Bulgaria: “This shrine is a beating heart”

At the newly created Marian Shrine of Pleven the Catholics in Bulgaria are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need had supported the construction of the church.

On 1 July the Fatima shrine in the north Bulgarian town of Pleven received a distinguished visitor: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, used his trip to Bulgaria to join Bulgarian Catholics in celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima. In his sermon he called the shrine of Pleven a “beating heart from which the call for conversion again rings out and remains eternally relevant”. He recalled the martyrs whom Bulgaria had produced during the communist period and the millions of victims of National Socialism and communism in Europe. He then made the link with the present “hell-like situations man had unleashed on the Earth”, especially the war in Syria and the danger from terrorism and extremism. However the Holy Virgin did not limit herself to “denouncing evil”, but also called on people “to help create good”. The Cardinal called on the faithful to “not tire of passing on to the young generation the fire of faith, which has continued to burn despite the many sufferings in Bulgaria” and to say in the present celebration of the baptismal vow “NO to the Devil and to sin and YES to life of grace and community”.

The Fatima Shrine of Pleven was borne from the answer to a prayer: When Bishop Petko Christov of Nicopoli made a pilgrimage together with the other Catholic Bulgarian Bishops to the Portuguese Marian Shrine of Fatima in 1996 to dedicate the country’s Catholic Church to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he also said a special prayer. “If I succeed in obtaining planning permission for a new church in Pleven I shall dedicate this church to You, our Our Lady of Fatima,” he promised the Mother of God. At this time only seven years had passed since the fall of communism and the Catholic Church had almost had to start from scratch after the political transition. The former communists in the authorities had done everything to prevent planning permission being granted for the church.

Today one remembers this phase as a “passage through hell” says Magda Kaczmarek from the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. She knows this situation from her own perspective: “We had accompanied the Franciscans from the very beginning in setting up their parish. First prayers were said in private homes. I can recall a basement room in a block of flats where Holy Mass was celebrated. The most unpleasant aspect was the noises from the sewage system. There I felt as though I were underground. At that time we were told:  ‘When we have a church, the others who long for a real house of worship will come as well. And when the Church of Our Lady of Fatima is consecrated the Mother of God will help us to ensure the church itself can be erected.'”….

And the Mother of God did in fact help: hardly had Bishop Christov returned home when a plot of land was found and the authorities granted planning permission. Finally it was possible to start construction work on the church in this town of 120,000 inhabitants where relatively many Catholics lived. The Mother of God had clearly heard the prayers and also helped to overcome the innumerable hurdles which later sprung up.

Today the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Pleven is a diocesan Marian shrine in which the Mother of God is worshipped by innumerable Bulgarian faithful. Soon the shrine is to be dedicated as a national holy site. The Franciscans, who are responsible for the parish, also visit other parishes with the statue of the Mother of God so that even more of the faithful have the opportunity to pray to the Holy Virgin of Fatima.

The emergence of this shrine in Bulgaria specifically would appear to be symbolic. After all, the Virgin Mary appeared in the Portuguese town of Fatima in 1917 and warned three shepherd children just before the outbreak of the October Revolution in Russia of the dramatic consequences of the rise of communism, which led to a hitherto unprecedented persecution of the Church. Bulgaria in particular is one of the countries where the Church experienced this first hand.

In the fifties most of the priests were arrested and in show trials they were condemned to death or sentenced to long prison terms. The Church’s property was confiscated. Only the individual houses of worship were left to the Church and the remaining priests and nuns had to live there. For example, the Carmelite sisters were forced to hold out on the gallery of a church for 40 years because their convent had been seized. When some of the detained priests were released in the 1960s they immediately turned their attention again to the welfare of those who had remained loyal to the faith. But these priests were exhausted after the long period of detention and many died soon after as a result.

The first new priest to be ordained in Bulgaria after nearly 20 years was the present Apostolic Exarch of Sofia, Bishop Christo Proykov.  As a child he already harboured the wish to become a priest. Talking about his parental home he said: “Even in the most difficult times of harsh communism our parents did not cease accompanying us to church.” As time passed the desire matured to use his own life to “give new life” to the Church in Bulgaria. In secret he prepared for ordination and was ordained clandestinely in 1971 at the age of 25 by a bishop. This was still a risky business at that time. The bishop who performed the ordination was taken in by the militia shortly afterwards. When he was asked why he had performed the ordination he answered: “Because as bishop I have the right to ordain priests.” The militiaman replied: “And the militia has the right to arrest people,” and then they took him away.

Today, more than 25 years since the end of communism, Bulgaria is facing different challenges. Poverty, broken families, drug dependence, parents who work abroad, and children and old people left to fend for themselves, plus a brutal globalisation which is leaving more and more people behind – all this causes great suffering. The Catholic Church only represents a small minority, but the people in religious orders in particular are doing a lot to alleviate this need. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) helps the local Catholic Church and has in the past year supported projects totalling more than 150,000 euros.

Magda Kaczmarek, the ACN representative responsible for projects in Bulgaria, says: “In this Fatima anniversary year, when ACN is also celebrating 70 years since its foundation, we are especially happy that we can support the small, but lively Catholic Church in Bulgaria. Our founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, dedicated his work to the Holy Virgin of Fatima in many ways. Many years ago, when hardly anybody believed that communism would collapse one day, he already believed in the promises of the Mother of God in Fatima and the power of the rosary. History has proven him right. We thank God that we the faithful in Bulgaria may today pray freely to the Virgin Mary at this place of grace in Pleven. For me this shrine is evidence that the Holy Virgin is active here.”

Pater Jaroslaw Bartkiewicz, the delegate of the Franciscans in Bulgaria, thanks ACN for its help and congratulates the Catholic pastoral charity on its 70th anniversary: “At this special place here in Pleven in Bulgaria we regularly commend to our Dear Lady all the benefactors of ACN and ask that they be granted special grace. May she take all of you into her care and may ACN continue for many years to come to serve the persecuted and oppressed Church on many continents.”

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.