(*The word ‘sofia’ is of Greek origin and means ‘wisdom’)
The divine wisdom and the ‘signs of the times’
I have been a member of the European Council for Lay Dominican Fraternities since 2001. We made a plan to support the fraternities, and distributed the tasks among ourselves and elected the officers. We elected contact people for sub regions, and I became the contact for Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Austria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. We heard from Jerry Stookey OP, our promoter, that there exists a fraternity in Sofia, Bulgaria, but the country does not belong to any province and is not yet officially founded. We began writing e-mails to the Bulgarian Lay Dominicans. They introduced themselves and we were very glad to hear that there is a living, active group of people whose intention is to apostolate in Sofia, in the city that is called ‘Wisdom’.
They visited fr Jerry in Santa Sabina, Rome. They wished to join the Dominican Order officially, so they sent letters to the Master of the Order. They have been waiting for years for feedback regarding their official foundation.
In 2005 I offered to visit them. Soon I was cordially invited to join their celebration of consecration of a new church building. It took place on 22 October, 2005 in Sofia. I was introduced to the head of the Catholic church in Bulgaria by the Lay Dominicans in the very first moment of my arrival at the airport of Sofia, because the bishop and I arrived by the same plane. The Lay Dominicans have a good friendship with the bishop and as we walked out of the gate at the same time, both of us were greeted there.
I recognized that this occasion was a historic moment in the life of the Bulgarian Christians, because this was the first new Catholic church after the 2nd World War. It was given the name of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who is a highly respected saint in Bulgaria, because he started his Vatican diplomatic representative work there on 16 October, 1931. Bulgarian people love him very much and it is important for them that he lived there. A mosaic of his portrait is on the wall of the new church. Naming a churchof the Byzantine rite after him is a strong sign in an Orthodox country. And this Pope opened the synod Vatican II, which was the ‘sign of the times’.
For a better understanding of the historical situation I was given a short summary of the history of the Bulgarian church
I quote some parts here:
“The relations of Bulgaria with the Catholic Church started with the conversion of Bulgarians to Christianity in the 9th century. This was determined by the strategic geographical location of the country at the border between the Eastern and Western provinces of the Roman Empire. Two years after the conversion to Christianity adopted from Constantinople, Prince Boris asked Pope Nicolas I if Bulgaria could join the Roman Church. In 870 the Ecumenical council in Constantinople decided Bulgariashould convert to Constantinople. Bulgarian contacts with Rome were restored in 926 during the rule of Tzar Simeon. Later Tzar Kaloyan even signed a religious union with Pope Innocentius III in 1204. Soon, however, Tzar Joan Assen II (1218-1241) turned again to Constantinople.
Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite
The processes of political emancipation of the people in the Ottoman Empirebecame very strong in the 19th century. At that time a group of activists for church independence and separation from Constantinople dominance promoted the idea for union with Rome. Thus, Dec 1830 some hundred Orthodox Bulgarians were accepted by the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, Msgr. Paolo Brunoni. They presented a petition signed by almost 3,000 people asking for apostolic protection. Thus, an act of union was signed with Romestating Bulgarians’ major requirements – to have their independent church hierarchy and schools as per their own education systems and principles. The union act provided for the preservation of the Eastern Byzantine Rite. Later on, April 2, 1861, Father Joseph Sokolski was consecrated as archbishop and head of the Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite. Pope Pius IX himself did the consecration at the Sistine Chapel.
According to statistics as of 1887 there were 18,505 Catholics, i.e. 0.6% of the total population.
In 1910 there were 32,149 Catholics, i.e. 0.7% of the total population. Of these 28% lived in towns and 71.6% in the country which ratio remained unchanged up to the 1960s.
In 1921 the three dioceses in Turkey – Constantinople, Odrin and Thessalonica were closed down. In 1925 Msgr. Angelo Giovanni Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was appointed Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria. Next year, December 5, 1926father Kiril Kourtev was consecrated and he became the first Exarch of the Byzantine Rite Catholics. Ever since the Catholic Church in Bulgariahas been constituted of three dioceses: Nikopolis dioceses with center at Rousse, Sofia-Plovdiv diocese with center at Plovdiv and Catholic Apostolic Exarchy with center at Sofia.
Spiritual life and social activity
Various religious communities have been present and performed cultural, educational and social activities in Bulgaria since 18th century – Frati Minori – Franciscans; Passionists, Redemptorists, Frati Minori Cappuchins, Assumptionists, Ressurrectionists, Freres des Ecoles Chrétiennes, Frati Minori Conventuali, Jesuits, Sisters of Saint Joseph, Sisters of Sion, Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, Suore dell’Annunziata, Benedettine Missionarie – Tutzing, Carmelite Sisters, Sisters of Eucharist, Sisters of Mercy.
