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Praising Stillness Amid the Whirlwind

During his state visit to Bulgaria in early May, the pope offered words of contemplation for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

by Boyko Vassilev 28 May 2019

Pope Francis unexpectedly changed direction and approached a group of the well-wishers who had come to see him in Sofia. Speaking through a translator, he said, “I see you can make noise.” His smiling overture elicited a cry of “Long live the pope!” from the enthusiastic young crowd. Then Francis raised his hand and asked, “But can you be silent in your heart?”


He continued, “In the heart we can find the most noble feelings. So, make noise. But keep the silence in your heart. And pray for me.”


Having momentarily escaped the dozens of TV cameras covering his state visit to Bulgaria, Pope Francis carried on speaking through the tumult to make his point, and a recording of this encounter – this intimacy in a crowd – later found its way onto Facebook.


This was Pope Francis at his best. During his 5-7 May visit to Bulgaria, he often went off-program, off-script, off-mic. The spiritual leader of world Catholicism engaged people directly, both crowd and clergy. He met with refugees and personally gave communion to 249 children in Rakovski, the so-called Catholic capital of Bulgaria. And, at the culmination of his visit, he stood alongside an Armenian priest, a Muslim imam, and Jewish and Protestant representatives, in the “Prayer for Peace.”


The location chosen for the prayer was itself symbolic: a central part of the capital where an Orthodox and a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, and a synagogue are all packed in together. There was even a monument to Lenin here, before 1989. This busy, beating heart of the city is a demonstration of co-existence, in the face of the conflicting winds of history.


It was here in Serdica – nowadays called Sofia – that the Roman emperor Galerius issued his Edict of Serdica, or Edict of Toleration, in 311, putting an end to persecution of Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. In 343-344, the Synod of Serdica promulgated some important canons of Christianity.


In more recent times, Bulgaria's papal representative between 1925 and 1934, Angelo Roncalli, went on to become Pope John XXIII. He was popular in Bulgaria, so much so that outsiders called him “the Bulgarian pope.”


Pope Francis took John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in terris” (Peace on Earth) as a motto for the Bulgarian stage of his journey through the Balkans – which included the newly renamed state of Northern Macedonia on 7 May, and will continue in Romania on 31 May.


Prayers for Peace started in 1986 as an initiative of the Polish pope, John Paul II, who brought together 120 religious activists from 32 Christian and 11 non-Christian denominations for a day of prayer in the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, in Italy. That geographical origin of the ceremony has a particular resonance for the current pontiff, who took his papal name from Francis of Assisi.


However, when it was re-enacted this month, in the center of Sofia, there was an ominous void in the heart of the ceremony. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), representing 60 percent of Bulgarians – compared to Bulgarian Catholics' 1 percent – was not present in the square, amid the otherwise ecumenical masses.


The Orthodox and Catholic churches split a millennium ago, in 1054, and only lifted their mutual anathemas in 1965, so tension between the BOC and the visiting pope became major news in Bulgaria.


On the part of the BOC, Patriarch Neophyte and the Holy Synod did receive Pope Francis for a talk, and exchanged protocol gifts. However, they did not accompany him on his visit to the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral of St. Alexandar Nevski, and did not send a representative to the Prayer for Peace ceremony. It was made quite clear by the BOC that the pope was on a state visit, and the Bulgarian state was the host. It was not a matter for the BOC.


What are we to make of this new schism? What light was cast on our Orthodox church, by this highly individual pope, and his post-modern stardom?


The Facebook crowd went to its usual extremes. “Our church is outdated, old-fashioned, and rude!” cried urban liberals. Traditionalists retorted: “Let us not be ashamed of our own traditions; look at the hypocrisy and corruption of the Catholic Church!”


Ingenious theories mushroomed. “Will the pope bring refugees here?” “Did Russia encourage our priests to snub him?” The fashionable liberal-conservative schism was perversely projected onto religion, like a cinematographic allegory. Delicate and complex constellations of ecumenism, church canons, regional stability, and religious diplomacy all faded in this light-polluting glare.


“I cannot believe my eyes: we found flaws in the pope!” quipped Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – the one who had invited the pope. “Imagine what we would say if God Himself were to come!”


Discord entered the Holy Synod itself. Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv preached that the aim of the papal visit was “to unite all the churches around Rome, and when the Antichrist comes, the pope will welcome him.”


Two fellow metropolitans hit back swiftly, with Metropolitan Naum of Ruse declaring: “The Roman pope might be a greater patriot than many Bulgarians [for honoring Bulgaria’s contributions to the Cyrillic alphabet, and the tradition of saints Cyril and Methodius] … We wish Pope Francis all the best because he is a good man – and we wish Bulgarians to be better and more reasonable because this is what they need.”


Metropolitan Naum's point is worth considering. All sides made mistakes, after all. Both the pope's team and the BOC could have been more flexible, and the public could have been more thoughtful and forgiving.


In that contemplative silence of the heart, which Pope Francis called for in Sofia, we can admit that this is a centuries’ old attitude. Bulgarians see religion with a practical eye, and readily take it together with more earthly issues – more politics than faith. Some would call this a rational blessing, others would say it is a moral problem. And many would get caught up in the noise. Because silence is hard to find these days, especially in our hearts.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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