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The Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Self-determination, as a basic human right of all peoples to pursue their own cultural, economic, political or social destinies, is of recent origin. Rooted in Europe’s 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, self-determination has, in the last century, destroyed empires but built nations, advanced nationalism and patriotism but furthered extremism and ethnic cleansing.

What has self-determination to do with the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church?

Despite centuries of suppression and forced assimilation, a sense of self emerged in the 19th century among the assorted peoples of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula. Strategically located at Europe’s frontier with Asia, the Balkans had for millennia lured settlers seeking access to and control of the peninsula’s ports and trade routes.

Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, descendants of a central Asian tribe that migrated to the Balkans in the seventh century and intermarried with the Slav population, were just one of the Balkan peoples inspired by independence. As with their neighbors, Bulgarians longed to wrest control from their Ottoman Turkish Muslim masters.

This 19th-century Bulgarian search for self-determination — not unlike the quest of Boris I, Bulgaria’s first Christian leader — led an influential circle of Orthodox monks to explore full communion with the Church of Rome in order to secure privileges and traditions, obtain aid and further their national aspirations.

Origins of Bulgarian Christianity. As Rome and its western provinces declined in the fifth century, the center of power in the Mediterranean shifted east to Constantinople, founded in 324 by the Roman emperor Constantine I. From this city developed Byzantium, a confidently Christian commonwealth rooted in ancient Greece and Rome and yet receptive to the Semitic cultures of the eastern Mediterranean.

A dazzling cosmopolitan city linking our own modern world with that of the ancients, Constantinople for more than a millennium lured covetous chiefs who desired its wealth and authority. Slav tribes, who left Eastern Europe to settle in the Byzantine-controlled Balkans in the sixth century, wasted little time in harassing Byzantine authorities. The Bulgars arrived about a century later and, as they assimilated with the Slavs, carved out their own nation. They challenged Byzantine control of the Balkans and nearly conquered its capital, Constantinople, in the process.

Boris I. In 852, the pagan prince Boris ascended the Bulgar throne. Challenged by Byzantium’s emperors to the east and courted by emerging powers to the west — led by the pope — Boris successfully manipulated emperor and pope, using his interest in the Christian faith as leverage.

While Boris eventually adopted Christianity in its Byzantine form in 864, he relentlessly pursued a policy of independence for his fledgling church. Vacillating between Rome and Constantinople, the prince’s actions provoked a split between the two churches, both of which claimed jurisdiction over the Balkans. Known as the Photian Schism, it underscored the deepening rift between East and West and foreshadowed the eventual divorce between the churches of Rome and of Constantinople.

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