Bearers of a Proud Legacy

Byzantine Catholics outlast an often difficult history in Bulgaria

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Tucked into a quiet, tree-lined street in the historic Bulgarian city of Plovdiv stands the unassuming Church of the Ascension, the heart of central Bulgaria’s tiny Byzantine Catholic community.

“We are the little inheritors of a great tradition,” says Father Daniel Gilier, a French Assumptionist who serves Byzantine Catholics in Plovdiv and the nearby village of Kuklen. Father Gilier and his colleague, Father Peter Lubas, a Croatian, have had to adapt to the Byzantine tradition, much like their Assumptionist forebears who first came to the Balkan nation in 1862.

“We didn’t know much about the Bulgarian Byzantine liturgy when we first came, but little by little we have learned,” he continues. “We first lived with an elderly Bulgarian priest and, after one year, I was ready to celebrate the liturgy.

“Though the process of adapting – internally, in my heart – has taken several years, I am happy I came here. Bulgaria has opened many new horizons.”

Bulgaria’s Byzantine Catholic Church may number only 10,000 people, but the tiny church is intimately linked to Bulgaria’s quest for identity and independence.

Contradictions. A nation of 7.5 million people, Bulgaria often seems to be at odds with itself. Although republicans, Bulgarians in 2001 elected as premier their former monarch, Simeon II.

Although Orthodox Christians, Bulgarians have historically been at odds with their Greek neighbors, from whom they received the Orthodox faith.

Although suspicious of those who wield power, Bulgarians were scandalized by a bitter public feud within the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church.

Surrounded by Greece, Turkey, Romania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia, Bulgaria is a European threshold, a major point of entry for merchants laden with goods legal and illegal. Roman, Bulgar, Byzantine, Serb, Turkish and Russian armies have crossed its plains, mountains and valleys, settling and killing, eager to control its strategic land routes linking Europe with the Middle East and Asia.

Bulgarians are descendants of the Bulgars, a central Asian Turkish tribe who swept through the region in the late seventh century and intermarried with the indigenous Slavic population. Though a considerable threat to the Byzantines, the Bulgarians adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity with the baptism of King Boris I in 865.

As if staging an ancient Greek tragedy, Bulgaria’s history is filled with episodes of submission to and adoption of Byzantine government and culture, alternating with periods of revolt. The eventual decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks spelled disaster for the Bulgarian people who, beginning in 1393, lived under their oppressive rule for more than five centuries.

In the quest to rid their empire of a distinct Bulgarian ethnic, cultural and religious identity – the rallying cry for independence – the Turks abolished the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1767, forcibly integrating it with the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. The Greek-dominated patriarchate in turn began its own assimilation campaign, appointing Greek-speaking bishops and discouraging use of Church Slavonic, the linguistic precursor of modern Bulgarian.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Byzantine Catholic Church Bulgaria