In 1944 the Catholic community in Bulgaria had its own colleges, schools, hospitals, orphanages – all of these set up in late 19th and early 20th century.
After 1944 the Catholic doctrine was totally rejected by the newly established Communist regime. In 1952 the Communist regime faked a number of court trials against Catholics.
The superior body of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria is the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria. It consists of three bishops: Msgr. Petko Hristov, of Nikopolis diocese, Msgr. Gueorgi Iovchev of Sofia-Plovdiv diocese, and Msgr. Hristo Proikov, Apostolic Exarch and present head of the Conference.
According to the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1963) the Catholic Church keeps its identity but is open for dialogue with other faith communities and churches.
The Catholic Church has formal contacts with the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as well as with other church and faith communities.
Data as of 1992:
Total population 8.487.417. Catholics 53074 (0.63 %). Catholics in towns 37629, in villages 14445.
Geographical distribution: Plovdiv 25303, Pleven 9174, Sofia 4675, V.Turnovo 4099.
Priests 65, Sisters 90. Communites of orders 17.
(quotation ends here)
Nowadays the Catholic Church retains a very special situation in Bulgaria. Both theByzantine and the Roman rites operate. They are in good relationship with each other. The Conference of Catholic Bishops includes churches of both rites. They live in a minority in an Orthodox country.
I visited Orthodox churches and Catholic churches of both rites in Sofia. The richness of the church was beautiful there.
I experienced during the celebration that was lead by Msgr. Hristo Proikov, Apostolic Exarch and head of the Conference (who belongs to the Byzantine rite) the beautiful unity of different parts of the church. He celebrated the Holy Mass together with the bishops of Bulgaria and with a bishop from Romania and from Macedonia. And even the Lay Dominicans are there from both rites. Some of them converted from the Orthodox Church to become Catholic. They live in peace together.
The new church is in a modern architectural style but the Byzantine church style can be recognized in its harmony. In the end of the ceremony an Orthodox male choir gave a concert inside the Catholic Church. Even the former queen of Bulgaria was present during the celebration. Her Majesty is a Spanish born Roman Catholic lady who married the former king of Bulgaria. He does not act as a king, but people elected him to take part in political life.
During my visit I took part in the fraternity meeting that started with a Holy Mass in the old beautiful Catholic parish church of the Byzantine rite and then we continued praying in the home of a member. Then we shared our thoughts on different topics at a nice dinner. I was very happy to meet this group of very intelligent and enthusiastic, faithful people (several university teachers, e.g. doing apostolic mission among colleagues, and one of them translated the ‘Confessions’ of Saint Augustine into the Bulgarian language). I urged them to write an official request to the Master of the Order asking for their official foundation. Immediately after my visit their request was sent to Rome.
We had our council meeting in Santa Sabina, Rome between 3 and 6 November. I arrived there on the 1st of November, on the feast of All Saints. It was a great possibility to visit Rome, especially the tombs of Dominican saints. We prayed together on 3 November, on the feast of Saint Martin of Porres who was canonized by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962. Afterwards I got to know that the archbishop of Hungary finally, after a long time signed my Dominican parish’s request asking for support (written by me on the feast of Saint Catherine of Siena) on this day, 3 November.
On 4 November our council had a special occasion to meet the fr Carlos Azpiroz Costa OP, the Master of the Order on the feast of his patron Saint Charles Borromeo. Blessed Pope John XXIII after his priestly ordination worked in Bergamo, Italy. He wrote there the basis for his 5-volume biography of Saint Charles Borromeo. He must have loved this saint.
The Master led the celebration of the Holy Mass. Then we had a friendly discussion with him. I asked him to give his official approval for the new Lay Dominican fraternity in Sofia. He was happy that there exists a new initiative where the Order is still not yet organized formally. He said they need to belong to a province that has got an approved directory for the Lay Dominican fraternities. It may be the first step toward the foundation of the Order there. He promised us he would decide which would be the best solution for the Bulgarian fraternity. I mentioned him my personal experiences, the good impressions and our relationship with them.
On 5 November – on the feast of Saint Emeric (11th century), who was the son of Saint Steven, the first king of Hungary – we visited together the churchof Saint Clement. This is one of the oldest parish churches in Rome. The Irish Dominican Provinceleads the restoration of the crypt. There are 3 levels inside the building: the ground floor is used as a basilica. There is a level (-2), that was a pagan church before Christianity. The level (-1) was an ancient Catholic church. You can see the mosaic of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the patrons of Europe there. It has got an interesting story. The most important aspects are as follows.
