Roman Catholicism in Bulgaria

Roman Catholicism in Bulgaria

Roman Catholicism is the third largest religious congregation in Bulgaria, after Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam. It has roots in the country since the Middle Ages and is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome.

As an entity, the Catholic Church consists of two dioceses in Bulgaria, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sofia and Plovdiv with Seat in Plovdiv and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nikopol with Seat in Rouse, for those of the Latin Rite, and an exarchate with its seat in Sofia for those of the Eastern Rite.

Location and number

In the Bulgarian census of 2001, a total of 43,811 people declared themselves to be Roman Catholics, down from 53,074 in the previous census of 1992, due mainly to emigration. The vast majority of the Catholics in Bulgaria in 2001 were ethnic Bulgarians, although 2,500 of them were Turks and additional 2,000 belonged to a number of other ethnic groups.

Bulgarian Catholics live predominantly in the regions of Svishtov and Plovdiv and are mostly descendants of the heretical Christian sect of the Paulicians, which was converted to Roman Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries. The largest Roman Catholic Bulgarian town is Rakovski in Plovdiv Province. Ethnic Bulgarian Roman Catholics known as the Banat Bulgarians also inhabit the Central European region of the Banat. Their number is unofficially estimated at about 12,000, although Romanian censuses count only 6,500 Banat Bulgarians in the Romanian part of the region.

Bulgarian Catholics are descendants of three groups. The first one is the group of the Catholics of northwestern Bulgaria, who are successors of Saxon ore miners that settled the area in the Middle Ages and that gradually became Bulgarian, as well as people from the colonies of the Republic of Ragusa in the larger cities. Converted Paulicians from the course of the Osam (between Stara Planina and the Danube) and from around Plovdiv are the second (and largest) group, while the third (and most limited) one is formed by more recent Eastern Orthodox converts.


Bulgarian Empire

Roman Catholic missionaries first tried to convert the Bulgarians during the reign of Tsar Boris I in the middle of the 9th century. They were unsuccessful, and Boris I led the Bulgarians in their conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. In 1204 the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan (1197-1207) formed a short-lived union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a political tactic to balance the religious power of the Byzantine Empire. The union ended when Rome declared war on Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Patriarchate was reestablished in 1235. The Catholic Church had no influence in the Bulgarian Empire after that date.

Ottoman rule

Nonetheless, Catholic missionaries renewed their interest in Bulgaria during the 16th century, after the Council of Trent, when they were aided by merchants from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic. In the next century, Vatican missionaries converted most of the Paulicians, the remainder of a once-numerous heretical Christian sect, to Catholicism. Many believed that conversion would bring aid from Western Europe in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.

By 1700, however, the Ottomans began persecuting Catholics and preventing their Orthodox subjects from converting.

Independent Bulgaria

After Bulgaria became independent, the Catholic Church again tried to increase its influence by opening schools, colleges, and hospitals throughout the country, and by offering scholarships to students who wished to study abroad. Bulgarian Knyaz Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was himself Catholic and supported the Vatican in these efforts. The papal nuncio Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, played a leading role in establishing Catholic institutions in Bulgaria and in establishing diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and the Vatican in 1925.

Communist Bulgaria

The communist era was a time of great persecution for Catholics, nominally because Catholicism was considered the religion of fascism. Bulgarian communists also deemed Catholicism a foreign influence. Under the communist regimes, Catholic priests were charged with following Vatican orders to conduct antisocialist activities and help opposition parties. In 1949 foreign priests were forbidden to preach in Bulgaria, and the papal nuncio was forbidden to return to Bulgaria. Relations between the Vatican and Bulgaria were severed at that time. During the "Catholic trials" of 1951-52, sixty priests were convicted of working for Western intelligence agencies and collecting political, economic, and military intelligence for the West. Four priests were executed on the basis of these charges. In the early 1950s, the property of Catholic parishes was confiscated, all Catholic schools, colleges, and clubs were closed, and the Catholic Church was deprived of its legal status. Only nominal official toleration of Catholic worship remained.

Democratic Bulgaria

Like the practitioners of the other faiths, Roman Catholics in Bulgaria enjoyed greater religious freedom after the fall of the Zhivkov regime in 1989. Bulgaria reestablished relations with the Vatican in 1990, and the Bulgarian government invited Pope John Paul II to visit Bulgaria. The visit was carried from 23 to 26 May 2002 and was the first visit of an acting Roman pope in the country.



External links

* [ Official website of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria]
* [ Website of the Roman Catholic church in General Nikolaevo, a quarter of Rakovski]
* [ Official website of St Paul of the Cross - a Catholic church in Rousse, Bulgaria]

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