I rarely write analytical pieces, and I am often not ready to comment on public events. But this time, as was the case a few months ago when the Ukrainian ecclesiastical events were taking place, I felt compelled to do so after hearing contradictory and largely immature comments by a number of figures in the public space on the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to Sofia.


A media circus prompted a declaration from the Synod of the BOC on April 3rd, 2019, on the occasion of the visit of the Roman bishop. This declaration expressed a very distant attitude, which is a well-known line of the BOC toward other churches and religions. In this respect, the Synod in Sofia did not surprise the experts, but at least in my opinion, it was surprising that its decision was announced publicly. In previous times it would not have happened that way.


Subsequently, a number of media articles were published, advocating two extreme opinions: some supporting the declaration of the Synod, with their main argument being that the Pope is not a particularly important guest in the country, so the BOC is not obliged to actively participate in the events during his visit, or that the Pope is “too left and progressive”, so the Bulgarian Synod, as an “exponent of Traditionalism and Conservatism, inherent in the nature of Orthodoxy, should not participate.”


On the other hand, there were a number of comments, which were reading into this declaration an intervention by the “long hand of the Russian Orthodox Church”, or the Communist State Security files of some of the bishops in the BOC. In this media avalanche, however, it is very easy to dispel most of the claims on both sides. It is important to discover and analyze the true reason for the attitude of the BOC, which will give a much more reasonable, intelligent and moderate view as to what is happening.


First of all, let’s say that the long hand of Moscow is not directly behind the decision of the Synod. Only a few years ago was the historic meeting of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow and Pope Francis in Cuba. In addition, in Western Europe, the ROC after the changes, and even before that, built a very close relationship with the Vatican and enjoyed long-standing support from Catholics for its missionary work. Let us not forget that Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Foreign Minister of the ROC, has not once sought cooperation with the Vatican on central ROC issues. Secondly, it is hardly possible for Communist State Security files to play a decisive role. Let us note that, of the older members of today’s Synod who had been forced to cooperate before 1989, few remain, and they would hardly have a decisive role. Also, during the communist rule, especially after 1968, and especially after the Helsinki process, the Bulgarian and Soviet governments stimulated the ecumenical dialogue and openly called for active participation of the bishops of the BOC and the ROC in it. In recent years, a number of studies about this period have been published. As for the suspicious attitude towards the West, it is certainly prevalent in the more conservative circles among the Orthodox Christians, not only in Russia but also everywhere in the world. However, this is a broad topic that includes the Putin regime’s utilization of the attitude.


What, however, are the mistakes of the “defenders” of the declaration? First of all, some “neoconservatives” appeared, but they were in an awkward position to defend a decision that somehow did not work in favor of a “common Christian Europe”, nor in favor of the “European fortress”. The other thesis that the pope “is not an important person” is not worth commenting on. Apparently, it is a significant international factor. Without getting into trivial domestic matters, it should be noted that the visit of a worldwide religious leader bringing a message of peace to a country whose economy is largely supported by tourism at this time of year is a message for every politician and big businessman. The visit will be covered by all major global media. On the other hand, the arrival of Pope Francis is being accompanied by a number of other events – exhibitions, meetings, etc. that started just a month ago and not only involve Catholics but also many other people, whether members of the Orthodox community or simply unaffiliated. Certainly this visit will leave its mark in Bulgarian society for decades to come and open up a number of new processes of exchange and contacts.


Why, however, did Bulgarian society react nervously to the declaration of the Synod and why did it become a central topic, as opposed to the visit itself? First of all, as I mentioned, the declaration did not surprise the experts and essentially continued a long tradition of the BOC on such issues. The fact that the information was publicly disclosed and sounded undiplomatic may be due to the current secretariat and those responsible for the public relations of the BOC. Under the former Patriarch Maxim, such things did not happen that way. Team and style question.


On the other hand, we should not overlook a number of overlaps from the recent history of the BOC. From its establishment in 1870 until 1945, the BOC was not recognized internationally as a church and was practically functioning in canonical isolation. Thus, its theological criteria (this is evident from theological literature of the period) undoubtedly were shifting from the canonical system, the conciliar consciousness and Eucharistic communion to a purely confessional identity. In such a way, BOC was perceived by its believers and clergy as par excellence a confessional community dominated by an ethnic element. In such a situation, its ecclesiastical boundaries were formed on the one hand by nationalist principles, on the other by confessional beliefs and had nothing to do with Eucharistic communion and conciliarity. With the lifting of the schism in the 1945 and the international recognition of the BOC, the first problem was solved at least on paper, but the second remained as a basic reference, the self-perception and the self-identification of the Orthodox Christians in the country. Therefore, the decision not to offer a common prayer to the leader of the Catholic Church appears an inevitable self-distinction and preservation of a specific self-identification for the Bulgarian bishops.


The third important point is purely human and administrative. Certainly some bishops in the Synod of the BOC, due to the large dimensions of their bishoprics, do not have close contacts with a broad number of believers and are limited to certain groups around them. We should not expect super-human miracles from the bishop. In addition, for some years, there have also emerged groups of young people with some extreme views about the rest of the Christian communities. Their constant arrival in the parishes and the creation of a kind of showcase image of the “believing people” during the visits of the local bishops at a temple’s holidays, leave an impression that the believers in the diocese are particularly active and quite extreme. This creates a certain attitude, and the local bishop strives to meet their expectations in making certain decisions.


The fourth element in the puzzle comes from the critics of the declaration of the Synod. Indeed, in the Bulgarian public consciousness, it is still not possible to reach agreement on freedom of religion and religious rights. Bulgarian society still cannot accept the fact that the religious communities have a right to decide for themselves how to manage their actions. The widespread belief of the BOC being a “national church”, which is responsible for state protocol, an opinion also ingrained in minds by the education system, contributes to this ambiguity. In this respect, both the supporters and the critics of the Synod’s declaration on the Pope’s visit to Sofia were generally wrong. Finally, Bulgarian society has to accept with respect and good will every sovereign decision of every religious community and stop reproducing models of behavior coming from the 19th century.


By Svetoslav Ribolov

This entry was posted in Bulgaria by Светослав Риболов.

About Светослав Риболов

Svetoslav Ribolov, PhD, is Associate Professor of Early Christian Literature and Jewish Hellenistic Literature at the University of Sofia “St Kliment of Ochrid” and has published four books in his academic field. He studied Classical Philology and Theology at the University of Sofia and Thessaloniki; he specialized at the Trinity College Dublin and Ostkirchliches Institut Regensburg, and also studied Church and State relationships in US at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is editor-in-chief of Forum Theologicum Sardicense, member of the advisory board of International Journal of Orthodox Theology, and takes part in a few international academic associations. Since November 2017 he is director of Institute for Study of Religious Freedom (Sofia).
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