Speaking at a Mass in Azerbaijan and at a later welcoming ceremony in Bulgaria, Pope John Paul II on Thursday pushed for better relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths by stressing the shared fate of Christians who had faced Communist-era persecution.
“Brothers and sisters, you saw your religion mocked as mere superstition,” he said in comments directed to all Christians present at a multi-faith gathering in Baku, capital of the largely Muslim former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. “You were regarded as second-class citizens and were humiliated and marginalized in many ways.”
In Bulgaria, where he was welcomed by national leaders in a ceremony in downtown Sofia, the capital, the 82-year-old and visibly frail pontiff praised the country’s deep Orthodox Christian roots and recalled the nearly half-century of Communist domination after World War II.
“Even during the long cold winter of the totalitarian system, which brought suffering to your country and to many other European nations, fidelity to the Gospel did not disappear,” he declared in a Bulgarian-language address read partly by himself and partly by a Bulgarian priest. Many here “remained heroically faithful to Christ, in not a few cases to the point of sacrificing their lives.”
Several Roman Catholic priests were executed after Communist-era show trials in 1952. Three of them are to be beatified--a step toward sainthood--in a Mass to be conducted by the pontiff on Sunday in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city.
John Paul traditionally kisses the ground in a blessing when he visits a country for the first time. But now, suffering from arthritis and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, he instead kissed a basket of Bulgarian soil.
At the welcoming ceremony, held in front of the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral, the pope stood through the Vatican and Bulgarian anthems, clutching the arms of his chair, but sat for the delivery of his speech.
In an indication of some success for John Paul’s diplomacy, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maxim, appeared at the welcoming ceremony despite doubts that he would attend.
“With respect I greet His Holiness Patriarch Maxim ... together with all the faithful of the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria,” John Paul said. “I fervently hope that my visit will serve to increase our knowledge of each other so that, with God’s help and on the day and in the way that pleases him, we shall finally live ‘united in the same mind and the same judgment.’ ”
Orthodox faiths have been cool to the pontiff’s overtures in many countries; the Orthodox Church of Russia has blocked his efforts to visit that nation.
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, in his welcoming speech, declared that the pope’s visit “is one of the most significant events in the centuries-long history of the relationship” between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054, and over the centuries they have been bitter rivals at times. Bulgaria is a mainly Orthodox nation of 8 million, with just 80,000 Catholics.
In Russia, the Orthodox Church fears that Roman Catholics are trying to win over its traditional believers. Although there is less tension in Bulgaria over that issue, some in the crowd of about 3,000 that gathered to welcome the pontiff showed signs of being torn between the two branches of faith.
“This is the holiest man on Earth,” said Svetla Atanassova, 75, a pensioner in the crowd who described herself as Orthodox but said she has recently been attending Catholic Masses. “We have been very badly affected by communism. That’s why we’re seeking some comfort.... I was a student when the Communists took over, and they killed all my professors and the priests.”
Atanassova voiced sharp criticism of Maxim, charging that he was compromised by his role as head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church under communism. She predicted that without new leadership for the Orthodox faith, many of its followers might become Roman Catholics.
But a woman sitting nearby, Marielka Bekyarova, a 49-year-old unemployed construction engineer, quickly countered those views, stressing that under Maxim the church had managed to keep its doors open.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said in an interview that Maxim’s decision to attend the ceremony reflects reduced Russian influence in the country’s life.
It is “very remarkable that the patriarch of Bulgaria was here,” Pasi said. “It means the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is absolutely autonomous, makes her decisions by herself and is transforming in the same way in which all institutions of [formerly Communist] Central and Eastern Europe are changing in the last decade.”
In his arrival speech, John Paul said his visit fulfilled a long-held desire.
“I have never ceased to love the Bulgarian people,” he declared. “May my presence among you be a clear sign of my sentiments of esteem and affection for this noble nation and its children.”
The unusual phrasing of having “never ceased to love” Bulgarians was seen by some observers as a reference to allegations that the nation’s then-Communist government and the Soviet KGB were involved in a 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul. The presumed motive would have been Moscow’s alarm at John Paul’s support for the anti-Communist Solidarity trade union in his native Poland.
Three Bulgarians faced trial in Italy as alleged co-conspirators in Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca’s attempt to kill the pope in St. Peter’s Square. The Bulgarians were acquitted for lack for evidence.
“Twenty years ago there was a spot unjustly thrown on Bulgaria, being accused, being linked with the assassination attempt on the pope,” Pasi said. “The visit of the pope clears this injustice” and restores “the well-deserved prestige of the country.”
Near the end of the ceremony, despite his physical infirmities, John Paul gave an indication of his mental sharpness and good humor by quipping in Italian: “The president is young, so that’s why he’s standing. But he let the pope sit down because he’s old.”