The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has 8000 churches and monasteries but only 800 priests, when it needs 2500 to fulfil all the needs of congregations, a church trade unionist has told local media.
Nikola Rizov, head of the union of church workers at Bulgaria’s Podkrepa trade union federation, said that the largest shortages of priests were in the dioceses of Pleven, Silistra, Vidin, Vratsa and Nevrokop.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the majority religion in the country and has a special status in terms of the Religious Denominations Act.
According to Rizov, the number of Bulgarian Orthodox Church priests had decreased close to fourfold since the early 1990s.
In the 1970s, the years saw about 100 applications annually to study at the seminary. In 2017, the total number of applications was 12, he said.
About 30 per cent of the priests were retired.
Rizov said that there were places where people had not been to church for years because there was no one to serve liturgies.
The main reason for the low number of priests was the low pay. A Bulgarian Orthodox Church priest got a starting salary that was equal to the statutory minimum wage, 460 leva (about 234 euro). Over the years, this rose only according to a pay grade system based on time in office.
“We have had many talks with the Holy Synod (the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body) but they cannot find more money for salaries,” Rizov said.
Because of the staff shortages, priests were serving five to 10 places. In the Nevrokop diocese, two of the priests were 83 and 87 respectively, and each was serving about 15 villages in the mountainous region.
Rizov said that the low pay was causing priests to find other ways of earning a living. Some went abroad for seasonal work as fruit-pickers in other European countries. Those that stayed in Bulgaria took on occasional work on building sites and farms.
Some priests could add to their income from fees for weddings and baptisms, but this made a difference only in larger and wealthier cities, Rizov said.
(The Bulgarian Orthodox church of St Nikolai the Miracle Worker, village of Bliznatsi. Photo: (c) Clive Leviev-Sawyer)