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The Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church

Self-determination, as a basic human right of all peoples to pursue their own cultural, economic, political or social destinies, is of recent origin. Rooted in Europe’s 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, self-determination has, in the last century, destroyed empires but built nations, advanced nationalism and patriotism but furthered extremism and ethnic cleansing.

What has self-determination to do with the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church?

Despite centuries of suppression and forced assimilation, a sense of self emerged in the 19th century among the assorted peoples of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula. Strategically located at Europe’s frontier with Asia, the Balkans had for millennia lured settlers seeking access to and control of the peninsula’s ports and trade routes.

Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, descendants of a central Asian tribe that migrated to the Balkans in the seventh century and intermarried with the Slav population, were just one of the Balkan peoples inspired by independence. As with their neighbors, Bulgarians longed to wrest control from their Ottoman Turkish Muslim masters.

This 19th-century Bulgarian search for self-determination — not unlike the quest of Boris I, Bulgaria’s first Christian leader — led an influential circle of Orthodox monks to explore full communion with the Church of Rome in order to secure privileges and traditions, obtain aid and further their national aspirations.

Origins of Bulgarian Christianity. As Rome and its western provinces declined in the fifth century, the center of power in the Mediterranean shifted east to Constantinople, founded in 324 by the Roman emperor Constantine I. From this city developed Byzantium, a confidently Christian commonwealth rooted in ancient Greece and Rome and yet receptive to the Semitic cultures of the eastern Mediterranean.

A dazzling cosmopolitan city linking our own modern world with that of the ancients, Constantinople for more than a millennium lured covetous chiefs who desired its wealth and authority. Slav tribes, who left Eastern Europe to settle in the Byzantine-controlled Balkans in the sixth century, wasted little time in harassing Byzantine authorities. The Bulgars arrived about a century later and, as they assimilated with the Slavs, carved out their own nation. They challenged Byzantine control of the Balkans and nearly conquered its capital, Constantinople, in the process.

Boris I. In 852, the pagan prince Boris ascended the Bulgar throne. Challenged by Byzantium’s emperors to the east and courted by emerging powers to the west — led by the pope — Boris successfully manipulated emperor and pope, using his interest in the Christian faith as leverage.

While Boris eventually adopted Christianity in its Byzantine form in 864, he relentlessly pursued a policy of independence for his fledgling church. Vacillating between Rome and Constantinople, the prince’s actions provoked a split between the two churches, both of which claimed jurisdiction over the Balkans. Known as the Photian Schism, it underscored the deepening rift between East and West and foreshadowed the eventual divorce between the churches of Rome and of Constantinople.

Boris finally achieved independence for the Bulgarian Church when Constantinople granted it autonomy in 870. Less than a decade later, however, Rome’s jurisdiction of the Balkans was affirmed by the Byzantine emperor in an act of compromise.

Nevertheless, the die was cast, particularly as Prince Boris received two disciples known as the “Apostles to the Slavs.’

The Slav mission. At this time, in the central European principality of Greater Moravia, Latin missionaries allied with Moravia’s Germanic enemies worked among the realm’s Slavs, promoting closer ties with the Holy Roman Empire and the Church of Rome. To counter these efforts, Moravia’s prince, Rastislav, requested Byzantine missionaries to work among his people, provided they spoke Slavic.

In 862, the Byzantine emperor sent two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. They devised script for the Slavonic vernacular, translated Scripture and the liturgies of the Roman Church into Slavonic and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law.

Their work generated hostility among the Latins, who eventually deposed Rastislav, drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia and, in 886, banished their followers. Two of their disciples, Clement and Naum, found refuge in Boris’s Bulgarian realm, where they furthered the cultural, linguistic and spiritual works of Cyril and Methodius while realizing the prince’s dream of a church independent of Constantinople and Rome.

Gains and losses. Boris charged Clement and Naum with developing his church that, while autonomous, would follow the rites of Constantinople. They founded literary schools in the cities of Ohrid and Pliska, where they translated theological texts into Slavonic. These centers functioned as the cultural and theological centers of the evolving Bulgarian church and state. Later ordained to the episcopacy, Clement trained thousands of Slavonic-speaking priests.

Clement also reformed Cyril’s alphabet and renamed it Cyrillic in honor of his teacher. This Cyrillic alphabet was the precursor of the alphabet present-day Bulgarians share with Belarussians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Russians, Rusyns, Serbs and Ukrainians.

