On the first day of a trip to Bulgaria, Pope Francis encouraged authorities to strengthen and grow their country by investing in opportunities for young people, so they can remain in the country.
“Your country has always distinguished itself as a bridge between East and West, capable of favoring encounter between the different cultures, ethnic groups, civilizations and religions that for centuries have lived here in peace,” the pope said May 5.
“The development of Bulgaria, including her economic and civil development, necessarily entails a recognition and enhancement of this specific trait.”
Pope Francis spoke in a meeting with Bulgaria’s president, prime minister, authorities, civil society leaders, and diplomats during a May 5-6 visit to Sofia and Rakovsky, Bulgaria. He will also stop in Skopje, North Macedonia, the birthplace of St. Teresa of Kolkata, May 7, before heading back to Rome.
Following economic collapse and a major emigration wave in the 1990s, Bulgaria has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
The pope addressed the country’s major demographic crisis, saying, “thirty years after the end of the totalitarian regime that imprisoned its liberty and initiatives, Bulgaria faces the effects” of the massive loss of young citizens and a “demographic winter that has descended like a curtain of ice on a large part of Europe.”
This, he said, is a “consequence of a diminished confidence in the future;” he encouraged authorities to continue their efforts to ensure young people can remain in the country and not be forced to emigrate for work.
“I would encourage you to persevere on this path, to strive to create conditions that lead young people to invest their youthful energies and plan their future, as individuals and families, knowing that in their homeland they can have the possibility of leading a dignified life,” he said.
In his speech, the pope also recalled the connection of two of his predecessors with the country of Bulgaria: Pope St. John Paul II visited the country in May 2002 and Pope St. John XXIII, while still Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, spent nearly 10 years in Sofia as an apostolic delegate.
John XXIII worked tirelessly to promote fraternal cooperation between Christians and “never ceased to feel deep gratitude and esteem for your nation, to the point that he once said that wherever he would go, his house would always be open to everyone, Catholic or Orthodox alike, who came as a brother or sister from Bulgaria,” Francis said.
Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII convoked, a delegation of civil and church authorities from Bulgaria has made an annual visit to the Vatican on the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, he noted.
These saints, he said, are co-patrons of Europe because of their role in its evangelization, especially that of the Slavic people.
“By their prayers, their genius and their joint apostolic efforts, they serve as an example for us and they continue to be, more than a millennium later, an inspiration for fruitful dialogue, harmony and fraternal encounter between Churches, States and peoples!” he stated.
“May their radiant example raise up many followers in our own day and open up new paths of peace and concord!”
After the meeting with authorities, Pope Francis visited Patriarch Neophyte of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and stopped in the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Aleksander Nevskij for a moment of prayer.