The Catholic Church should heed the warning proffered by Orthodox infighting

Orthdox worshippers gather round candles stuck to jars of honey, arranged as a Holy Cross, during Mass for the 'sanctification of honey' at a church near Sofia in 2012 (AP)

I have recently been in Bulgaria, a delightful country that I would recommend to all readers who like good food, friendly people, spectacular mountain scenery, and interesting and beautiful historic cities. While in Bulgaria, I met up with several clerics, both Orthodox and Catholic, and got something of a feel for the religious temperature of the country. What follows will necessarily be a personal impression rather than the result of deep research, but will, perhaps, still be of interest.

Bulgaria is a country that has been gravely damaged by 500 years of Ottoman rule, as well as 50 years of communist rule, the latter generally considered to be far the worse experience. The country is still marked with Soviet-style monuments, though many have been relegated to a very interesting museum in a suburb of Sofia. Quite a lot of the roads have now got royalist names, and there is a Gladstone Street in both Sofia and Plovdv. This represents an attempt to reappropriate a historical era that was blotted out by communist propaganda.

Likewise, if one studies old photos of Plovdiv, one can count at least twenty minarets, of which only two survive; similarly, Sofia has but one functioning mosque; the nineteenth century saw a boom in the building of Orthodox churches, which was, among other things, an exercise in the reclamation of religious territory, and the re-Christianisation of what had been a Muslim landscape. Yet modern Bulgaria is emphatically not a Christian land: religious practice is low, though much folk religion persists. Many people call themselves Orthodox, though some who do so have not even been baptised. The indigenous Catholic Church is tiny, but making converts, particularly amongst intellectuals. These converts come, generally, from the ‘no religion’ category. The Muslims number about one in ten of the population, but most of these are cultural Muslims, if that designation makes sense.

There is certainly lots for the Catholic Church to do in Bulgaria. There are several religious communities active in the country, and three bishops: one is an Exarch for the Greek Catholics, and the other two are Latins. There is a community of Missionaries of Charity in Plovdiv, the sisters founded by the Blessed Mother Teresa.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has no official dialogue with the Catholic Church, and is opposed to ecumenism, having recently produced some very strongly worded official publications to that effect. In the spectrum of opinion that is to be found in Orthodoxy, the Bulgarians are the least ecumenical, along with the Georgians. However, the hierarchs of the Bulgarian Church make an annual trip to Rome to visit the tomb of St Cyril which is to be found in the basilica of San Clemente, and are regularly received by the Pope when they do so. On a personal level, internationally and locally, relations are friendly. While it is true that the Synod of the Bulgarian Church may take a hard anti-ecumenical line, this is not true of all the faithful, some of whom, at least, view the official line with dismay.

The same goes for the Bulgarian Church’s refusal to participate in the recent Council of Orthodox Churches in Crete. They were the first to refuse to go, at the very last minute, and their non-attendance was one of the reasons the Russians gave for following suit. The Bulgarian action has been seen as a convenient cover for the Russians, siding with them against the Patriarch of Constantinople, but this pro-Russian line is by no means what all Bulgarian Orthodox want. As one cleric put it to me: the real challenge facing the Bulgarian Church is pastoral, and the people do not really care about this sort of theological infighting. The people want something different from their Church, but they are not getting it, he added. One concludes from this, as in the West, there is a crisis of leadership in Orthodoxy. Perhaps, with an emergence of a new generation, things will change; though no one I spoke to thought this likely, sadly.

The Council of Crete represents a huge lost opportunity for the various Orthodox Churches, some of which are facing challenges to their very existence; it makes one reflect on the old saying that “Unity is strength”. The Catholic Church needs to take heed of this: internal quarrels do not help the Church’s mission. Meanwhile, let us all pray for the Catholics of Bulgaria!