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The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria

Geography has shaped the history of the peoples of the Balkans. This peninsula in the Mediterranean lies at the crossroads of the ancient Greek and Latin civilizations of southern Europe, a juncture where Orthodoxy and Catholicism mingle, where Islam meets Christianity, where Asia and Europe collide. For millennia, these Balkan encounters have sparked major cultural and political movements. Bulgarian Orthodoxy, despite centuries of setbacks, is one such example.

Origins of Bulgarian Christianity. As Rome and its western provinces declined in the fifth century A.D., power in the Mediterranean shifted eastward to “New Rome,” founded in 324 as a Christian capital by the Roman emperor Constantine I. Popularly called the City of Constantine — Constantinople — it remained rooted in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome yet receptive to the diverse cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. From this city developed a confident Christian commonwealth that bridged the ancient and modern worlds — Byzantium.

For over a thousand years, Constantinople lured covetous clan leaders who desired the power and wealth of this dazzling cosmopolitan city. Tribes of Slavs, for instance, left their northeastern European homeland, settled in the Byzantine–controlled Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries and wasted little time in harassing Byzantine authorities. The Bulgars from Central Asia arrived in the Balkans about a century later and, as they assimilated with the Slavs, carved out their own nation, challenging Byzantine hegemony of the Balkans. They nearly conquered Constantinople in the process.

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

Boris eventually adopted Byzantine Christianity in 864. But he relentlessly pursued a policy of independence for his fledgling church and state. Vacillating between Constantinople and Rome, the prince’s actions provoked a split between the two churches, each of which claimed jurisdiction over the Balkans. Known as the Photian Schism, it underscored the deepening rift between the Christian East and the Christian West and foreshadowed the eventual divorce between the “Orthodox” and “Catholic” churches that occurred after the Great Schism in 1054.

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 who was eager to heal the ecclesial divide. Nevertheless, the independent path of the Bulgarian church and state was set, particularly as Prince Boris received Clement and Naum, two disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

The Slav mission. Earlier that century, in the central European principality of Greater Moravia, Latin missionaries worked among the realm’s Moravian Slavs, introducing the Latin rites of the Roman church. These missionaries, most of whom were Germanic, also advocated closer ties with Moravia’s enemies: the Germanic princes and bishops of the Holy Roman Empire. To counter these efforts, Moravia’s prince, Rastislav, petitioned the Byzantine emperor and patriarch to provide Slav–speaking missionaries to work among his people.

In 862, the Byzantine emperor sent two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius. They devised a 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. Despite support from the papacy, the brothers’ work generated hostility among the Latin Germanic bishops, who drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia, deposed Rastislav and, in 886, banished their followers.

Two of their disciples, Clement and Naum, found refuge in Boris’s Bulgaria. There, they furthered the cultural, linguistic and spiritual works of Cyril and Methodius. They realized, too, Boris’s goal of an independent church that would adhere to the Byzantine liturgical rites of Constantinople. In the cities of Ohrid and Preslav, Clement and Naum presided over literary schools where they translated texts into Slavonic. These centers functioned as the cultural, political and theological hubs of the evolving Bulgarian nation.

Later ordained to the episcopacy, Clement trained thousands of Slavonic–speaking priests who replaced the Greek–speaking clergy from Constantinople. Clement also reformed Cyril’s alphabet and renamed it in honor of his teacher. This Cyrillic alphabet is the precursor of the present–day alphabet Bulgarians share with Belarussians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Russians, Rusyns, Serbs and Ukrainians.

Gains and losses. The deeds of Sts. Clement and Naum played a crucial role in aligning the Balkan peoples with Byzantium. But alliances did not lead to assimilation. In 919, after Boris’s son and heir, 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 recognized its patriarchal dignity.

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 the “Bulgar–slayer” abolished the Bulgarian patriarchate and established the Archeparchy of Ohrid as an autonomous body subordinate to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. The emperor also defined the church’s eparchies, properties and privileges.

Bulgaria regained its independence in 1186. Its leaders initially acknowledged the pope’s authority in exchange for the papacy’s recognition of a restored independent Bulgarian church and state centered in the city of Turnovo. However, the Bulgarians later joined with the Byzantines who, in 1204, had lost Constantinople to the Latin Catholic knights of the Fourth Crusade. These crusaders plundered the city of Constantine and set up a rival Latin Catholic kingdom and patriarchate, which threatened surviving Byzantine principalities and Orthodox eparchies near the Bulgarian frontier. As a reward for the Bulgarians’ support, Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos II recognized a restored Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate in 1235. The definitive break in full communion between the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria and the Catholic Church dates to this time.

The fortunes of this second Bulgarian empire and patriarchate waxed and waned. Despite a revival in the arts, architecture, spirituality and theology — aspects of which affected the Orthodox world considerably — the Bulgarian empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1396.

