Thousands of people turned out for the first events on the programme of the visit by Pope Francis to Bulgaria, a country where the majority state adherence to the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholics constitute a small minority.
Good order was kept amid tight security measures. Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry said events were proceeding with no serious problems. One person, a 58-year-old man, was arrested near the security perimeter with “banned objects” though the ministry did not say what these were.
After talks with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, President Roumen Radev and the leadership of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis went to Alexander Nevsky cathedral for silent prayer.
In the square next to the cathedral, a Sofia landmark, the Pope exchanged greetings with the faithful who had come to see him, blessed seriously ill people who had been brought to the event, and smilingly made himself available for a selfie or two.
At his 1pm service, top representatives of other faith communities, including the leaderships of Bulgaria’s Muslim and Jewish communities, joined the Pope on the podium.
Pope Francis delivered the Regina Coeli prayer, a Roman Catholic tradition for Sundays, traditionally followed by more than 100 million Catholics around the globe every Sunday.
He paid tribute to Angelo Roncalli, who after a decade in Bulgaria as Apostolic Legate later went on become Pope John XXIII, saying that Roncalli had “learnt to esteem the traditions of the Eastern Church”.
Earlier, in his talks with Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit, both stated desire for a unified Christian church, though Neofit qualified his remarks by saying that for his church, compromise should not and could not be made. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, earlier forbade its clergy from participating in joint prayer and liturgies with the head of the Roman Catholic church.
Pope Francis, in his prayer, expressed the hope that Bulgaria should always be a “land of encounters” where people showed each other respect in spite of cultural, religious and ethnic differences.
“We now turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, to advocate before the resurrected Lord to give to this beloved land the ever-needed impulse to be a land of encounters in which, beyond cultural, religious or ethnic differences, to recognise and respect each other as children of the same Father,” Pope Francis said in his prayer.