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Pope Francis visits Bulgaria, North Macedonia

May 5, 2019

The pontiff is visiting Bulgaria, which could prove a touchy affair, as the country's Orthodox Church is not on the best of terms with Rome. But he is popular with the people there.

Pope Francis in Bulgaria
Image: Reuters/Y. Nardi

On Sunday, Pope Francis embarked on his 28th journey abroad. Once again, he is in the Balkans. This time, he is visiting North Macedonia and Bulgaria.

The Orthodox theologist Bojidar Andonov says Bulgaria is "a poor country, even though it's in the EU; the people here live poor and humble lives." The Balkan state with its 7 million residents is the poorest in the entire bloc. And the EU statistics bureau reports Bulgaria's gross domestic product does not even amount to one-fourth of the EU average.

It is the pontiff's 11th trip within Europe. So far, he's only made brief visits to western Europe, for instance to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Sweden, the World Council of Churches in Geneva and to Portugal's Fatima pilgrimage site. Pope Francis has focused most of his attention on the continent's poorest countries. He visited Albania in 2014 and Sarajevo in 2015. He will travel to Romania, the EU's second poorest member, in June.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
The majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox ChristiansImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Bulgaria hoping for 'greater attention'

"There are hopes that the pope's visit will draw greater attention to our country," Andonov tells DW. Adding that his Bulgarian compatriots admire the pope's compassion for the weakest members of society. The pope is a role model for many people in Bulgaria in terms of "his leadership of and service to the church, and also with regard to our metropolitan bishops."

With regard to ecumenism — efforts to foster cooperation among different churches — the pope's trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia is a delicate issue, as the majority of people in both countries are Orthodox Christians. Indeed, US media cited the vice director of the US bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs as saying that the pope may need to be particularly careful and navigate many potential "minefields."

Ordinary Bulgarians in good spirits

Several weeks ahead of the pontiff's visit, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced it would not participate in services and prayers with the pope. Patriarch Neophyte and members of the Holy Synod, the country's Orthodox leadership, have said they will meet the pope, albeit not wearing liturgical garments.

Andonov is not concerned by this. He says he traveled through Bulgaria during the Orthodox Easter celebrations and found that Bulgarians are in good spirits. He believes they will "be watching the pope's entire visit on television" and argues that unlike ordinary Bulgarians, the metropolitan bishops at the head of the Orthodox Church still need to get used to the idea of interreligious dialogue in the context of democracy.

Kids praying with a nun in the Most Holy Heart of Jesus church in Rakovski
Pope Francis will celebrate first communion with Catholic children in Rakovski, BulgariaImage: Reuters/S. Nenov

Pope Francis' visit to the country follows a familiar pattern made up of political discussions and a speech in a public square as well as a trip to a refugee camp in the capital, Sofia. He will also join children in the majority-Catholic town of Rakovski to celebrate their first communion.

In memory of Mother Teresa

The pope will spend Tuesday, the last leg of his Balkan trip, in North Macedonia. Here, he will visit the Memorial House of Mother Teresa in the capital, Skopje. Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Skopje, which then belonged to the Ottoman Empire.

She became known all over the world for her humanitarian activism on behalf of the poor in Kolkata, India, and for founding the Missionaries of Charity congregation. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1997. In 2016, Pope Francis declared her a saint.

Although fewer than 1% of the people of North Macedonia are Catholic, Mother Teresa remains the country's most famous compatriot.

Pope Francis declares Mother Teresa a saint

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C