The Orthodox Archeparchy of Ohrid survived the demise of the Bulgarian state and patriarchate and, in 1453, that of Byzantium at the hands of the same Ottoman Turks. But in 1767, the Ottomans abolished the church’s relative independence and subjected it to the ecumenical patriarchate. The Greek–dominated ecumenical patriarchate in turn began an assimilation campaign, appointing Greek–speaking bishops and discouraging the use of Church Slavonic in the liturgy.

Deprived of leadership and financially impoverished, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church survived in its modest villages and monasteries — especially the famous Rila Monastery —spending about a century in hibernation. Bright spots for the Bulgarian church dwelled not in Bulgaria proper, but in two monastic foundations on Mount Athos, the center of Byzantine monasticism. There, Bulgarian monks living at the Hilandar and Zograf monasteries lived out their lives in constant prayer and supplication, keeping alive the Christian faith as championed by Boris, Sts. Clement and Naum and their successors.

National awakening. Bulgaria’s Greek neighbors rebelled against their Ottoman rulers (1821–29) and secured an independent Greek nation in the southern Balkans in 1832. This inspired other oppressed European peoples, including Bulgarians, to clamor for self–determination.

Despite centuries of Turkish civil and Greek ecclesial domination, generations of priests and monks from the Balkans’ various ethnic Orthodox communities — Bulgarian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian and Serbian — safeguarded each group’s distinct cultural patrimony. Sensing opportunity, monks and priests joined the 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 Holy See. Not unlike the quest of Boris, this circle sought to reestablish an autonomous national church to secure privileges and traditions and further their national aspirations.

In 1861, Pope Pius IX recognized an elderly archimandrite, Joseph Sokolsky, as the head of a Bulgarian church and ordained him to the episcopacy. This Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church grew rapidly and within a decade more than 60,000 Bulgarian Orthodox Christians opted for full communion with Rome.

To stem this tide, the Russian tsar (whose government protected the interests of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman world) pressured the Ottoman government to develop and recognize the Bulgarian Exarchate, a largely independent Orthodox church subordinate to the ecumenical patriarchate. The exarchate was created in 1870 without the support of the ecumenical patriarch, who declared its adherents in schism. Nevertheless, the exarchate commandeered the nascent Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church. By the end of the century, three quarters of those Bulgarians who had joined the Greek Catholic community returned to Orthodoxy.

Led by Bishop Antim I, a former monk of the Hilandar Monastery, the exarchate organized a national church, erecting jurisdictions, animating village parish life and setting up Bulgarian language schools — all of which strengthened the cries for Bulgarian independence.

In 1876, Ottoman soldiers brutally crushed an organized rebellion, slaughtering tens of thousands of Bulgarians. The Russian tsar, eager to flex his authority and defend the interests of his Orthodox cousins in the Balkans, intervened yet again. He pressured his European allies to join him in demanding a Bulgarian state from the Ottoman sultan. Dissatisfied with a compromise reached by his allies in Constantinople, the Russian tsar declared war on the sultan and, between 1877 and 1878, occupied much of Ottoman Bulgaria. Eventually, a Russian–backed Bulgarian principality was erected, though it remained a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. By 1908, however, the head of the Bulgarian state, Ferdinand I, declared Bulgaria independent, named himself tsar and reaffirmed the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria as the kingdom’s national church.

20th–century trials. Closely allied to the fate of the nation, the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has endured significant difficulties throughout much of the last century. These challenges have included three regional and two world wars; abdications, assassinations, executions and rigged elections; isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world; 45 years of Communist control; and internal discord and schism. Dramatic demographic decline — Bulgaria has lost 14 percent of its population in the last two decades and, in some years, the number of abortions exceeds live births — has taken its toll on the church’s role and effectiveness in the 21st century.

While today some 82 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million people identify themselves as Orthodox, most do not follow the rites of the church. Some observers believe up to half of the population is agnostic or atheistic. Bulgarian Orthodoxy, they contend, has become an ethnic or cultural symbol.

The formal schism that separated the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria from the rest of the Orthodox world was healed in 1945, but the ecumenical patriarch did not formally recognize the restoration of the Bulgarian patriarchate until 1961, seven years after the election of the metropolitan of Sofia as patriarch.

The present head of the church, 97–year–old Patriarch Maxim I, was elected with the support of the Communist Party in 1971. Since the collapse of the Soviet–backed government in 1991, bishops, priests, politicians and members of the laity have contested his election and governance. A rival synod and patriarch challenged the elderly prelate’s authority throughout much of the 1990’s, winning substantial popular support. The state eventually intervened to heal the rift, but the antipathy between the established church and its rival has been slow to heal.

A general council, held in July 1997, attempted to address the role of the church in a post–Communist Bulgaria. Under the guidance of the patriarch, the council called on the government to allow it to develop freely and publicly, utilizing mass media, catechesis in state schools, and the restoration of chaplaincies in the armed forces, prisons and hospitals. The council also addressed the urgent need for the spiritual renewal of the Orthodox faithful and focused on the development of formation and catechetical programs. But the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria — unlike the Orthodox revival in Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine — remains arduous.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s Vice President for Communications.

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