In Bulgaria the countdown for the visit of Pope Francis has begun. The Holy Father is scheduled to arrive in Sofia on May 5th. He will depart for Skopje (North Macedonia) on May 7. The motto chosen for the journey is “Pacem in terris”, from the homonymous encyclical of Pope John XXIII, who served as Apostolic Nuncio in Sofia for 10 years. “The motto and the connection with the then Msgr. Roncalli are no coincidence – Msgr. Christo Proykov, President of Bulgarian bishops, told SIR -. The centre of Sofia features a unique quadrilateral of religious temples. A few meters away are located “Sv. Nedelya” Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, “St. Joseph” Catholic Cathedral, the synagogue and the “Banya Bashi” mosque. “The temples testify to century-long peaceful interreligious coexistence. In fact no religiously motivated attack has been recorded so far in the country”, the prelate pointed out. The bishop said that the values of tolerance and peace are enshrined in the DNA of Bulgarians. This Balkan people stood aloof from the many episodes of bloodshed that afflicted the neighbouring countries. From this symbolic place, on the evening of May 6 Pope Francis will extend a prayer for peace in the whole world in the presence of representatives of various religious faith groups. “It will be an extremely symbolical gesture: society, political leaders, all peoples need peace today. Peace is also a fruit of our extended hands”, said Msgr. Proykov.
The highlight of the visit. The meeting for peace will be the highlight of the visit of Francis in Bulgaria and the last event on Bulgarian soil. Six children, representing the different faiths, will carry lit candles symbolizing the light and the hope that peace can bring to the world and among religions, messenger of dialogue and of the values of goodness, overcoming hate and hostility.
The dialogue with the Orthodox Church. The official meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Neofit, religious leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, will take place on May 5 in the Holy Synod Hall. The event will be attended by all Metropolitan bishops, members of the Holy Synod. The Orthodox dignitaries have already prepared a gift for the Holy Father consisting in a large painting depicting Alexander Nevski Patriarchal cathedral. A recent statement released by the Holy Synod affirming that the leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will not participate in other events of the program of Pope Francis’s visit to Bulgaria has caused a great stir. “This does not concern us,” said Msgr. Proykov. “We believe that the important event is the face-to-face meeting with the Patriarch.” “I am sure that there will be an exchange of views characterised by sincere cordiality expressed by religious leaders and men of faith who believe in the same God.” In his opinion “ecumenism is ultimately the fruit of the Holy Spirit and every Church needs its own time to proceed along the path of unity.”
Catholic faithful eagerly looking forward to the visit. In Bulgaria there is great anticipation over the visit of Pope Francis, not only on behalf of the small Catholic community. “As many as 1500 people have registered for the event in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sofia -– Father Jaroslaw Babik, parish priest, told SIR – and not all of them are Catholic. People have invited their neighbours, their friends, everyone wants to see the Pope.” On the afternoon of May 5 the Holy Father will celebrate Sunday Mass in the central square dedicated to “Alexander I”, the first Bulgarian prince after the liberation. “We expect this to be the event with the highest degree of public participation. Catholics will arrive from throughout Bulgaria to join in the prayer with the Pope”, Fr Babik said. The square will be full of people, as many as 7600 faithful are expected to attend, and registration was closed at the end of February as all available tickets had been already booked.
The gesture with migrants. The Pope’s second day on Bulgarian land will begin with a private visit to one of the refugee camps in Sofia. “A strong gesture for the Bulgarian reality marked by low rates of migrants, and sometimes people are afraid of them”, pointed out the Secretary General of Caritas Bulgaria who will welcome Francis at the entrance of the camp where a group of migrant families will be awaiting him. The visit will continue with a stopover in Rakovski, the Bulgarian town with the highest proportion of the country’s Roman Catholics, approximately 15 thousand on a total of 70 thousand in the whole country. A large poster was affixed at the entrance of the city located 150 km from Sofia depicting the image of the Pope with the caption “Welcome” , in the background an image of the Church of the Sacred Heart where Francis will celebrate a Holy Mass for the First Communion of Bulgarian children. “It will be a memorable moment for all these children, they will cherish this memory all their life. Children are eagerly looking forward to this feast with the Pope “, said Fr Rumen Stanev, parish priest of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Rakovski . “For our city – he added – the arrival of the Pope is a unique event that happens once in a lifetime.” Fr Stanev said he hopes that “in addition to expressions of enthusiasm, the Pope’s presence will deliver many spiritual fruits.” “Indeed – he explained – secularization has taken roots also in our Country. There have been no vocations to the priesthood for many years”, he added. The churches of Rakovski – the largest in Bulgaria – turned out to be too small for the Papal visit. They can seat up to 720 people, other attendees will follow the event outside, in the square and along the streets.
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