ROME – When Pope Francis sets off for Macedonia and Bulgaria this weekend, it could well be a classic case of big things coming in small packages. Though both nations may seem peripheral and tiny, his visits could have big significance on a variety of levels, both ecclesial and political.
On the one hand, the presence of the pope in two former communist nations where Catholics are a small minority will be an encouragement for the local, and increasingly young, Catholic populations trying to live their faith in a socio-political context in which religious freedom under post-communist rule is in many ways still a developing concept.
His May 5-7 visit will also matter on an ecumenical level, since Orthodox Christians compose the majority in both countries. Ecumenism has been a cornerstone of Francis’s papacy, and his visits with the leaders of the Bulgarian and Macedonian Orthodox churches could help cement the Vatican’s relations with the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe.
On a political level, the pope’s social agenda is also likely to be on display when it comes to issues such as poverty and migration. Bulgaria holds the title for poorest nation in Europe, and Macedonia, which was one of the poorest Yugoslav Republics pre-communism, is still in the process of recovery.
Outreach to the poor and marginalized will take on special significance during the pope’s visit to Skopje, Macedonia, the birthplace of St. Teresa of Calcutta, canonized by Francis in 2017 and famous for having spent her life in service of the “poorest of the poor” in the slums of India.
Church and state
Though communism in Macedonia and Bulgaria took on drastically different forms from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s, its impact is still felt today, above all in the economy and among religious communities who faced intense persecution.
Most of Macedonian communism was spent under Joseph Braz Tito, famous for being the only communist leader of his time to break ties with the Soviets and implement his own system, which gained him wide popularity.
Religious persecution under Tito was fairly minor compared to most other communist nations at the time. Though the regime officially frowned on religion, the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which gained independence in 1967, was allowed to exist and operate freely, while other communities, including Muslims, Catholics and Protestant Christians, were allowed to practice under certain restrictions.
In Bulgaria, Orthodox were treated with favor in exchange for submission to the state and a limitation of activities, while Catholics and other religious communities faced overt persecution. Properties were confiscated, clergy and faithful were imprisoned, harassed or even killed, and believers had few legal rights.
When it comes to church-state relations today, at least among Catholics, the situation is amicable but largely indifferent given the small number of Catholics in each nation.
Speaking to Crux, Gonzalo Sanz, a Catholic from Spain who works for the Energy Market AD company and who has been living in Bulgaria for the past decade, said relations with the government “are not non-existent,” but they are also “not thought of.”
There is, however, a great respect for the “martyrs during communism” and for the bishops and priests who refused to recant their faith in the face of government threats, he said.
Most of the battles today, Sanz said, are over issues such as gender ideology, which has been pushed by the government only to face blowback from Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, making the issue a unifying one for all Christian communities.
Bishop Kiro Stojanov of Skopje said in a recent interview with the “katolici.mk” Catholic website that in Macedonia, there are stronger ties with the government, which has a committee for relations between churches and religious communities and groups.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, officially recognizing the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archbishopric of Ohrid (MPC-OA), Islam, Catholicism, the Evangelical Methodist Church and the Jewish communities, whose leaders hold regular meetings.
“It can be said that there are good relations between the groups, although there is always room for improvement,” Stojanov said, adding that on the government level, “religious freedom is in a period of transition, as is the case in the other countries in transition. Understandably, everything is in a process towards a more perfect democracy.”
A tiny community among the Orthodox
In both countries, Francis will be greeted by small but growing Catholic communities. In Bulgaria, Catholics make up roughly 0.5 percent of the population of 7.1 million, while in Macedonia they are just one percent of some two million inhabitants.
In terms of the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox, the situation, though different in each country, is largely amicable among ordinary believers but occasionally tense among the hierarchies, particularly in Bulgaria.
In comments to Crux, Father Pavo Sekerija, director of Caritas Macedonia, a pontifical charity that serves both Catholics and non-Catholics in the area and is in charge of volunteers for the papal visit, spoke of the diversity of religious communities, saying “it is our greatest richness and our biggest challenge.”
That sentiment was echoed by Father Boris Stoykov, who serves as pastor at Mary of the Assumption church in Zhitnitsa, Bulgaria, and who told Crux that in his country, relations among the laity are fine but there is “a lot of difficulty” when it comes to the clergy.
“There is a lot of tolerance and respect because here in Bulgaria, there are various representatives of several religious confessions. It’s a country where there are also more Muslims than Catholics, so the relationships among laity are better, but it’s more difficult among the hierarchy,” he said.
Similarly, Sanz said that he has spoken to several priests in Bulgaria who have recounted looking out at their congregations on some Sunday Masses and seeing that nearly half are Orthodox, and he expects many Orthodox will also attend Francis’s May 6 Mass in Rakovsky, during which he’ll administer First Communion to some 200 children.
The reason, Sanz said, is because while weekly Mass attendance is mandatory for Catholics, it is not required for Orthodox, meaning Orthodox faithful who want to find a Sunday service are always able to do so at a Catholic parish.
He said the language used in liturgies also makes a difference, since Orthodox services are traditionally celebrated in ancient languages whereas Catholic services are in Bulgarian, making the Mass easier to follow. Each year some 40-50 people enter the Catholic Church, he said.
