Pope Reaches Bulgaria: Ecumenism Is Top Priority

SOFIA, May 23, 02 (CWNews.com) - Pope John Paul II arrived in Bulgaria on Thursday evening, and immediately made it clear that he did not hold the people of that country responsible for the 1981 plot on his life.

«I have never, under any circumstances, cease to love the Bulgarian people,» the Pope said during an address at St. Alexander Nevski Square, in the heart of the capital city, Sofia. That sentence was evidently a response to the general agreement among investigators that the Bulgarian secret service had assisted Mehmet Ali Agca in planning his attempt to assassinate the Pope.

Parting from his usual practice, the Pope did not make an address at the airport, but left from his plane to go directly to downtown Sofia. There he met President Georgi Parvano and the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Maxime, in a ceremony held in front of the Orthodox cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski.

The primary focus of the papal visit to Bulgaria is ecumenism. Two top Vatican officials working in that field-- Cardinals Ignace Moussa Daoud of the Congregation for Eastern Churches and Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity-- traveled directly from Rome to join the Pope for his second stage of his trip.

After a quiet visit to Azerbaijan, where most of the population seemed indifferent to the Pope's presence, John Paul was greeted by large crowds in Sofia. On a mild, sunny day, thousands of people lined the roads to cheer the papal motorcade.

Although Catholics constitute only about 1 percent of the country's population, the Bulgarian government has made energetic preparations for the Pope's visit. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which enjoys friendly relations with local Catholics, also made it clear that the visiting Roman Pontiff would be welcome.

Pope John Paul once again read only a part of his address, leaving most of the text to be read by a local priest. And after hearing a welcoming statement by President Parvano, he remained seated while Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, placed a floral bouquet at the tomb of the unknown soldier, located in the square where the ceremony was held. «The Pope is getting old; that's why he has to stay sitting down!» the Pontiff joked.

Despite his obvious frailty, the Holy Father was visibly happy to make his first visit in Bulgaria. He paid tribute to the patriots and martyrs who had suffered under the Communist regime, and burst into an extemporaneous: «Thank you! God bless Bulgaria!»

Bulgaria had been one of only two European countries that the Pope had not visited; now only Russia remains. And it is clear that-- as he did in Azerbaijan-- the Pope will nurture contacts with local Orthodox leaders, in the hope of promoting closer ecumenical ties and perhaps eventually clearing the way for his long-awaited visit to Moscow.

On Friday, the Pope will join Patriarch Maxime to celebrate the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who are the patron saints of Bulgaria as well as patrons of Europe. Although years of official atheism have taken a toll on the level of religious practice, 85 percent of the Bulgarian people identify themselves as Orthodox. And in one recent poll, 42 percent of the population said they were «enthusiastic» about the papal visit. (Unlike the situation in Russia, there is little hostility toward Catholics among Bulgarian Orthodox; only 3 percent of those who were polled expressed opposition to the Pope's visit.)

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23. mai 2002

av Webmaster publisert 23.05.2002, sist endret 23.05.2002 - 23:47