Pope Francis has arrived in Sofia at the start of three days in the former communist states of Bulgaria and North Macedonia, his fourth trip abroad this year. Both countries have tiny Catholic minorities and most of the population considers themselves Orthodox. The pope is likely to use this opportunity to help cement the Vatican’s relations with the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe.
In a message to the Bulgarian people ahead of his Sunday arrival, the pope said his trip to Bulgaria would be a pilgrimage focused on faith, unity and peace. Bulgaria, he added, is home to witnesses of faith since the times when Saints Cyril and Methodius spread the word of the Gospel.
This will be the second time a pope has visited Bulgaria. Pope John Paul II traveled to the country in 2002. No pope has ever visited North Macedonia. Bulgaria has a population of about 7 million people, with Catholics amounting to 1%, while Macedonia has a population of around 2 million, with Catholics amounting to less than 1%.
Inspired by Saints John XXIII, Mother Teresa
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said the trip to these Eastern European countries was inspired by Saints John XXIII and Mother Theresa. He said the pope feels he is retracing the steps of these two figures and wants to underscore the good deeds accomplished by John XXIII in Bulgaria when he was nuncio there for 10 years, from 1925 to 1935 and those by Mother Theresa who was born in Skopje in North Macedonia.
Mother Theresa was made a saint by Pope Francis in 2016. She was born in Skopje in 1910 when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. She became known as “the saint of the gutters” for her work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of the Indian city of Calcutta. Pope Francis will be visiting her memorial and meet poor people helped by the order of nuns she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.
Poverty as well as migration will also be themes of this visit by the pope. Francis will visit a refugee camp in Sofia, which was opened more than five years ago as migrants began flowing into Europe. Today it houses about 300 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan.