Cries of joy, children and sick people embraced, migrants consoled, thousands of people moved to tears, happy to have met Pope Francis, messenger of the Lord’s peace in Bulgaria for two days, from 5 to 7 May.
It’s a short account of the intense program of the Holy Father in the country of the roses, full of meetings with institutional representatives and with the local population.
The visit was awaited with great enthusiasm, but it exceeded by far the expectations of the Pope and of the Bulgarian people, who welcomed him with great warmth.
This was seen in “Alexander I” Square where 14 thousand Bulgarians gathered from across the Country to attend Sunday Mass celebrated by the Pope. The square was not large enough to host everyone and despite strict security measures people had occupied the adjacent park, the surrounding streets and every corner to see the Pope. Half of them were Catholics who arrived from all over the Country, along with Orthodox Christians and curious spectators. Many of them did not know the Holy Father, his words, maybe they knew he was a Pope close to the people, near the poor, but they wanted to meet him nonetheless and listen to his words. They were deeply moved.
The people’s joy continued throughout the Holy Mass for First Communion, a feast for the eyes, with 245 children dressed in white and visibly excited because in that moment the Pope was their Catechist. While he was leaving the church of the Sacred Heart in Rakovski under a cascade of rose petals, Francis told the Bulgarian bishops that to him this was the most memorable part of the visit.
The feast continued in the meeting with the Catholic community in the afternoon of May 6, when the Pope encouraged the small flock in Bulgaria to love their neighbour, underlining that in order “to love someone, there is no need to ask for a curriculum vitae; love precedes, it always goes onward, it takes the first step, because love is gratuitous”. The Pope recommended the small (less than 70 thousand) yet active Bulgarian community to help young people, “finding ways to touch their hearts, to learn about their expectations and to encourage their dreams, as a community-family that supports, accompanies and points to the future with hope.”
But for Francis the highlight of the two-day visit to Bulgarian land was the prayer meeting for peace, celebrated against the backdrop of the ruins of ancient Serdica, where, a few meters ahead, are located the Orthodox cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, the mosque and the synagogue. An Assisi-style meeting unprecedented in the Balkans.
Neither the pouring rain, nor the cold wave that suddenly swept across Sofia, nor the absence of Orthodox Church leaders, could extinguish the lit candles of the six children representing the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Armenians, the Jews, the Muslims and the Protestants.
The meeting with Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit and with the Holy Synod took place on the previous day, May 5th, in an atmosphere of great cordiality. During the inflight press conference Pope Francis described Neofit as “a man of God”, while in his address the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church assured that the “respect between the two Churches is mutual” and recalled the words of Saint John Paul II, delivered in the meeting with his predecessor Patriarch Maxim in 2002:
“only united, will Christians be stronger.”
And even though some Metropolitan bishops expressed doubts on Francis’ visit, many more have welcomed it, such as Metropolitan Antonij of Central and Western Europe who wrote on Facebook. “The Pope, brother in Christ”, “to us Orthodox Christians he is an exemplary shepherd that ministers to his flock.”
Almost a century before, on Christmas 1934, Mons. Angelo Roncalli bid farewell to Bulgaria animated by a deep love for this land, in the belief that interfaith dialogue I possible thanks to grassroots ecumenism, love of neighbours from different religions. In these two days on Bulgarian soil Pope Francis has received and given the people a great amount of love, a concrete sign of the fact that it is possible to be brothers in the one and only God.