On May 5, Pope Francis begins a three-day trip to Bulgaria. He will pray with members of the country’s Catholic minority (who number around 50,000), and lead an open-air prayer for peace in the presence of representatives of other religions in central Sofia. However, no official representatives of the majority Orthodox Church will be present.
The Bulgarian Church’s Holy Synod stated on April 3 that Pope was invited by the civil authorities, not the Church. Francis will pay a visit to Patriarch Neofit and other hierarchs, and will pray privately in the Orthodox cathedral, but there will be no shared prayer. The Pope will wear no liturgical vestments. No Orthodox clergy may take part in the joint prayer for peace.
This should not surprise us. Older Catholics will remember that similar strictures applied to prayer with Protestants before Vatican II. Unlike Catholics, the Orthodox have maintained the ban on communicatio in sacris, forbidding any shared public prayer with those outside the fold. Other Orthodox hierarchs have applied the principle less strictly since the post-conciliar thaw. Benedict XVI, for example, wore a stole while visiting the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2008 and was commemorated in a liturgical litany in his cathedral.
The Bulgarians may welcome the opportunity to distance themselves from Constantinople. Bulgarian Orthodoxy struggled to assert its independence from Greek dominance from its origins in the 9th century until modern times. More recently, it has aligned itself with Moscow as the latter has positioned itself increasingly as leader of the traditionalist, anti-ecumenical strand of Orthodoxy in opposition to Constantinople.
But the theological objections to ecumenism on the Orthodox side are real, not merely political. There is no symmetry in the way the two Churches see each other. While Catholics today speak of “sister churches”, many Orthodox continue to see Catholics as heretics and Catholic sacraments as void. By continuing to offer an outstretched hand of friendship, however unenthusiastic the response, Pope Francis, like his predecessors, recognises the value of humility and patience in overcoming centuries of hostility.