Bulgaria awarded its highest state honour, the Stara Planina first class, to Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin at a ceremony at the President’s office in Sofia on March 21 2016, with Parolin undertaking to pass on an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the country.
Only one Pope, John Paul II, has visited Bulgaria, the majority of whose citizens declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians, in May 2002. Of Bulgaria’s population of about 7.1 million, less than 49 000 people are Roman Catholics, going by the 2011 census.
Bulgarian head of state Rossen Plevneliev awarded the Stara Planina to Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican since 2013, for his contribution to the development of relations between Bulgaria and the Holy See.
Plevneliev described the visit by Parolin – which coincided with the start of Holy Week for the world’s Roman Catholics and Protestants – as vivid testimony to the friendly feelings and relations of mutual respect and co-operation between Bulgaria and the Vatican.
The President expressed gratitude for the responsiveness of the Holy See regarding support for efforts to obtain a new church for Bulgarian worship in Rome and the continuation of the annual audience given by the Pope to Bulgarian high-ranking delegations.
Plevneliev accepted Parolin’s invitation to lead the traditional annual Bulgarian delegation to Rome on May 24, when Bulgaria marks its day of Education and Culture, a day on which Saints Cyril and Methodius are revered for their role in the development of the Slavonic alphabet.
A statement by the President’s office said that Plevneliev pointed out the important role of the Roman Catholic community in Bulgaria in historic moments for the nation, and said that Bulgaria’s relations with the Holy See have a rich history.
“I will always remember that Angelo Roncalli – Pope John XXIII, served as Apostolic Delegate in Sofia and left a vivid memory of his charitable work among the Bulgarians in a very difficult moment for our history,” Plevneliev said. John XXIII, Pope from October 1958 to June 1963, was Papal Nuncio to Bulgaria from 1925 to 1935. Pope John XXIII was declared a saint on April 27 2014.
The President recalled the bright memory of the visit of the Holy Pope John Paul II in Bulgaria and invited Pope Francis to visit Bulgaria soon, the President’s office statement said.
“The Republic of Bulgaria actively supports the efforts of the international community to maintain a dialogue between civilizations, religions and cultures. We share the concerns of Pope Francis and the Holy See regarding all those suffering from conflicts in the Middle East, Syria, Ukraine and all other crisis areas in the world,” Plevneliev said.
Plevneliev said that Bulgaria was a symbol of dialogue and peaceful coexistence between religions, tolerance and understanding among religious communities.
Parolin said that Bulgaria always had been a crossroads, where different people encountered each other. The battles of the past were a reminder that these encounters were not always easy and the challenges they brought should never be underestimated, he said, according to the President’s office statement.
“But Bulgaria has a long tradition of harmony and dialogue between different groups and religions. In this respect deeply appreciate the President’s commitment to maintain this noble tradition,” Parolin said.
“I hope that your country will continue to maintain the generous spirit of hospitality and openness and so will benefit from the enrichment, which outsiders always bear,” he said.
Earlier, Parolin held talks with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, who said that he highly valued relations with the Holy See.
Borissov said that he shared the concerns of Pope Francis in connection with sharpened humanitarian crises in the world and emphasised the importance of initiatives to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts that have arisen.
Parolin noted that his visit was within the framework of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of relations between the Holy See and Bulgaria.
Borissov presented Parolin with an embossed copy of the Krupnik Gospel, a 16th century book in Cyrillic script with four gospels, a table of services and gospel readings, with a preface by Theophylact of Bulgaria.
Parolin was also scheduled to meet with Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit and with Chief Mufti Mustafa Hadzhi, spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Muslim community of about 577 000.
(Photos: president.bg and the Facebook page of Boiko Borissov)