The deeds of Clement and Naum played a crucial role in aligning the Balkan peoples — Bulgarian and Slav — with Byzantium. But alliances did not lead to assimilation. In 919, after Boris’s son, Tsar Simeon I, trounced the Byzantines in battle, a Bulgarian national council declared the Bulgarian Church independent and patriarchal. Eight years later, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople agreed with the council.

The city of Ohrid played an influential role in these developments, which continued even as a later Byzantine emperor, Basil II, defeated the Bulgarian tsar in 1018. In addition to obliterating the state, Basil abolished the Bulgarian patriarchate and established the episcopal see of Ohrid as an autonomous archiepiscopal church subordinate to the ecumenical patriarch. The emperor also defined the church’s eparchies, properties and privileges.

Bulgaria regained its independence in 1186, and its leaders toyed with recognizing the pope’s authority in exchange for the papacy’s acknowledgment of the restored independence of the Bulgarian church and state. However, they later joined with the Byzantines who, in 1204, lost Constantinople to knights of the Fourth Crusade. After plundering the city, the knights set up a Latin Catholic kingdom and patriarchate. The Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261 and, as a reward for their coalition, the ecumenical patriarch recognized the restored Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate.

The fortunes of this second Bulgarian empire and patriarchate waxed and waned as the region absorbed clashes between rival powers. Finally in 1393, the Ottoman Turks consolidated their gains in the Balkans and crushed the Bulgarians. Sadly, little remains of this Byzantine-inspired civilization.

The Church of Ohrid survived the demise of the Bulgarian state and, in 1453, that of Byzantium at the hands of the same Ottoman Turks. But in 1767, the Ottomans abolished the Church of Ohrid and incorporated it into the ecumenical patriarchate. The Greek-dominated patriarchate in turn began an assimilation campaign, appointing Greek-speaking bishops and discouraging the use of Church Slavonic.

Reawakening. The Greek War of Independence (1821-29), which secured an independent Greek nation in 1832, inspired similar national uprisings throughout the Balkans and central Europe. Bulgarians joined a host of peoples clamoring for self-determination.

Despite Greek domination, generations of priests and monks of the Balkan’s various ethnic Orthodox communities — Bulgarian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian and Serbian — had safeguarded each group’s rich cultural patrimony. Sensing opportunity, monks and priests hoisted the banner of revolution, nurturing nationalist movements throughout the peninsula. Seeking freedom not just from the Ottomans, but from the ecumenical patriarchate, an influential group of Bulgarians explored full communion with the Church of Rome as a possible solution.

In 1861, an elderly archimandrite, Joseph Sokolsky, led a delegation to Rome, where he was received by Pope Pius IX. The pontiff ordained him bishop, naming him archbishop for Bulgarian Catholics of the Byzantine rite. Though clearly associated with the Bulgarian nationalist cause, the archbishop was recognized in his new capacity by the Ottoman government.

A church is born. This newly independent Bulgarian Church grew rapidly and within a decade more than 60,000 Bulgarian Orthodox Christians opted for communion with the Church of Rome.

To stem this tide, the Russians (who protected the interests of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman world) pressured the Ottoman government to recognize an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which was created in 1870. Though the ecumenical patriarch declared this church schismatic, it commandeered the nascent Bulgarian Greek Catholic movement. By the end of the century, three quarters of those who joined the Greek Catholic community returned to Orthodoxy. Those who remained lived in the environs of Constantinople or in a few isolated villages in what are now modern Greece and Macedonia.

It is a miracle this community has survived at all. A Bulgarian rebellion in 1876, bloody Ottoman reprisals, a Russian invasion, independence in 1878 and the Balkan wars gravely affected the tiny community, most of whom fled their villages for the security of urban Plovdiv or Sofia. World War II and the Soviet occupation of the country that followed witnessed severe persecutions: clergy, religious and laity were executed or sentenced to long prison terms.

With the help of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, the Holy See in 1926 organized the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church, erecting an apostolic exarchate in Sofia. This jurisdiction is now led by Bishop Christo Proykov. Secretly ordained to the priesthood in 1971, he guides some 11,000 Catholics in 21 parishes scattered throughout the nation of 7.2 million, some 82 percent of whom belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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