ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bulgaria: Christianity and Civilization

One of the new members of the CNEWA family, Bulgaria maintains its strong Christian faith and cultural traditions.

The course of world history is really many histories running side by side, some bearing remarkable similarities to others. Millions of people trace their ancestral beginnings to nations of hardy peasants and learned holy men, nations who worked the land, taught, prayed, fought invaders and loved freedom. Such is the story of Bulgaria, a small country on the Black Sea in the eastern Balkan peninsula. In the medieval era it became an important center of faith and learning for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. Today it is one of the family of nations of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The territory that is now Bulgaria was occupied by Slavs in the seventh century when warring horsemen came from the Volga region, defeated the Byzantine forces, settled down to live and intermingled with the natives. Although Christianity had probably come to the area as early as the first century after Christ, pagan influences continued to dominate Bulgaria until Boris I was baptized in the ninth century. Boris was well aware that Christian civilization had had an enormous impact upon the spiritual and cultural development of Greece and Rome, and he wanted Bulgaria to share the fruits of the rapidly spreading faith. And because the Church hierarchy at that time frequently held temporal as well as spiritual power, Boris sought to enhance his country’s political unity by establishing a Bulgarian patriarchate.

The Council of Constantinople sent bishops to Bulgaria in 870, thereby bringing the country into the domain of the Byzantine rite. After the Great Schism of 1054, the Bulgarian Church became part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Today, most Bulgarian Christians are Orthodox, but the population also includes small numbers of Roman Catholics (both Latin- and Eastern-rite) and Protestants.

Since Christianity had transformed Bulgarian civilization, the Church in Bulgaria came to represent the highest ideals of patriotism and national culture. This identification of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church with the very soul and genius of the nation was to grow and flourish throughout many centuries of occupation by foreign powers.

It was largely through the efforts of two brilliant Eastern saints that Christianity became so deeply rooted and revered among the Slavs. Cyril and his brother Methodius came to Bulgaria during the reign of Boris I and worked tirelessly to bring Christ’s message to the people in their own tongue. They composed the Slavic alphabet and translated the Holy Scriptures and the Byzantine liturgical books into Slavic. They instituted the training of thousands of priests, monks, catechists and scribes, who in turn evangelized the surrounding nations, building churches, monasteries and schools wherever they went.

It was during the reign of Czar Simeon, the son of Boris, that Bulgaria enjoyed its Golden Age. The years from 893 to 927 saw growth and development in the Church, and in literature, learning and the arts. Culturally, politically and economically, Bulgaria became a thriving nation which exerted strong influence on neighboring Russia, Rumania and Serbia. Its civilization was more advanced than that of some of the European nations, which had been weakened by barbarian invasions.

But the flowering of national culture was not to last. Bulgaria was conquered by Constantinople in 1018. The invaders tore apart the Slavic civilization and replaced it with Greek language and liturgy that were unfamiliar to the subjugated Bulgarians. With the Ottoman Conquest of 1393 came the era of Turkish political control that was to last until 1878. The national spirit of Bulgaria was put to rout, and many of her people lived in poverty and ignorance. The great achievements of the Golden Age might have been lost entirely, had it not been for the hidden islands of learning that kept faith and culture alive: the monasteries.

Tourists and pilgrims still visit the monasteries where Bulgarian priests and monks preserved their country’s language, literature, history and Slavic liturgy. Two of the most famous are Rila and Bachkovo, built in the mountains during the tenth and eleventh centuries, respectively. Were it not for the labors of the monks, one abbot pointed out, “there would be no Bulgaria.” When the great awakening of Bulgarian culture and scholarship came in the nineteenth century, it received its impetus from the monasteries, whose schools, libraries and frescoed churches had kept intact the precious heritage of medieval Bulgarian civilization.

Bulgaria won its independece in 1878, after the Russo-Turkish War. This was the long-awaited release from foreign occupation, but it was followed by years of political strife, both within the country and beyond its borders. In 1944 it came under communist control, and today it is known as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. For the past thirty-five years, the government has placed great emphasis on improving the nation’s industrial capacity; as a result, Bulgaria’s technology and trade are developing according to the standards of Western industrialized countries. One of its industries, however, has long given Bulgaria a special distinction: it produces most of the world’s supply of attar of roses, the main ingredient of many perfumes.

While the government now in power cannot be said to encourage the growth of religion, the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria continues to serve its people. Although parents are not permitted to send their children to church schools (all schools are state-run), religious education is conducted at home and at church, and the clergy are free to hold liturgical services. In 1953, the third Bulgarian patriarchate was established; it is divided into eleven eparchies (dioceses), and there is also an eparchy for the United States, Canada and Australia.

The number of Roman Catholics in Bulgaria today is small. During the nineteenth century, small groups requested reunion with Rome; gradually their numbers increased, and an archbishop was appointed to minister to the growing Catholic community. Persecution and political turmoil in the wake of World War I decreased their numbers and impeded further growth, but an exarchate was established in 1926. Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, served the Roman Catholics of Bulgaria as Apostolic Visitor and later as the country’s first Apostolic Delegate during the 1920’s and 30’s.

Some Bulgarian Roman Catholics have emigrated to other nations; their spritural needs are cared for by an archimandrite, appointed by the Sacred Oriental Congregation, who resides in Rome.

Relations between the Bulgarian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are friendly and warm in the fraternal spirit of service to the Christian people. At the invitation of Pope John XXIII, representatives of the Bulgarian Church came to Rome to observe the Second Vatican Council, thereby forging an even stronger bond. Both Churches have in common the profession of Christian faith and the heritage of Christian civilization which had so profound an influence on Bulgaria, even during the stormy years of her history. The Church nurtured and preserved Bulgaria’s art and scholarship, as well as the songs and stories of the folk tradition, and her people do not forget.

Catherine Cusack is a writer with special interest in medieval studies.

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