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History of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church

1. The Early History of the Bulgarians

ONE OF THE GREATEST achievements of Byzantium was the conversion of the many Slavic tribes and nations that lived to the west and north of its lands: in the "Byzantine Commonwealth" (an area including and extending beyond the Balkans) and in "Rus" (Russia). "Rus" is the best known of all the Slavic nations, but the first of these nations to convert to Orthodoxy was actually Bulgaria. At the time of its conversion, Bulgaria was a very large nation that included much of modern-day northern Greece (then called Thrace), southern Hungary (then called Pannonia), Romania, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, "European" Turkey (that is, the Turkish lands on the western side of the Bosporus Straits) and, of course, Bulgaria itself.

Although Bulgarians are considered to be among the Slavic peoples, the tribes originally known as "Bulgarians" were not Slavic in origin. They were descendants of Mongolian warriors who rode on horseback; they were highly organized and were extremely fierce fighters. They arrived in the area of Bulgaria near the river Danube in the 7th century and quickly subjugated the Slavic tribes which, although equally fierce, were not as well organized. For centuries to come, the Bulgarian warrior-horsemen terrified the surrounding countries and proved virtually invincible in battle. They were a constant cause of consternation for both the Byzantine Empire in the east and the Germanic Roman Empire in the west. However, the religious convictions of these two Empires began to conquer that which could not be taken by force.

In the beginning of the 9th century the ruling Khans of Bulgaria, being pagans, began to martyr Christians. Among the early martyrs of Bulgaria were the Bishops Manuel, George, Peter and Leontius; the Priests Sionius, Gabriel, John, Leontus and Parodus; and 377 other martyrs with them (+814). This plentiful scattering of martyric Christian seed soon brought forth fruit, as native Bulgarians began to convert. At the forefront of the native Bulgarian witness to the Faith was Protomartyr Prince Enravota-Boyan (+833), who prophesied: "The Faith for which I now die will spread throughout the Bulgarian country. Although you want to stop it with my death, the sign of the Cross will be planted everywhere. Temples to God will be raised, pure priests will purely serve the pure God, and they will bring glorious sacrifices to the Life-creating Trinity. But the idols and their impure temples will be destroyed and will disappear." This prophecy began to be fulfilled thirty-two years later, in 865, with the conversion of the mighty Bulgarian Khan, BorisMichael. He arranged for the baptism of all the kings and peoples who were under his rule (which comprised the areas mentioned above). The Khan Boris, as a Christian ruler (he was subsequently called a "Tsar"-the Slavic word for "Caesar"), also wisely desired that his people be instructed in the Christian Faith in their own tongue. Although he did not initiate the missionary work, it soon did take place through the request of the king of Moravia and the efforts of the Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Sts. Cyril and Methodius and their disciples.

2. The Enlighteners of the Slavs

In the latter half of the 9th century, King Rostislav of Moravia asked Emperor Michael of Byzantium to send teachers to his country to instruct his people in their newly accepted Orthodox Christian beliefs. The Emperor took counsel with the Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Photius the Great, and appointed the brother-Saints Cyril and Methodius to head the mission. The two brothers began by developing a written alphabet (now known as "Cyrillic") for the Slavic language, into which they subsequently translated the Scriptures, the Church services and catechetical instructions. When they arrived in Moravia, King Rostislav did everything he could to facilitate their missionary work among his people. As the scope of their evangelical activity increased, they were confronted with the need for more help, and thus, forty months after arriving in Moravia, they set out for Rome. They also utilized this trip to further their missionary work by going through Pannonia (southern Hungary), where they were well received by King Kocel. In 869, soon after arriving in Rome, St. Cyril reposed in the Lord, being received into the eternal, heavenly mansions in reward for his labor. Despite the great loss, St. Methodius vowed to continue the work.

Meanwhile, King Rostislav had been replaced as king of Moravia by Sventopolk, and King Kocel of Pannonia begged Pope Adrian to send St. Methodius to help his people. St. Methodius stayed for an extended period of time in Pannonia and then returned to Rome, where he was consecrated as Bishop for Pannonia. He did not, however, forget his work in Moravia and eventually returned to that country. When he arrived, however, he and his disciples encountered unexpected opposition from King Sventopolk which, by the mercy of God, Pope Adrian was peacefully able to overcome. Later St. Methodius was recalled by St. Photius to Constantinople, and there he gave himself over to continual labors in translating the Church writings into Slavonic, until his repose in 885. Upon his repose, the common disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius-including Sts. Clement, Angelarius, Gorazd, Sava and Nahum-vowed, as St. Methodius had earlier, to return to Moravia to continue the Slavic mission.

