ROME – For decades, to put “pope” and “Bulgaria” into the same sentence was to summon thoughts of tragedy and conspiracy. After a 1981 assassination attempt against St. John Paul II, one of the most popular theories held that Bulgaria’s communist-era secret service, in cahoots with the KGB, had engineered the plot, using Turkish anarchist Mehmet Ali Ağca as a sort of front-man.

So strong was the belief that Bulgaria wanted the pope dead that when John Paul visited the country in 2002, he felt compelled to clear the air: “I never believed in the so-called ‘Bulgarian connection,’” the Polish pope said, “because of my great esteem and respect for the Bulgarian people.”

Seventeen years later, with a clean slate and a different pope, Bulgaria’s tiny Catholic community finally has a chance to receive a pontiff without baggage – and it appears they’re determined to make the most of it.

Father Boris Stoykov and Sister Krasi Govedarska, who are helping to organize liturgical events for the pope’s May 5-6 visit to Bulgaria, after which he’ll head to Macedonia, and are preparing children who will receive their First Communion from Pope Francis, are thrilled and believe the pope’s visit will strengthen people’s faith.

Bulgaria is a majority Orthodox nation where Catholics number some 1,193 people per priest in a country that has just 57 priests, one deacon and four bishops, according to numbers provided by the Vatican. There are also some 70 professed religious.

In comments to Crux, Stoykov said he’s “very happy” a pope is visiting Bulgaria again. “It’s rare that a pope comes,” he said, and “this second visit gives us joy again.”

Similarly, Govedarska, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, said she met John Paul II when she was just beginning religious life, and that his visit in 2002 was “a great motive for renewal and rejuvenation for the whole country, for the Church and for all of Bulgaria.”

“Pope Francis’s arrival is a continuation,” she said, adding, “I don’t think Bulgaria was chosen by the pope by chance. It’s a small country on the periphery, but it has its importance and the pope will repeat this message for peace.”

This message, she said, dates back to the time that the then-Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XXIII, served in Bulgaria as an official in the papal embassy and later as the Vatican’s apostolic delegate from 1925-1934.

Roncalli loved Bulgaria so much that upon leaving, he famously promised to employ a Bulgarian Christmas tradition, which is to leave a candle in windows of the houses as a sign of welcome to Jesus and Mary as they look for a place to stay.

“Wherever I am, also at the end of the world, whenever a Bulgarian passes in front of my house he will find a lit candle at my window. He will knock at my door and we will open; either Catholic or Orthodox, he will be able to come in and find in my house the warmest and most loving hospitality,” Roncalli said.

Because of Roncalli’s connection to Bulgaria, “we are close to John XXIII,” Govedarska said, adding that Francis’s visit is “a prolongation of the message of Pope John XXIII and his message for peace, for renewal…this great desire for peace among people, among religions, among cultures.”

Francis will visit Sofia and Rakovsky in Bulgaria during a two-day swing through Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Sofia will be his first stop before moving onto Rakovsky, where he will give First Communion to some 200 children from all over Bulgaria, and he will close his trip with a day-long visit to Skopje, Macedonia, the birthplace of St. Theresa of Calcutta.

For 13 years, Stoykov oversaw the church of the Saint Michael the Archangel in Rakovsky, where Francis’s meeting with the Catholic community in Bulgaria will take place May 6. He’s now pastor at Mary of the Assumption church in Zhitnitsa, where 28 children are preparing to receive their First Communion from the pope, and three young men are set to be altar servers for the papal Mass.

Father Boris Stoykov (center) stands in front of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Rakovsky, Bulgaria with three boys who will serve at Pope Francis’s May 6 Mass; papal Master of Ceremonies Msgr. Guido Marini (second from the right), and other members of the Vatican delegation helping prepare for upcoming trip. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Father Boris Stoykov).

Apart from their constant practice sessions, the children had their last catechesis lesson Saturday, and they are now preparing to make their first Confessions, which is scheduled to happen Tuesday.

