The bells of Sofia’s landmark Alexander Nevsky cathedral tolled repeatedly on the morning of November 6 2012, while requiem services and a special gathering of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod were arranged in the wake of the death of church head Patriarch Maxim.
Maxim, who had been ailing for some time, died at the age of 98 at 3.50am on November 6, according to the Holy Synod.
In the 2011 census, about 4.3 million of the 7.3 million Bulgarians declared themselves to be Orthodox Christians. The question on individuals’ religious affiliations was optional. The country’s law on religious denominations accords special status to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
Maxim was at the helm of the church from July 1971, making him one of Bulgaria’s most enduring national figures.
The Holy Synod was expected to gather on November 6 to name a temporary head of the church’s governing body. According to church canon, the Synod has until early March 2013 to name a new Patriarch.
It will be up to the acting head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to convene a meeting of the ecclesiastical and national council to discuss the candidacies for the new Patriarch, as well as to send formal notifications to other Eastern Orthodox Christian churches of the death of Patriarch Maxim. Church rules require that the new Patriarch should be at least 50 years old, a rule that disqualifies one of the most prominent church leaders in Bulgaria, Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai. Nikolai* was the first to announce that he would be holding a requiem service, in the St Marina church in Bulgaria’s second city, before heading to Sofia for the special meeting of the Holy Synod.
The choice of a new Patriarch will signal a major turning point for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, giving the differing outlooks on key issues, including relations with the state and with the laity, among the current members of the Holy Synod. Complicating matters is that of the surviving senior clergy who make up the church’s governing body, most have been identified by the Dossier Commission as having been agents or collaborators withBulgaria’s communist-era State Security secret service. Whether this has a negative effect on the candidacy of any of the metropolitans who worked secretly for the communist state – by its nature, an atheist entity – remains to be seen.
* 6pm update: Decisions of a special session of the Holy Synod on the afternoon of November 6 included the appointment of Nikolai as acting metropolitan of Sofia pending the appointment of an acting head of the Holy Synod. Customarily, the offices of Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan of Sofia are combined.
(Main photo, of Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)