Forgotten Patriarchates: Bulgaria

Before I begin my new job tomorrow, I thought I would entertain my readers with a follow-up to a previous post.

The region now known as Bulgaria had long been under Greek and Roman control (after its prior inhabitants, the Thracians, had been forcefully integrated into the Roman Empire).  The Germanic invasions of the empire saw several tribes (most notably the Ostrogoths and Slavs) rampage through without permanently settling the land.  It would be the fate of later invaders, the nomadic Bulgars, to settle the land and wrest it from the control of the Romans in Byzantium.

Christianity would be established in the 9th century by the king of Bulgaria, St. Boris (who, like St. Vladimir of Rus was given the title “Equal to the Apostles”).  In exchange for peace with the Byzantines, Boris and his family were baptized by the controversial Patriach Photios of Constantinople.  Sts. Cyril and Methodius were also welcomed into the kingdom to develop the written Slavonic language (which Boris used as a safeguard from Greek influence over his people).

However, Boris’ plan was always to have a local autonomous church free of Byzantine influence.  When his plan for a self-governing national church was met with resistance from Constantinople, Boris received emissaries from Rome who approved the plan of an eventual independent Latin-Rite church in Bulgaria.  Boris expelled the Greek clergy and inadvertently added another grievance to the souring relations between Pope St. Nicholas and Patriarch St. (?)  Photios.

Unfortunately for Boris’ plans and the Romans, Nicholas died before he could appoint the promised Bulgarian archbishop and his successor, Adrian II, failed to follow up on the promises made by his predecessor.  Boris became aggravated by Rome’s lackadaisical treatment of his situation and sent representatives to the Fourth Council of Constantinople.  There, they turned on Rome and restored the Byzantine Church’s right to Bulgarian lands.  The authorities in the Imperial capital moved quickly to grant Bulgaria its unprecedented autocephaly and Pope Adrian’s desperate attempts Bulgaria back into the Roman sphere proved to be too little too late.  Bulgaria’s Archbishop would be recognized as an official Patriarch after Tsar Simeon I crushed the Byzantine armies in battle, and would be the first bishop to be given both the title and an independent church since Constantinople’s six centuries earlier.  Three centuries later, it would have a peer when Serbia was given the same privilege.

Unlike Serbia, whose patriarchate and independence would last in some form until the 18th century, Bulgaria lost it all in the 14th century.  St. Euthymius of Tarnovo would be the last patriarch of this unbroken line.  A hesychast, ascetic, promoter of education, enemy of heresy, and staunch advocate of morality, Euthymius was arguably the best of all the Bulgarian patriarchs.  He would tragically oversee the defense of the capital Tarnovo against a Turkish invasion as the Tsar retreated to consolidate his forces.  Euthymius would live out the rest of his life exiled to a monastery in Macedonia and Bulgaria would be returned to direct control of Constantinople after his death.

Euthymius of Tarnovo.jpg

There were attempts in the 19th century to establish a “Uniate” church free of Greek (and Turkish) influence.  These attempts never enjoyed much success and were compounded by Bulgaria’s defeat in the “Great War” (there will never be enough sarcasm in the world for that conflict’s moniker) and the expulsion of Bulgarians from their homeland by Greeks and Serbs.  A certain Angelo Roncalli would be instrumental in the creation of a Bishopric for the Bulgarian Greek Catholics.  A mass purge and persecution of the Greek Catholics commenced when the Communists took power shortly after World War II which deprived the faithful of most their clergy.  In this restricted and broken state, the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church was allowed to exist without being officially suppressed (the only Greek Catholic Church under Communist rule that was “spared”).  Today, the church numbers merely 10,000 faithful.  An Orthodox Patriarch was appointed in 1953, but in this author’s opinion this is more a reflection of the Phanar’s fading grip on Orthodoxy rather than a triumphant return of the Medieval Bulgarian Church.

A casualty of Islamic expansion and ecclesiastical imperialism from Constantinople/Istanbul,  the Church of Bulgaria survives still among the ashes.  Battered, but not broken, it could do much to re-christianize an apostate Europe.  We can only pray that God reveals to us the next St. Cyril, Methodius, Boniface, or Remigius to reawaken the dormant faith of Europe.


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