Honoring St. John XXIII, Pope and Bulgarians Give Witness for Peace

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Prayers for peace are important, but they must lead those praying to roll up their sleeves, reach out their hands and open their hearts, Pope Francis said at an interreligious meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The gathering—featuring children representing the Catholics, Bulgarian Orthodox, members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Jewish community and the Muslim community—was held under rainy skies at Nezavisimost, or Independence, Square.

Participants were not praying together, organizers insisted, but were praying for peace each in their own way.

The event May 6, the pope’s last public appointment in Bulgaria on his three-day trip, was a tribute to St. John XXIII, who was apostolic delegate to the country from 1925 to 1935 and, as pope, wrote the encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”).

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had announced before the pope’s trip that it would not send a bishop to the gathering and it did not; rather it was represented by an Orthodox layman who works for the government department overseeing religious affairs.

Armenian Bishop Datev Hagopian and Sofia’s grand mufti, Mustafa Hadzhi, joined Pope Francis on the stage along with a government official, a Protestant minister and a woman representing the Jewish community.

Pope Francis noted that from the square, a gathering place for centuries, people can see a Catholic church, a Bulgarian Orthodox church, an Armenian church, the synagogue and a mosque.

In the Catholic heart of Bulgaria, Pope Francis celebrated a special Mass for 245 children receiving their First Holy Communion and thanked them for helping him, their parents and grandparents remember their own First Communion.

The May 6 Mass was in Rakovski’s Church of the Sacred Heart. While only about 1 percent of Bulgaria’s population is Catholic, in Rakovski the vast majority of the city’s 27,000 people are Catholic.

The pope, dipping the consecrated host in the consecrated wine, personally gave Communion to each of the children, while other priests brought the Eucharist to another 500 people inside the church and an estimated 10,000 people gathered on the church grounds for the Mass.

The Vatican press office said it was the first time on a papal trip that Pope Francis had administered First Communion.

At the Church of St. Michael the Archangel later in the day, Pope Francis urged the region's Catholics to be bold and creative in handing on the faith to new generations.

The Holy Father offered a late afternoon Mass May 5 in Sofia’s Battenberg Square before an estimated 7,000 people. Thirty years after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the pope called Bulgarian Catholics to a “revolution of charity and service, capable of resisting the pathologies of consumerism and superficial individualism,” and instead sharing the love of Christ.

Pope Francis went to the tiny Balkan nation of North Macedonia to pay tribute to a tiny saint who accomplished big things: St. Teresa of Kolkata.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Ganxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in Skopje in 1910. The pope went May 7 to the memorial and museum built on the site of the church where she was baptized. The church was later destroyed in an earthquake. Celebrating Mass in the nearby Macedonia Square, Pope Francis drew people’s attention to human hungers—the hunger for bread, but also the hunger for truth, for God and for love.

“How well Mother Teresa knew all this and desired to build her life on the twin pillars of Jesus incarnate in the Eucharist and Jesus incarnate in the poor,” he said.

—CNS

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