However, on an institutional level, many times Orthodox bishops will treat their Catholic counterparts “as if Catholics don’t exist,” Sanz said, noting that while there will be an ecumenical meeting with Orthodox leaders in Macedonia, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, traditionally loyal to Moscow, refused to help in the organization of the pope’s visit, agreeing to meet with Francis but nothing more.
Most of this tension comes from a sense of nationalism, Sanz said, but even so, religious communities are able to join forces through works of charity and fighting to maintain “the Christian identity of Bulgaria” amid secular pressures.
In Macedonia, relations tend to be warmer. Stojanov said in his interview that a delegation of both Orthodox and Catholic representatives make an annual pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tomb of St. Cyril, a highly venerated saint in both traditions.
There’s also an interreligious council which holds regular meetings in which leaders from all religious communities gather to address issues related to law, human rights, morals and ethics. They pay regular visits to one another on holidays, and personal meetings are not unusual.
“The basic principle is not solely tolerance, but cooperation, mutual respect and a joint contribution towards the faithful and all people of good will,” Stojanov said.
Sekerija noted how Francis at one point had said that “the only place where there is not conflict is in the cemetery,” explaining that tensions will exist as long as people do. He called for greater education in learning to “accept diversity and live it as a possibility and not as a barrier.”
Mother Teresa and a ‘kiss to the poor’
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the pope’s trip to Macedonia and Bulgaria will be a focus on poverty. The pope who called for “a poor Church for the poor” will visit the birthplace of Mother Teresa, who spent her life serving the poorest of the poor.
Macedonia and Bulgaria are both poor nations. Bulgaria currently has the lowest minimum wage in Europe, about $319 a month, compared to Greece, where minimum wage is $765, and Belgium, with $1,782 a month.
A labor union official recently said that “Bulgaria is the Bangladesh of Europe,” meaning they make cheap goods for foreign companies that are exported elsewhere.
In Macedonia, an estimated 39.4 percent of a population of more than two million live below the poverty line, meaning some 600,000 individuals currently live in poverty, with unemployment being among the greatest causes.
While he’s in Bulgaria May 6, Francis will visit a refugee camp in Sofia’s Vrazhdebna district. The camp, named after the district, opened in September 2013 as migrants began to flow into Europe.
The “camp” is actually an abandoned school that was repurposed to house migrants and refugees on their way to other countries around Europe. Nearly 500 people were welcomed when the center first opened, with upwards of 20 people at times crammed into one room.
Currently housing some 300 people, most of whom, according to Sanz, are from Syria and Afghanistan, the center as of 2014 was funded 80 percent by the European Refugee Fund and 20 percent from the national budget. It offers language lessons and medical care, with most materials provided by Doctors Without Borders, as well as meals, showers and sleeping quarters.
Francis will also meet with the poor while he’s in Macedonia May 7, a stop organized by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
According to Sekerija, the poor who attend experience the “love and closeness” of the sisters on a daily basis, however, there are a limited number of spaces. During the encounter, the Missionaries of Charity sisters will distribute hot meals.
“You already know that the pope on his travels never forgets the poor,” Stojanov said. “I would say that this visit symbolically represents ‘a kiss to the poor’.”
A young church
Christianity in Bulgaria and Macedonia tends to be young, boasting many young families who are active and involved in parish communities. As he does on nearly every international visit, Francis will meet with young people during an ecumenical and interreligious event with youth in Macedonia on the last day of his trip.
Speaking of the deep faith of Catholics in Bulgaria, Stoykov told Crux that “the fact that after 45 years of communism, these people, Catholics in Bulgaria, maintain the faith is for me a small miracle of grace because pressure from the regime was strong against the Church.”
In Rakovsky, one of the largest cities in Bulgaria where they will celebrate Mass and give First Communion to some 200 children, has 17,000 inhabitants and among them, “there is a good turnout for Sunday Mass, even among young people,” he said, adding that “the young generation has not abandoned the faith.”
According to Sanz, following John Paul II’s visit to Bulgaria in 2002 “there was an explosion of vocations,” most of them to the priesthood or women’s religious life. Most Catholics are confident that the same excitement will follow Francis’s visit and that the local church will receive “a great gift” after welcoming the Holy Father.
Bulgaria is “a youthful church,” Sanz said, explaining that he is currently collaborating on a project to open the first Catholic school in the country post-communism. During the communist era, the three Catholic schools in Sofia were shut down, and to this day, none have reopened.
Though religious schools in Bulgaria are technically still forbidden, the project is moving forward and is registered as a regular, non-religious school called “Regina Sofia.” However, Sanz said the government education officials are aware of the schools’ Catholic roots, and have even asked for tickets to the papal Mass.
Bulgaria, he said, is “a growing church” where places of worship are being built “in privileged areas where there were none.”
Speaking of the final interreligious youth encounter the pope will hold in Macedonia, Stojanov voiced hope that the meeting would “further improve the coexistence and cooperation with the others and with those who are different from us, as a cause for mutual enrichment, not as something that would distance us.”
“Youth as a category are the ones who are most open for coexistence in the future,” he said, explaining that they will have the opportunity to ask the pope questions.
And the pope’s message to the young people, he said, will be the “Magna Carta” for their pastoral for the youth, “as well as an encouragement for coexistence and cooperation of future young generations, without divisions on the basis of faith and nation.”