By this time, however, Moravia was ruled by a new king of a more terrible and fierce sort named Wiching. In spite of the Lord's evident and miraculous interventions as well as natural disasters showing His Divine displeasure, Wiching persisted in persecuting, imprisoning, and even torturing the disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. The Moravians themselves, exhausted by the ordeals, wished to be rid of these now unwelcome guests. Some of the disciples were sold to Jews, who in turn sold them as slaves in Venice, where they were bought by a wealthy Constantinopolitan and sent back to the Byzantine capital. St. Clement and his companions, however, were forced to march to the border, being beaten all along the way by German soldiers. All this was done secretly without the knowledge of King Wiching, who had wished, in his stubborn and obstinate heretical belief, to keep them in prison and to continue tormenting them until they recanted their Faith.

After leaving Moravia, St. Clement and his companions made their way to Bulgaria, where some of them had been born. Here they were graciously received by Tsar Boris-Michael. St. Boris praised God for sending him the missionaries for which he had been praying and nursed all but one back to health. St. Angelarius had received such grievous wounds that he reposed in the Lord soon after returning to Bulgaria. Upon their recovery, the disciples immediately resumed their missionary activity, the bulk of which was carried out by Sts. Clement and Nahum, who persevered in their evangelical labors up until their death.

3. The Spiritual Firstfruits of the Bulgarian Church

After the repose of St. Boris-Michael in 907 and St. Clement of Ochrid in 916, Bulgaria continued to flower spiritually. This time came to be known as "The First Bulgarian Kingdom." From this early period comes St. John of Rila (+946), the most famous of all Bulgarian monastic saints. The Bulgarian Church had its own bishops and soon was proclaimed an independent, autocephalous Church. During this time many monasteries arose and became the heart of the Orthodox Bulgarian nation. Also, Orthodox Christian learning, arts and culture flourished, ushering in the "Golden Age" of Bulgarian literature. For many centuries to come the Bulgarian monasteries were disseminators of Orthodox missionaries, ascetics, teachers, hesychasts and artists to all the other Slavic nations. Another example of the caliber of Bulgaria's Orthodoxy at this time can be seen in such saints as St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ of Constantinople (+911), who was a Bulgarian prisoner of war taken by the Byzantines and sold to a wealthy merchant in Constantinople. In 1018 Bulgaria was conquered by the Byzantine Empire and it remained under Byzantine dominion for over a century, until it regained its independence in 1186. Its independence marked the beginning of "The Second Bulgarian Kingdom," which was centered in Bulgaria's new capital of (Turnovo). While Bulgaria had been under Byzantine control, spiritual life had continued to flourish within her boundaries, raising up such righteous ones as Paraskeva (Petka) of Thrace (+11th c.), Theophylact of Ochrid and Philothea of Turnovo (+11th c.). Yet it was from the mid-13th to the end of the 14th century that Bulgaria was to experience its greatest growth, largely thanks to the great St. Gregory of Sinai who reposed in the Bulgarian monastery of Paroria at the end of his long life (+1346). St. Gregory's disciples were to found many monasteries, including Kelipharevo Monastery, the most famous of them all.

Some of the most well known spiritual descendants of St. Gregory of Sinai include St. Theodosius of Turnovo (+1363), who was the founder of the Kelipharevo Monastery, St. Cyprian of Moscow and Kiev (+1406), and St. Euthymius of Turnovo (+1404), who ended his life in exile, in fulfillment of a prophecy of his spiritual father, the abovementioned St. Theodosius. All of these saints became hierarchs and disseminated the teachings of the great hesychastic fathers to other Slavic countries, especially Russia. In addition to the many hierarchs that Bulgaria willingly sent to Russia, a great many people, including monastics and clergy, fled to Russia and other nearby countries when Bulgaria was forced to submit to the Turkish yoke. On July 17, 1393, the Muslims captured the Bulgarian capital city of Turnovo, beginning a period of subjugation that was to last nearly five hundred years.

4. The Dark Years of the Turkish Yoke (14th to 19th Centuries)

The heavily fortified city of Constantinople was conquered by the Turks much later than the cities of the Balkans. When the Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453, they appointed its Patriarch as the temporal and spiritual ruler of all the Orthodox Christians that lived within their boundaries, including those of Bulgaria. The Patriarch thus became personally accountable to hostile Muslim rulers for the good behavior of his new "subjects." To make matters worse, a new Patriarch soon had to pay a large sum of money to the Muslims to receive approval for his appointment. Therefore, many of the Patriarchs curried the favor of the wealthy-most often the wealthy Greek merchants who lived in the Phanar district of Constantinople. In Bulgaria the Greek clergy, motivated by the policy of these Phanar merchants, instituted a policy of Hellenizing the Bulgarian Church. Bulgarian hierarchs and clergymen were replaced by Greeks, Church services and sacraments were celebrated in Greek (of which most of the people were ignorant), and schools were opened to Hellenize the Bulgarian children. In addition to this, the Greek clergy were required by the Turks to gather taxes from the Bulgarian people, which was done with the help of force from the local authorities. All this evoked great resentment towards the Greeks among the Bulgarians. The Ottomans knew well that this arrangement would both weaken the Orthodox Faith and prevent the countries from uniting and overthrowing Turkish rule.

