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The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Geography has shaped the history of the peoples of the Balkans. This peninsula in the Mediterranean lies at the crossroads of the ancient Greek and Latin civilizations of southern Europe, a juncture where Orthodoxy and Catholicism mingle, where Islam meets Christianity, where Asia and Europe collide. For millennia, these Balkan encounters have sparked major cultural and political movements. Bulgarian Orthodoxy, despite centuries of setbacks, is one such example.

Origins of Bulgarian Christianity. As Rome and its western provinces declined in the fifth century A.D., power in the Mediterranean shifted eastward to “New Rome,” founded in 324 as a Christian capital by the Roman emperor Constantine I. Popularly called the City of Constantine — Constantinople — it remained rooted in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome yet receptive to the diverse cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. From this city developed a confident Christian commonwealth that bridged the ancient and modern worlds — Byzantium.

For over a thousand years, Constantinople lured covetous clan leaders who desired the power and wealth of this dazzling cosmopolitan city. Tribes of Slavs, for instance, left their northeastern European homeland, settled in the Byzantine–controlled Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries and wasted little time in harassing Byzantine authorities. The Bulgars from Central Asia arrived in the Balkans about a century later and, as they assimilated with the Slavs, carved out their own nation, challenging Byzantine hegemony of the Balkans. They nearly conquered Constantinople in the process.

First Christian prince. In 852, the pagan prince Boris ascended the Bulgar throne. Challenged by Byzantium’s emperor to the east and courted by emerging powers to the west — led by the pope — Boris manipulated both, using as leverage his interest in the Christian faith.

Boris eventually adopted Byzantine Christianity in 864. But he relentlessly pursued a policy of independence for his fledgling church and state. Vacillating between Constantinople and Rome, the prince’s actions provoked a split between the two churches, each of which claimed jurisdiction over the Balkans. Known as the Photian Schism, it underscored the deepening rift between the Christian East and the Christian West and foreshadowed the eventual divorce between the “Orthodox” and “Catholic” churches that occurred after the Great Schism in 1054.

Boris finally achieved independence for the Bulgarian church when Constantinople granted it autonomy in 870. Less than a decade later, however, Rome’s jurisdiction of the Balkans was affirmed by the Byzantine emperor who was eager to heal the ecclesial divide. Nevertheless, the independent path of the Bulgarian church and state was set, particularly as Prince Boris received Clement and Naum, two disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

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Tags: Church history Bulgarian Orthodox Church Bulgaria Balkans