Sofia - Pope John Paul II continued his ecumenical efforts in Bulgaria on Friday, visiting the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Maxime and joining him in the celebration of the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the patrons of Bulgaria (as well as co-patrons of all Europe).
After a morning meeting with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, the Holy Father rode in a motorcade across the capital city, Sofia, to the imposing cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky. Along the route, the Pope waved in greeting to the thousands of people who lined the sidewalks to see him, many waving pennants in the Vatican colors of yellow and white.
Inside the cathedral, the Pope was welcomed by representatives of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Simeon, the spokesman for the Orthodox group, told the Pope: "We admire you, and we think of you as an apostle."
The Orthodox clerics escorted the Pope around the cathedral-- the largest Orthodox church on the Balkan peninsula. He stopped to pray at the tombs of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Then he continued on to the nearby monument erected in honor of the two saints-- brothers who brought the Gospel to the Slavic world in the 9th century. There the Pope remained seated in his popemobile while the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, laid a wreath at the foot of the monument. Several Bulgarian officials-- including the former king and current prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-- came to the Pope's vehicle to greet him.
The next step was the patriarchal palace, where Patriarch Maxime: the 89-year-old prelate who has led the Bulgarian Orthodox Church since 1971. "I come among you," the Pope said, "with a sense of esteem for the mission which the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria is undertaking, and I wish to express my respect and appreciation for your commitment to the good of the people of this land."
The Pope added that divisions among Christians are a source of pain and of scandal. He continued: "One thing consoles us, however-- the estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox has never extinguished their desire to restore full communion." The Church, he said, need true unity, which should be respectful of "the diversity of customs and observances that only adds to her beauty."