Bulgaria: Christianity and Civilization

by Catherine Cusack

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The course of world history is really many histories running side by side, some bearing remarkable similarities to others. Millions of people trace their ancestral beginnings to nations of hardy peasants and learned holy men, nations who worked the land, taught, prayed, fought invaders and loved freedom. Such is the story of Bulgaria, a small country on the Black Sea in the eastern Balkan peninsula. In the medieval era it became an important center of faith and learning for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. Today it is one of the family of nations of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The territory that is now Bulgaria was occupied by Slavs in the seventh century when warring horsemen came from the Volga region, defeated the Byzantine forces, settled down to live and intermingled with the natives. Although Christianity had probably come to the area as early as the first century after Christ, pagan influences continued to dominate Bulgaria until Boris I was baptized in the ninth century. Boris was well aware that Christian civilization had had an enormous impact upon the spiritual and cultural development of Greece and Rome, and he wanted Bulgaria to share the fruits of the rapidly spreading faith. And because the Church hierarchy at that time frequently held temporal as well as spiritual power, Boris sought to enhance his country’s political unity by establishing a Bulgarian patriarchate.

The Council of Constantinople sent bishops to Bulgaria in 870, thereby bringing the country into the domain of the Byzantine rite. After the Great Schism of 1054, the Bulgarian Church became part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Today, most Bulgarian Christians are Orthodox, but the population also includes small numbers of Roman Catholics (both Latin- and Eastern-rite) and Protestants.

Since Christianity had transformed Bulgarian civilization, the Church in Bulgaria came to represent the highest ideals of patriotism and national culture. This identification of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church with the very soul and genius of the nation was to grow and flourish throughout many centuries of occupation by foreign powers.

It was largely through the efforts of two brilliant Eastern saints that Christianity became so deeply rooted and revered among the Slavs. Cyril and his brother Methodius came to Bulgaria during the reign of Boris I and worked tirelessly to bring Christ’s message to the people in their own tongue. They composed the Slavic alphabet and translated the Holy Scriptures and the Byzantine liturgical books into Slavic. They instituted the training of thousands of priests, monks, catechists and scribes, who in turn evangelized the surrounding nations, building churches, monasteries and schools wherever they went.

It was during the reign of Czar Simeon, the son of Boris, that Bulgaria enjoyed its Golden Age. The years from 893 to 927 saw growth and development in the Church, and in literature, learning and the arts. Culturally, politically and economically, Bulgaria became a thriving nation which exerted strong influence on neighboring Russia, Rumania and Serbia. Its civilization was more advanced than that of some of the European nations, which had been weakened by barbarian invasions.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Bulgarian Orthodox Church Bulgaria