The rocks of Belogradcik, that form a magnificent monument shaped by nature, are the background of the stage where Verdi’s Requiem is being performed. We’re in the north-west region of Bulgaria, an area that media reports often describe as the “poorest region in the EU.” But these lands have seen the birth of contemporary Catholicism in Bulgaria. The concert, that was performed against the backdrop of the Belogradcik rocks by Sofia’s Opera orchestra, celebrated the 370th anniversary of the creation of the diocese of Nikopol. “It is a sign of gratitude for the fidelity to the Gospel and an homage to the Catholic homeland in this region”, said Plamen Kartalov, director of Sofia’s Opera Theatre.
Qualified audience. It is an exceptional event for Bulgaria, an Orthodox-majority country. The audience attending the event of July 20 included representatives of the many parishes in the diocese (that extends over a very large territory, from the westernmost point of Bulgaria to its easternmost areas), as well as MPs, the mayor of Belogradcik, university professors and other cultural figures. The director of the Opera Theatre Plamen Kartalov recalled the revolt of the Catholic population of Chiprvozi in 1648 against the Turks, a historical event that Msgr. Strahil Kavalenov, Vicar General of the diocese of Nikopol, described as “a sign of exceptional courage after which Catholics in the area were heinously killed and forced to flee the Turks beyond Bulgarian borders.” Ciprovzi is located approximately forty kilometres from Belogradchik. It’s the place where the merchants of Dubrovnik, who brought Catholicism into Bulgarian lands after the Middle Ages, created their first settlements.
Deep historical tracks. “The diocese takes the name of Nicopolis ad Istrum, an ancient city built by Roman Emperor Trajan after the victory over the Dacians”, said Msgr. Kavalenov. He added: “This locality was home to Catholic figures who left deep marks in Bulgarian history, such as Catholic author Petar Bogdan Bakscev, who wrote the first ‘History of Bulgaria’, Mons. Petar Parcevic and the first bishop of the diocese of Nikopol Filip Stanislavov”.“Sofia’s diocese is the first Roman diocese, while the diocese of Nikopol was created as a suffragan diocese owing to increased Catholic population.” In addition to the Ragusa merchants, the other faithful were members of a religious sect, the so-called Paulicians, resembling the Cathars, which the Orthodox don’t recognize. The first schools in Bulgaria were created in villages inhabited by Catholics, that also published the first books.
At the time of the Ottoman Empire. “Unfortunately, difficult years followed that glorious period. Only a bishop and two priests were left to take care of the whole diocese, until the arrival of the Passionist Fathers”, added Mons. Kavalenov. Singular details were found in the archived materials, wrote Father Paolo Cortesi, parish priest of Belene: “the first Passionist missionaries arrived with the permission of Italian merchants in Bulgaria.”
The blood of the martyrs. “A role of crucial importance for the diocese of Nikopol was played by Angelo Roncalli, before his election as Pope John XXIII, pontifical delegate in Bulgaria from 1925 to 1934”, Msgr. Kavalenov pointed out. He explained that after the liberation from the Turks, the descendants of the Catholics who had fled to Romania and Hungary “returned to their homeland and created new villages, established new parishes also in cities, while the seat of the diocese that had been in Bucharest until the creation of the new Bulgarian State, was moved to Ruse.” After a long period of foreign prelates, Msgr. Eugenio Bossilkov became the first Bulgarian bishop of the diocese, who died tragically. He was executed by the Communist regime. He is the first martyr, the first Blessed of the Bulgarian Catholic Church.” His fidelity to the Gospel and to the see of Rome continues inspiring our youths still today”, said the Vicar General, mentioning the prophetic words of the Blessed: “the blood of the martyrs will be the pledge of a beautiful future for the Church in Bulgaria.”
The future in the hands of the young. “It can be said that today this prophecy has been fulfilled”, said Msgr. Kavalenov. The diocese of Nikopol is one of the two dioceses of Latin rite in the Balkan Country, led by Msgr. Petko Hristov, with 20 parishes served by approximately 15 priests. There are difficulties like everywhere else. “We suffer the depopulation of villages, the emigration of Bulgarians, the shortage of priests who have to travel for many kilometres to reach the different parishes.” In spite of everything, the vicar general is optimistic: “the situation in Bulgaria is improving”, and “history is our mentor, it teaches us that faith, hope and love are stronger than difficulties, and they fill our days.”
The program’s events continue. In the meantime the celebrations for the 370th anniversary of the foundation of the diocese of Nikopol continue. The event’s programme has already registered the visit of the Cardinal of Sarajevo Vinko Puljic, a symbolic gesture to remember the first Catholic missionaries who arrived from Bosnia. Also the Conference on “The Christian roots of Europe” in Veliko Tarnovo, was very successful, while the exhibition titled “The Papacy and Bulgarians (9th-21st century)”, a collection of historical documents and images with original exhibits already presented at Veliko Tarnovo and Ruse, will be on display at Sofia’s University next fall.