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Bearers of a Proud Legacy

Byzantine Catholics honor their heritage in Bulgaria

Tucked into a quiet, tree-lined street in the historic Bulgarian city of Plovdiv stands the unassuming Church of the Ascension, the heart of central Bulgaria’s tiny Byzantine Catholic community.

“We are the little inheritors of a great tradition,” says Father Daniel Gilier, a French Assumptionist who serves Byzantine Catholics in Plovdiv and the nearby village of Kuklen. Father Gilier and his colleague, Father Peter Lubas, a Croatian, have had to adapt to the Byzantine tradition, much like their Assumptionist forebears who first came to the Balkan nation in 1862.

“We didn’t know much about the Bulgarian Byzantine liturgy when we first came, but little by little we have learned,” he continues. “We first lived with an elderly Bulgarian priest and, after one year, I was ready to celebrate the liturgy.

“Though the process of adapting – internally, in my heart – has taken several years, I am happy I came here. Bulgaria has opened many new horizons.”

Bulgaria’s Byzantine Catholic Church may number only 10,000 people, but the tiny church is intimately linked to Bulgaria’s quest for identity and independence.

Contradictions. A nation of 7.5 million people, Bulgaria often seems to be at odds with itself. Although republicans, Bulgarians in 2001 elected as premier their former monarch, Simeon II.

Although Orthodox Christians, Bulgarians have historically been at odds with their Greek neighbors, from whom they received the Orthodox faith.

Although suspicious of those who wield power, Bulgarians were scandalized by a bitter public feud within the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church.

Surrounded by Greece, Turkey, Romania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia, Bulgaria is a European threshold, a major point of entry for merchants laden with goods legal and illegal. Roman, Bulgar, Byzantine, Serb, Turkish and Russian armies have crossed its plains, mountains and valleys, settling and killing, eager to control its strategic land routes linking Europe with the Middle East and Asia.

Bulgarians are descendants of the Bulgars, a central Asian Turkish tribe who swept through the region in the late seventh century and intermarried with the indigenous Slavic population. Though a considerable threat to the Byzantines, the Bulgarians adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity with the baptism of King Boris I in 865.

As if staging an ancient Greek tragedy, Bulgaria’s history is filled with episodes of submission to and adoption of Byzantine government and culture, alternating with periods of revolt. The eventual decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks spelled disaster for the Bulgarian people who, beginning in 1393, lived under their oppressive rule for more than five centuries.

In the quest to rid their empire of a distinct Bulgarian ethnic, cultural and religious identity – the rallying cry for independence – the Turks abolished the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1767, forcibly integrating it with the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The Greek-dominated patriarchate in turn began its own assimilation campaign, appointing Greek-speaking bishops and discouraging use of Church Slavonic, the linguistic precursor of modern Bulgarian.

Nationalism and Catholicism. Despite centuries of suppression and forced assimilation, a sense of Bulgarian nationalism emerged in the 19th century. Rooted in the values of the Enlightenment and nurtured, ironically, by Bulgaria’s Orthodox monks – who safeguarded Bulgaria’s rich cultural patrimony – this quest for independence first affected Bulgaria’s Orthodox community.

In an effort to reassert traditional rights and privileges and to attain independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an influential group of Bulgarians explored full communion with the Church of Rome to safeguard their unique identity.

In 1861 an elderly archimandrite, Joseph Sokolsky, headed a delegation to Rome where he was received by Pope Pius IX. The pope ordained him a bishop and named him Archbishop for Bulgarian Catholics of the Byzantine Rite.

Identified with the Bulgarian nationalist cause, the archbishop was nevertheless recognized as such by the Ottoman Turkish government in Constantinople.

Archbishop Joseph vanished once he returned to Constantinople, only to resurface later at a monastery in Kiev. The details of this mystery have never been revealed.

The idea of a Bulgarian Church independent of Constantinople – with its Turkish civil authorities and Greek church leadership – took off and within a decade more than 60,000 Bulgarian Orthodox Christians opted for communion with the Church of Rome.

The omnipresent big brother of the Slavs, Russia, stepped in and pressured the Ottoman Turkish government to recognize an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which was created in 1870. Less than two years later, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared the Bulgarian Orthodox Church schismatic; a breach not healed until 1945.