As it is well-known Cyril and Methodius were 2 brothers coming from Greeceto christianize the South-Eastern part of Europe in the 9th century. They covered the territory of the current Bulgariaalso. They wanted to translate the Bible and the liturgy into Slav language. For this at first Cyril had to create the written form of this language that had not existed before. This was the so called ‘Cyrillic’ alphabet. He was a wise philosopher and a marvellous translator. They understood the ‘signs of the times’ in their missionary work, that the national language of this area should be used in the liturgy. Let us think that only the synod of Vatican II (initiated by Blessed John XXIII) could make it happen all over the world! For this reason they traveled to Rome to ask the Pope’s approval. And they got the Pope’s approval.
They delivered the relics of Saint Pope Clement I to Rome that they had found in Kerson, in the East before. The relics were placed in Saint Clement’s church. Cyril became sick in Rome, died on 14 February in 869 and he was buried in Saint Clement’s church, where his tomb can be found on level -1. Wonderful mosaics show their lives there. A contemporary Dominican is buried also on this level. Afterwards Methodius returned to his mission in the Eastern part of Europe, where he became the bishop of Pannonia (the current territory of Hungary) and Morva-land (current territory of Bulgaria). Cyril and Methodius were led by the truth that all nations are called for salvation by God. For Cyril philosophy was equal with wisdom, with ‘sofia’ in divine and in human relations. Wisdom makes human beings similar to God. ‘Sofia’ was in the centre of Cyril’s thinking. He considered it important to lead all the people to the wisdom of God.
It is well-known that our Father Saint Dominic and his Bishop Diego wanted to go as missionaries to the same area where Cyril and Method worked, but the Pope did not give his permission. It happened in 1206, 800 years ago. They were sent into France instead to be missionaries among the heretics. Saint Dominic sent one of his brethren, Paulus Hungaricus [Hungarian Paul] in 1221, – just before his death – to the South-Eastern part of Europe to make new foundations. He founded the Hungarian province in the same year. In the 13th century there was an active Dominican life in Hungaryand also in the territory that belongs today to Romania and Croatia, but the area of Bulgariawas never reached by the Dominicans till the present. No province exists there. In Romania there is not any Dominican presence either. In Turkeythere is a convent of Italian friars. In Ukrainethere are some friars and sisters from Poland and Hungary.
Elena, the president of the fraternity in Sofia reminded me to some of these interesting dates.
The feast of Pope Saint Clement 1 is on 23 November.
On 24 November – on the feast of Dominican martyrs in Vietnam – I received a letter from Germany – regarding the above mentioned request for supporting our Dominican parish in Budapest – that as they had received our archbishop’s supporting letter, it seems that the donation for our emergency situation will come soon.
The Master of the Order signed the letter of foundation of the Bulgarian Lay Dominican Fraternity on 25 November 2005, on the birthday of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who was born on 25 November 1881 in the diocese of Bergamo, Italyas Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. (He died 3 June, 1963 in Rome.) After his ordination he worked in Bergamo. During our European Assembly in Fognano between 21-27 May, 2001 we visited the monastery of Dominican Nuns in Bergamo, where we prayed the Rosary together with every branch of the Order. At the end of this Assembly I was elected to be a member of ECLDF.
The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria who lived in the 4th century is on 25 November. She was a Lay person well-known of her wisdom, ‘sofia’. She was martyred for her faith. She is the patron saint of Lay people.
As I mentioned my trip to Rome started on 1 November, on the feast of All Saints and I returned home from Romeon 6 November, on the feast of the Dominican martyrs of Japan. The following day the Order celebrates the feast of All Dominican Saints. I am sure they All accompanied me and accompany us if we believe in their support.
We never know where we are led by God, but we must follow his call, his invitation to any new places, to any new circumstances. We need to be sensitive and pay attention to the ‘signs of the times’.
He is the living Wisdom, the living ‘Sofia’, He always knows where He intends to lead us. During the year 2005 I had more serious sicknesses and troubles than you can imagine, even in Rome I fell sick. BUT human weakness is not a limit for God’s will.
After reading this true story, are there any readers left who cannot recognize the ‘signs of the times’?
The new fraternity in Sofia belongs to the Hungarian Dominican Vicariate.
Congratulations to our Lay Dominican sisters and brothers in Bulgaria
Let us rejoice in God’s wisdom!
On the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, patron saints of Europe
14 February, 2006, Budapest