ROME – Opening his second day in Bulgaria, Pope Francis offered First Communion to more than 200 Catholic children from across the nation, telling them that to receive the sacrament is both a miracle and a celebration of the fact that Jesus wants to be close to them in friendship.

In off-the-cuff remarks after reading a prepared homily, the pope asked the children through a translator if they were happy to be making their First Communion, a question met with a chorus of “yes” from the pews.

Pressing the children on why they were happy, Francis said it was because “Jesus is coming.” He told the children they are all part of the same family, which is the Church, and said the “identity card” of a Christian is that “God is our Father, Jesus our brother, the Church mother and our family, we are brothers and sisters and love is our rule.”

He asked the children to repeat after him, and encouraged them to pray to Jesus, for their families, parents, grandparents, catechists, priests and friends.

In his prepared homily for the May 6 Mass, the pope told the children that “making your First Communion shows that you want to be closer to Jesus every day, to grow in friendship with him and to lead other people to share in the joy he wants us to feel.”

“The Lord needs you,” he said, “because he wants to work the miracle of bringing his joy to many of your friends and family members.”

Catholics in Bulgaria make up just 0.5 percent of the population of 7.1 million, but the Church is growing and is predominantly young.

Francis said he was glad to share the moment with the children and to help them “meet Jesus” in the Eucharist, calling the event “a day to be celebrated in a spirit of friendship, joy and fraternity. A day of communion among yourselves and with the whole Church, which, especially in the Eucharist, expresses the communion that makes all of us brothers and sisters.”

Francis celebrated Mass at the church of the Sacred Heart in Rakovsky in southern Bulgaria, on his second and final day in the country. He is currently on an official May 5-7 trip to Bulgaria and Macedonia.

After Mass, which was attended by some 10,700 people, the pope will lunch with the country’s bishops before meeting with the small Catholic community in Bulgaria. He will later preside over a prayer meeting for peace, which will be attended by representatives of the nation’s other major religious communities.

Some 245 children from all over Bulgaria received their First Communion from the pope. Catechesis and preparation for the event was overseen not only by local parish priests, but also sisters with the Franciscan Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

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Referring to Bulgaria as the “land of the roses,” given the widespread growth in the area of the famous Bulgaria rose, Francis spoke directly to the children, telling them to “never forget this day: your first encounter with Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist.”

Though Jesus died nearly 2,000 years ago and rose into heaven, it is still possible to know him, the pope said, stressing that “Jesus is alive and is here with us.”

“That is why we can encounter him today in the Eucharist. We do not see him with our physical eyes, but we do see him with the eyes of faith,” he said.

Noting how the children donned white robes and head wreaths for the occasion, he said dressing up was a “meaningful and beautiful sign” of celebration. “We celebrate Jesus, who wants to remain always by our side. He will always be with us,” he said.

Francis acknowledged the contribution of the children’s parents and grandparents in helping them to grow in the faith, and pointed to the fact that many of them came from long distances to be at the Mass.

He also praised the role of the priests and catechists who helped instruct the children before receiving the sacrament, telling the children that the Eucharist is where they are able to meet Jesus and “receive him in your heart.”

Turning to the day’s Gospel reading from John, in which Jesus multiplies the bread and the fish, Francis said the miracle Jesus performed began “with one child who offered all he had: five loaves and two fish.’”

“Like that child, you too have helped a miracle to take place today. The miracle by which all of us older people have recalled our own first meeting with Jesus in the Eucharist, and are filled with gratitude for that day,” he said.

“Today you have made it possible for us to relive that joy and to celebrate Jesus, present in the Bread of Life,” the pope said, adding that certain 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.”

He closed his homily urging the children to maintain their enthusiasm for the faith and to remember that Jesus is always there for them.

“I hope that today will be the beginning of many Communions, so that your hearts may always, like today, be festive, full of joy and, above all else, gratitude,” he said.