The establishment of an independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church commandeered the nascent Byzantine Catholic movement; by the end of the century, three quarters of those who joined the Catholic Church returned to Orthodoxy.

Those Bulgarians who remained Byzantine Catholic lived in Constantinople and in a few isolated villages in what are now modern Greece and Macedonia.

Survival. Built to serve a community that fled the violence of the Balkan wars in 1912-13, Plovdiv’s Church of the Ascension can accommodate far more than the 80 to 100 worshipers who gather there for Sunday Divine Liturgy.

“Families here are small,” says Father Gilier. “Parents have no more than two children; as a result the church is not growing.”

The Byzantine Catholic population in Kuklen, a village of 7,000 people, is double that of Plovdiv, but the story there is similar, with deaths outnumbering births and threatening the future of the community.

It is a miracle this community has survived at all. The Bulgarian rebellion in 1876, bloody Turkish reprisals and the inevitable Russian invasion wrecked havoc. As the fledgling Russian-backed Bulgarian state flexed its muscles, its Greek, Romanian, Serbian and Turkish neighbors reacted with hostility, setting the stage for the particularly destructive Balkan wars.

The Bulgarian Byzantine Catholic community was gravely affected. What remained of it in Constantinople, Greece and Macedonia fled to Plovdiv and Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

With the help of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, the Holy See reorganized the Bulgarian Byzantine Catholic Church in 1926, erecting an Apostolic Exarchate centered in Sofia. This exarchate today is led by Bishop Christo Proykov.

New life. “I always wanted to be a priest,” the 58-year-old bishop remembers. “After completing school and military service I got a job serving the bishop.”

This required some courage, as post-World War II Bulgaria was a staunch ally of the Soviet Union.

“The secret police noticed this,” the bishop continues. “I feared the communists, but when they encountered the strength of conviction, they were helpless.”

Perhaps this was the case in the waning years of the communist world, but not so after World War II, when Eastern Europe’s newly installed Soviet-backed governments consolidated their power.

“From 1951 to 1952, the government arrested and tried about 40 people, 30 of them Catholics,” Father Gilier’s colleague, Father Lubas, reports.

“Three Assumptionist priests were condemned to death for espionage, branded enemies of the state and executed by firing squad on 11 November 1952.”

Pope John Paul II beatified these martyrs in an outdoor liturgy in Plovdiv’s main square during his pastoral visit in 2002.

The Byzantine Catholic Church in Bulgaria was not ruthlessly suppressed as it had been in Ukraine and Romania, but the government did restrict its work.

“During the communist period,” Bishop Christo says, “only four priests were ordained and, like me, they had to study underground or seek their religious education abroad.

“Every priest had to register with the government and request permission to minister, but they never received an official reply,” the bishop says. “Their status was always ambiguous.”

The future bishop studied liturgy and later had the opportunity to study in France before his ordination in Sofia.

“The day after my ordination, the bishop [Metodi Dimitrov Stratiev] was questioned by the police. ‘I am bishop,’ he said, and they responded, ‘And we can exile you.’ I was the first priest to be ordained in 20 years.”

As the Soviet bloc unraveled, so too did the noose that choked the church. A surge of interest in Christianity throughout Eastern Europe took the church by surprise.

“In the early 1980’s,” the bishop recalls, “there was a sevenfold increase in baptisms, even more than before 1939. And thanks to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness in the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1980’s, many intellectuals, some of whom were not necessarily atheists, grew closer to the church.”

These trends mirror those within Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, which numbers some six million members, or 80 percent of the country’s total population.

Byzantine Catholic priestly vocations are relatively few; half of the 22 priests serving Bulgaria’s Byzantine Catholics are from the Czech Republic, France or Poland. Two young men are preparing for the priesthood at a seminary near Lyon, France.

“In most of Europe’s Catholic Eastern churches, married men may be ordained to the priesthood, but not in Bulgaria,” says Bishop Christo.

“Here in our country,” he continues, “it has been our tradition in at least the last 70 or 80 years to ordain only celibate men for the priesthood.”

Some critics of Bulgaria’s Byzantine Catholic Church have cited the church as an anachronism, a symbol that has outlived its purpose.

The community is nevertheless a living organism, a historical reality that also functions in the present as a symbol of fidelity and tenacity.

Sean Sprague, a photojournalist living in Wales, travels the globe for ONE.

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