RILA, Bulgaria, AP
Stooped and trembling, a feeble Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to one of Bulgaria’s holiest sites Saturday, visiting a 1,000-year-old monastery in an effort to end a millennium of distrust between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
The 82-year-old pontiff traveled by helicopter to the southern town of Rila for a visit to the Rila Monastery, not far from the tomb of St. Ivan Rilsky, patron saint of the Bulgarian people. The trek signalled the pope’s desire to bridge the rift between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Three days into an arduous four-day visit that was clearly taking its toll on the ailing pope, John Paul sat hunched over and one of his hands shook as he read just a few scattered lines of his remarks with badly slurred speech before letting an aide deliver the rest. In Rila, it took him a minute to shuffle 15 meters (50 feet) to pay his respects at the tomb of the late King Boris III.
“We gratefully admire the precious tradition that Eastern monks and nuns live faithfully and continue to hand on from generation to generation,” the pope told believers who gathered in the fieldstone monastery’s ornate, incense-perfumed chapel.
Across Eastern Europe, and especially in Russia, embittered Orthodox leaders have made no secret of their resentment of Roman Catholic expansion into traditionally Orthodox countries like Bulgaria. Orthodox hard-liners consider Catholicism heresy, and many Catholics see the Orthodox faith as mystical and alien to the liturgy of Rome.
Reconciling the two estranged sisters has been a major thrust of John Paul’s visit, the first by a pope to this formerly communist country.
“The very fact that at his age he is visiting our country speaks of his big heart and equal treatment of all people regardless of their faith and nationality,” said Kamelia Borisova, 32, an accountant.
The pope met Saturday with Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski, Bulgaria’s popular former king, who returned to his homeland last year after decades in exile in the West and became premier when his party swept parliamentary elections.
He then returned to Sofia, the capital, for meetings with the leader of Bulgaria’s Muslim community and with local Catholics. There are only about 80,000 Catholics in the nation of 8 million; most live in or near the second-largest city of Plovdiv, where the pope will serve an outdoor Mass on Sunday, the final day of his visit.