Speaking of the faith of Catholics in Bulgaria, Stoykov said that after living through 45 years of communism, the fact that they have maintained their faith is “a small miracle of grace because pressure from the regime was strong against the Church.”

He referenced the high numbers of children and young people who receive the sacraments every year, numbering about 40 First Communions and 40 Confirmations in Rakovsky, where the larger parishes are, saying “the young generation has not abandoned the faith.”

“Religiosity is very widespread,” he said, voicing his belief that the pope’s visit will help Catholics in Bulgaria “to see and understand that we are part of a bigger church.”

Asked by papal Master of Ceremonies Monsignor Guido Marini to help in the organization of the pope’s liturgies during the visit, Stoykov, who studied in Rome, said he is honored to help, and that “it will be a witness to my priesthood, a small witness.”

Govedarska, currently a missionary at a Franciscan school for impoverished children in northern Lebanon near the border with Syria, is back in Bulgaria for two months to help prepare the children for their First Communion, and to help organize the pope’s lunch with the Bulgarian bishops, which will take place at their convent in Rakovsky.

“It’s an experience for the whole community, not just this parish, but the entire community of the Church in Bulgaria and for the entire country,” she said, adding that while she does not know who proposed the idea of having the pope administer First Communions, she was moved that the pope made the children and their families a priority.

“I think the First Communion gives strength to the little ones, but also the families, which we know the pope has in his heart,” she said.

Govedarska and a number of other sisters in her convent collected drawings from children all over Bulgaria who will receive their First Communion from the pope.

The drawings – which focus on the topics of peace, brotherhood, First Communion, the pope and the Church in general – will be hung both inside Sacred Heart church, where Mass will be celebrated, and they will also line the courtyard the pope will pass through on his way to lunch in the sisters’ convent.

“We thought that the faces, the expressions of these children can in a sense beautify the church, this church of the little ones, and along the path to our convent the pope will be accompanied by these drawings,” she said.

A drawing done by one of the children who will recieve First Communion from Pope Francis May 6 during his visit to Bulgaria. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Sister Krasi Govedarska).

In addition to the drawings, Govedarska said the pope will also be presented with images made out of corn which portray different moments in the life of Jesus, such as his birth, his baptism and the Last Supper. The frames were made by disadvantaged children living in welcome houses, most of whom are Orthodox.

Once the pope finishes Mass, he will be welcomed to the convent by the nine Franciscan sisters who are either stationed in Bulgaria or who are in town for the papal visit, including Govedarska. When the pope arrives to the convent, they’ll present him with a Bulgarian rose and show him the convent’s chapel. Four sisters will then serve lunch to the pope and the bishops.

Though the menu is still being decided, Govedarska said it will be “very fraternal and very simple” with simple dishes common to Bulgaria, because Francis is “a normal” and “very simple pope.”

Govedarska said she hopes to exchange words with the pope when he greets the sisters and tell him about the 300 poor children who attend their school in Lebanon, and the desire for peace that people in the region have.

“I hope to be able to whisper something into the pope’s ear…I hope to make a bridge from that world, from Lebanon, to the pope in Bulgaria,” she said, adding that in her view, “nothing by chance, (so) this project from the Lord, perhaps through me and this small instrument that is my life, can meet the pope and give him this groan from these people.”

Speaking of the impact she believes the trip will have on Bulgarians, Govedarska said she believes the visit will set the tone for the spiritual lives of the children who receive their First Communion from him, and it will strengthen their faith.

“Bulgaria is a country marked by the communist regime,” she said, adding that the younger generations have been “marked in faith. In fact, this visit from the pope has excited them a lot.”

In her view, Francis is coming to celebrate “a simple Mass like a pastor and a father. I don’t know if it was requested by our bishops or by the pope, but I think there is this sensitivity of being a father in the midst of these children.”

Children at Mary of the Assumption parish in Zhitnitsa, Bulgaria pose for their last catechesis session on April 27, 2019, before recieving their First Communion from Pope Francis during his May 5-6 visit to the country. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Sister Krasi Govedarska).