Pope Francis’s drive to champion migrants and improve relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches got a cold reception in Bulgaria on Monday.
A Bulgarian Orthodox prelate denounced the pope’s efforts to unify the churches as a prelude to welcoming the Antichrist. And some Bulgarians shrugged off his pleas to welcome migrants.
Bulgaria, where there are few Catholics and fierce opposition to admitting refugees is common, is unforgiving terrain for the pope’s message. But he made it a centerpiece of his two-day visit, and punctuated it before leaving on Monday with a visit to a refugee center on the outskirts of the capital, Sofia.
“Today, the experience of migrants and refugees is a bit of a cross — a cross for humanity, and the cross of so many people suffering,” Francis said as he met with young asylum seekers at the Vrazhdebna refugee center.
The pope likened their perilous journeys to Europe to the suffering of Christ, and said they bore the “cross of humanity.”
“Your journey hasn’t been an easy one, often marred by pain,” he said. “You had to leave your home countries and to find new homes.”
Francis also tried to use his trip to mend ties between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, nearly 1,000 years after they formally split, but he did not appear to make much headway.
On Sunday, he met privately with the Bulgarian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Neophyte. But the Orthodox hierarchy ordered its priests not to worship with him, leaving Francis to pray alone in the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.
Then on Monday, a high-ranking figure in the Bulgarian Orthodox church, Metropolitan Nikolai of Plovdiv, dismissed the pope’s visit as political and condemned in harsh terms his efforts to improve ties between the churches.
“The goal of all of this is to unite all the religions around the pope, so that when the Antichrist comes, for the pope to welcome him, and through him, all who are coming along with him,” Nikolai told a congregation in a church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city.
“How to unite everyone?” he declared, in remarks first reported by Pod Tepeto, a Bulgarian news site. “It is not possible to unite the light and the darkness.”
For most of Europe, a more immediate concern than mending an ancient religious schism is the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Advocating for those fleeing war and destitution has been a hallmark of Francis’ pontificate. Soon after his election in March 2013, he traveled to a migrant camp in Lampedusa, Italy — a powerful gesture that made it clear, even before the migrant surge of 2015 and 2016, that their plight would be high on his agenda.
But the migration crisis brought dramatic change to European politics, and contributed perhaps more than anything else to the rise of anti-migrant forces in Europe and elsewhere.
Francis, who took migrants back to Rome with him after visiting a migrant camp in Lesbos, Greece, in 2016, has often seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness. His appeals continue incessantly, and Vatican officials say that even if he is losing the political argument, his is a prophetic message that will not stop.
Bulgaria, the poorest European Union member state, is an unusually tough place to make his case, though relatively few migrants have come through here compared with other parts of Europe — and even fewer have stayed. The country has been criticized for its poor treatment of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and it sealed off its border with Turkey by building a fence.
A junior partner in Bulgaria’s coalition government is an alliance of three nationalistic parties that are known for their anti-migrant rhetoric. And the Bulgarian Orthodox hierarchy has joined the government in calling for an end to the influx of refugees, which it described as an invasion.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the United Nations refugee agency, 48 percent of Bulgarians said that refugees could never be integrated into Bulgarian society, because of cultural differences, though more than 90 percent had never met a refugee in Bulgaria.
On Monday, a group of refugee children greeted Francis by performing two songs in Bulgarian and giving him drawings.
Later on Monday, Francis traveled to Rakovski, a sleepy town in Southern Bulgaria that is home to the biggest Catholic community in a country where Catholics make up about 1 percent of the population. Support for the faithful on the Catholic periphery has been another priority for the pope.
Thousands of Bulgarians from across the country flooded into Rakovski, home to about 16,000 people, to see Francis, whose face adorned a billboard at the town’s border. At the Sacred Heart church in the town’s main square, girls in white robes and crowns made of white roses chanted “We love the Pope.”
Francis himself was ebullient as, under a cascade of falling rose petals, he celebrated first communion with 240 children.
“Since we heard the news that the pope is coming, we have been awaiting him with great excitement,” said Ivo Raikov, a 23-year-old local resident. “I haven’t witnessed such a joyful event and such atmosphere of brotherhood and love.”
On Monday evening, Francis will take a short flight to North Macedonia, another poor Balkan country with a predominantly Orthodox population and a tiny Catholic community. He will be the first pope to visit the country, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
There, Francis may have an even more delicate path to navigate. Much of the Orthodox Christian world views North Macedonia’s Orthodox church as schismatic ever since it declared itself independent from the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Francis is not expected to meet with the North Macedonian Orthodox Primate Stephen in an effort to avoid aggravating an already tenuous relationship.