Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sui Juris Churches XXI: The Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Byzantine

Primary Liturgical Language: Bulgarian

Juridical Status: Apostolic Exarchate

Approximate Population: Roughly 10,000 to 11,000

Brief History: Bulgarians had long had a dream of autocephaly; relations between Christians in Bulgaria and Constantinople were always more than slightly complicated. In the nineteenth century, a politician named Dragan Tsankov began to suggest that this might be practically accomplished by communion with Rome along the lines of the Ruthenian Unions. This seems to have met pockets of the population that were already interested in the idea. In 1859, a group of people in Kukush (modern Kilkis) sent a letter to the Pope desiring union under the condition that they would be able to keep their rites and elect their own bishops; and in the next year Tsankov and a number of other intellectuals gave a similar letter to the Apostolic Vicar in Constantinople. Pius IX did not hesitate; he accepted the offers and in 1861 named Joseph Sokolsky, one of Tsankov's delegation, their archbishop. Unfortunately, Sokolsky's appointment had relatively little effect, because the Russians, worried about what a Bulgarian Uniate Church might do to their influence in Bulgaria, kidnapped him a few months later and threw him in prison. The Bulgarians uniting with Rome had no real religious leader until 1863, when Raphael Popov, who had been a deacon while in Tsankov's delegation, was elected bishop.

The movement for union spread, slowly, but the wind was taken out of its sails when the Ottoman Empire itself pressed for an Orthodox Bulgarian Exarchate. That process took a while, but as the Patriarchate in Constantinople made more and more concessions in that direction, the Bulgarians received a measure of ecclesial independence that removed one of the obvious reasons for becoming Catholic.

In 1874, another group in Kukush added its stream to the mix when the Orthodox Bishop of Kukush himself, Nil Izorov, joined communion with Rome. Izorov had been involved in the development of the Bulgarian Exarchate, but in the process of contributing he came to the conclusion that Bulgarian communities in Macedonia were deliberately being left out. His attempts to force a more explicit confrontation on this issue were not appreciated, and the Patriarchate pressured the Exarchate to recall him, which it eventually did. The recall was taken by Bulgarians in Macedonia as a clear sign that Izorov had been right, and several of these Bulgarian communities began actively insisting that the Exarchate give them their own eparchy under Izorov. The Exarchate refused, so they tried to become Anglican. But the British at the British Consulate were wary about getting involved in this kind of politics, so that went nowhere as well. Well, third time's the charm; they approached Rome, and Rome had none of the political qualms of the others. Izorov would become the head of the small Bulgarian Uniate community after the death of Popov, but in 1895 would return to the Orthodox Church. This would actually be a constant problem in the early history of the Bulgarian Catholic Church, as a number of priests and bishops would waver back and forth between being Catholic and being Orthodox.

The Bulgarian Catholic communities in Macedonia would be in for difficult days during the Balkan Wars and the First World War, as they were caught in the middle of several different, and very intense, political struggles. Kukush would be burned by the Greeks; the Turks began a genocide of Bulgarians in Thrace. Bulgarians fled in massive numbers to Bulgaria, which, unfortunately, did not have the resources to handle them. The situation would devastate the Bulgarian Catholic Church in its original homelands, but enough survivors congregated in Bulgaria that in 1925 the Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria, Angelo Rancalli, began to press for a reorganization, and in the next year Rome established the Apostolic Exarchate of Sofia to take care of them.

Unfortunately, Bulgaria had been invaded by the Soviets toward the end of World War II (thus switching Bulgaria from an Axis nation to an Allied nation), and that meant that the Communists were in control of Bulgaria. Fortunately the persecution of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria was much less severe than it was in many other places; the Church was never officially suppressed, although there were executions early on and it was subject to the usual long list of restrictions. Even these were said to have been more lightly enforced after Angelo Rancalli became Pope John XXIII.

In 1989 the Communist regime lost power, and since that time the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church has slowly managed to regain its confiscated property and expand.

Notable Saints: As a Byzantine Rite church, the Bulgarian Greek Catholics have a number of Byzantine Calendar saints on their calendar. In addition, there are a number of Greek Catholic martyrs under the Communist regime who might someday be beatified or canonized; I believe that Bl. Kamen Vitchev is the only one who has been beatified so far. Given his close association with both Latin and Greek Rite churches in Bulgaria, having devoted nearly a decade of his career to Bulgarian Catholics, John XXIII (October 11) could probably be added to the list.

Notable Religious Institutes: One of the longstanding religious orders is the Holy Eucharist Sisters, whose active involvement in the Bulgarian Greek Church goes back almost to the beginning. The Byzantine Discalced Carmelites, while small, are also relatively active.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: One Apostolic Exarchate in Bulgaria.

Online Sources and Resources:

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