At the end of October two of the brothers visited Bulgaria. It was the first visit for 4 years and it really did feel like we were being welcomed as long lost friends. We were very much expected – only an hour after arriving in Sofia we were already being interviewed by two TV news reporters! We met friends of the community that we’ve known for many years and also many people that were hearing of the community for the first time. In the 1990s a lot of Bulgarians came to Taizé and to the European meetings but for the last few years there have not been many visitors and so we felt it was important to visit them, to renew that personal contact, those relationships that are at the root of communion.
In all our many meetings with different people there were some similar themes. People readily acknowledge that the situation in Bulgaria is far from perfect, but there is nevertheless a quiet joy – life is still beautiful, a gift from God, even if there remain a great many challenges in society, in the church, in everyday life.
The situation of the church is more difficult than in other countries in the region. During the communist regime the church was persecuted, as in other countries, but since then it has not been very easy either. The different governments have been quite ambivalent towards the church. Also a split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the 1990s did not help to give Christians a credible face. Thankfully that situation is resolved now and there are many signs of hope for the future. A new generation of young people has grown up who did not live through those problems. We met with some groups of young Christians who are convinced that there is a bright future for Bulgaria and for the church. They refuse to give into indifference and want to show others that God’s love is strong in their lives and can help them to bring real and lasting change to their own, and others’ lives.
In Vidin, right in the corner of Bulgaria on the Danube River, we visited the Metropolitan Dometian who stayed in Taizé for 6 months as a young monk in 1967, as well as other old friends and many new ones that we met for the first time. There we took part in the feast of Saint Parascheva who is very specially venerated throughout the Balkans as an example of a holy life. The church was full for the two beautiful celebrations, but one priest explained to us that many people, older as well as young people, know very little about faith due to the previous ban on religious instruction. This was echoed by others that we met on our travels – they see that the biggest priority is to help people to understand what is happening in the church, what it means to live a Christian life, how to live that hope from the Gospel that together we can build a better society... It is difficult to reach young people through the schools because religious education is not compulsory – but in Vidin and in some other places they are rising to the challenge by beginning Sunday schools.
In Veliko Tarnovo, an important historic capital, and Sofia, the modern capital we were lucky to have the opportunity to speak with some members of the Theology faculties. For 20 years now they have been training graduates who have a solid foundation in what the Christian faith means. They go on to live that out in all walks of life – some become priests but many others are teachers, engineers, businessmen and women... Working alongside others they are able to witness to Christ in a different way, maybe managing to touch those who feel distant from the church.
We began and ended our visit staying in a centre for young people and children in Sofia. Most of these young people would be living on the streets without this place. One evening that we joined them they sang a song mentioning the name of each person in the room in turn: "Dani is a gift to us, Dani is a gift from God". From the faces of the young people you could see that maybe this was something a little bit difficult to believe, that they had never heard before, but it was so important for them to hear it. If all of us could see ourselves and others like this we would go a long way on that road forward into hope.