting from the superior of the community and the testimony of a guest, there was the blessing of the foundation stone for the shrine of Mother Teresa.

Opening routes for change

At 11 a.m., the pope went to Macedonia Square, the geographical and symbolic center of Skopje. There he celebrated Mass in front of about 15,000 people.

In his homily he spoke of the Lord who came to give life to the world, challenging “the narrowness of our calculations, the mediocrity of our expectations and the superficiality of our rationalizations; He questions our views and our certainties, inviting us to move on to a new horizon that gives space to a different way of constructing reality.”

In particular the pope made a robust analysis of the situation: : “We have become accustomed to eating the stale bread of disinformation and ending up as prisoners of dishonor, labels and ignominy. We thought that conformism would satisfy our thirst, yet we ended up drinking only indifference and insensitivity. We fed ourselves on dreams of splendor and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste for fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.” Hence he called upon his hearers to declare “with strength and without fear” our hunger for “fraternity where indifference, dishonor, ignominy do not fill our tables and do not take pride of place in our homes.”

After Mass, the pope had lunch with his entourage at the episcopal residence, then at 3:45 p.m. he went to the Pastoral Centre in Skopje, behind the cathedral. Here, in the open air, an ecumenical and interreligious meeting was held.[7] Testimonies were given by a young couple, he Catholic and she Orthodox, one by a young Muslim, and one by a young Catholic of the Byzantine rite.

Then the pope gave a speech in dialogue with the young people, who spoke about their lives. It was a talk about dreams: “Dreaming is never too much. One of the main problems of today for many young people is that they have lost the ability to dream.” He recalled the Abu Dhabi Document, signed “with a friend, the Great Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad el-Tayeb” – said the pope in dialogue with the Muslim girl who had spoken – because “we also had a dream very similar to yours.” He then used the image of stonemasons, “skilled at cutting the stone and working it.” Therefore, “you have to work like those artists and become good carvers of your dreams.” And he added that it is important not to dream alone: “Alone you risk seeing mirages, seeing what is not there. But dreams are built together.” Above all, one must never dream “against others.” He also asked his hearers not to exchange pure gold for “colored glass,” what is precious in life for shiny, fake imitations.

In the end, Mother Teresa’s prayer was recited, “Do you need my hands, Lord?” The bishop of Skopje then accompanied the pope inside the cathedral through a side door. The cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in 1977, is the seat of the diocese of Skopje. Here the meeting with the priests, their families and religious took place. Two sisters offered flowers to the pope, who placed them in front of the Blessed Sacrament. After a silent prayer, Francis reached the altar to begin the meeting. Then there were testimonies from a priest of the Byzantine rite with his wife and four children, one from a Latin priest, and one from a religious sister.

The pope thanked them as follows: “I can see the Church breathing fully with her two lungs – Latin rite and Byzantine rite – to fill herself with the ever new and renewing air of the Holy Spirit.” And he asked everyone not to count on the “precariousness of our resources to carry out the missionary mandate entrusted to us.” Francis’ speech was an invitation to the missionary conversion of the Church, to a broad opening, even in the fragility of our life and our abilities.

Mother Teresa is once again a “concrete sign of how one small person, anointed by the Lord, could permeate everything, once the fragrance of the Beatitudes was spread over the weary feet of our humanity.” These are the last words of Francis on Macedonian soil: “Let us ask the Spirit to keep renewing us in our mission, with the confidence of knowing that he wants to permeate everything with his presence.” Before leaving the cathedral, the pope blessed the foundation stone of the sanctuary of St. Paul.

After leaving the cathedral, Francis headed for Skopje airport, where he was welcomed by the President of the Republic, who accompanied him to the plane. The flight took off from the Macedonian capital around 6.15 p.m. and landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport at 7.50 p.m.

The most beautiful mosaics are the most colorful ones

“The most beautiful mosaics are the most colorful,” said Francis in a video message sent before taking off for his 29th apostolic journey. Bulgaria and North Macedonia can be defined as mosaics featuring: “bridges” and “crossroads” between cultures and religions; two key figures for the evangelization of the Slavic peoples, Cyril and Methodius; two contemporary figures of holiness in John XXIII and Mother Teresa; a common European horizon of brotherhood and coexistence in light of the document signed in Abu Dhabi; an ecumenism born of persecution, of service to the poor and of the mission of proclaiming the Gospel; an open vision of the Church in full missionary mode, which opens itself to the challenges of the future without falling back in a fearful and petty manner. These are the fundamental elements of Francis’ apostolic journey to lands that contain a small number of Catholics t. Theirs is a mission of reconciliation and dialogue in a geopolitical quadrant that is a mosaic of cultures, religions and sensibilities.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 6, article 6, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1906.6

[1] For further analysis of the situation of the two countries, cf. G. Sale, “La Macedonia del  Nord e Bulgaria,” in Civ. Catt. 2019 II 145-158.

[2] A. Spadaro, “Sentinels of fraternity in the night.” The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi,” in Civ. Catt. En. Ed. https://laciviltacattolica.com/sentinels-of-fraternity-in-the-night-the-apostolic-visit-of-pope-francis-to-abu-dhabi

[3] The brothers Cyril and Methodius were born in Thessaloniki in the mid-ninth century. Following the request of Prince Rastislav of Greater Moravia to Emperor Michael III to send his people a bishop and teacher who could explain to them the Christian faith in their language, the two brothers were chosen for this mission. They gave the Slavic script a definitive form, which spread rapidly to Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia. Cyril and Methodius also produced the first Slavic version of the Bible and the liturgy.

[4] The Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not participate in ecumenical activities, nor is it a member of the Ecumenical Council of Churches. It did not participate in the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Crete in June 2016. Cf. E. Farrugia, “Il ‘Santo e Grande’ Sinodo Panortodosso. 18-27 Giugno 2016,” in Civ. Catt. 2016 II 521-533; Id., “Il ‘Santo e Grande’ Sinodo Panortodosso. Documentazione e reazione,” 2016 IV 53-67.

[5] The cathedral was built to commemorate the death of 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the 1877-1878 war to free the Slav peoples from Ottoman rule. The neo-Byzantine construction – one of the largest in the world – was completed in 1912. It is 45 meters high: the golden dome rises over a series of half-domes, while the bell tower, with its 12 bells, is more than 50 meters high. The interior, with 5 naves, has precious marbles, precious materials and mosaics in Murano glass.

[6] One need only recall, for example, the ecclesiology expressed by Francis in his address to the Catholic community of Morocco. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/march.index.html

[7] Francis did not have a specific meeting with Archbishop Stefan, who leads the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The situation of the Church poses some problems that are still unresolved. Two years ago, in fact, it began its steps to recognize the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the mother Church, freeing itself from the Serbian Patriarchate, which instead considers North Macedonia as its canonical territory. In this way it also seeks recognition of its autocephaly, proclaimed in 1967 and never recognized by the synaxis of the Orthodox Churches.