Against the Muslim authorities there were numerous rebellions and uprisings, each of which was followed by savage reprisals. The Islamic rulers shed rivers of Christian blood, thus sending a tremendous host of Bulgarian martyrs through the heavenly gates. Some examples of the New Martyrs of Bulgaria are St. George of Kratovo and Sofia (+1515), St. Nicholas of Sofia (+1555, see his icon on the back cover), St. Bessarion, Bishop of Smolyan (+1670), St. Damascene of Gabrovo (+1771), St. Zlata of Meglin (+1795), St. John the Bulgarian (+1814), St. Ignatius of Stara Zagora (+1814), St. Onuphrius of Gabrovo (+1818), and many others. Very often as a result of these reprisals, large numbers of the simple Bulgarian people emigrated to nearby countries such as Russia and Romania. It was not until the mid-18th century and the labors of St: Paisius of Chilandar (+1798) and his disciples--among whom were Roman of Gabrovo and Spiridon of Rila--that a great national uprising in Bulgaria began, in which the Bulgarians consciously reclaimed their national and spiritual heritage. After several decades the Bulgarian Orthodox Church regained its status as autocephalous (1871), and the Bulgarian nation achieved independence from the Ottoman Turks (1876).

5. The "Third Bulgarian Kingdom" to the Present (19th to 21st Centuries)

With its independence from the Ottomans, Bulgaria took possession of all its churches, restoring those that had been converted to mosques back to functioning churches. Most of the monasteries were also restored, and monasticism for a time experienced a promising growth. This period of time came to be known as "The Third Bulgarian Kingdom." The spiritual renewal that took place then is especially evident in the missionary and monastic labors of the "Damaskinari" fathers such as Nicephorus and Theophan of Rila and the priest Theodore of Vratsa. These fathers brought the Faith of Christ back to the simple people of Bulgaria after the spiritual drought caused by the Ottoman yoke. The Church regained some of its influence in almost all aspects of the Bulgarian people's life. However, this was abruptly cut off after the Second World War and the coming of Communism to Bulgaria.

During a period of forty-five years after World War II, the Bulgarian Church was under the direct control of the Communist government and Church life as such was almost nonexistent. Some churches and monasteries were converted to museums, a typical example being the famous Rila monastery of St. John, which for centuries had been the main source of the Orthodox spiritual identity and the ascetic life of the Bulgarian people. Priests or laity who consciously and actively pursued the Orthodox way of life, and especially those who were involved in missionary work, were persecuted and imprisoned. Nevertheless, God raised up spiritual lights for the Bulgarians in the 20th century, among whom are Archbishops Seraphim (Sobelev) and Parthenius of Levka, and Archimandrites Seraphim (Alexiev), Methodius and Sergius (the latter is still alive).

Since the fall of the Communist government in Bulgaria in 1989, the situation of the Church has changed dramatically. The Bulgarian people are again free to practice the Faith of their fathers. While the Bulgarian Church still has some problems with the present government related to the lands, forests and properties of the Church which had been confiscated during the Communist era, most of her religious centers have been returned, including the churches and monasteries that were under direct government control. Some of the churches are presently being restored, mostly by the efforts and donations of ordinary laymen. Monastic life is beginning to send up its shoots once again, and already monks and nuns have begun to populate the large abandoned monasteries (such as the famous Kelipharevo, Sokolov and Troyan Monasteries), assisted in their labors of maintenance and restoration by the local villagers. The world-famous Rila Monastery is again a functioning monastery, with a handful of monastics living the ascetic life. In some areas the spiritual revival is truly awe-inspiring, such as that which is taking place in and around the town of Asenovgrad. In this town of perhaps forty thousand people, all eleven churches have been or are being restored and are fully functioning, while forty chapels are also being restored at the present time. People are following the feasts and fasts according to the Church's calendar, and young people are again seen going on pilgrimage to the monasteries. According to the prophecy of the Protomartyr of Bulgaria, Prince Enravota-Boyan, the sign of the Cross is being planted everywhere. Temples to God are being raised, and pure priests are purely serving the pure God, bringing glorious sacrifices to the Life-creating Trinity.

~Monk Nicodemus

Originally published in the 2002 St. Herman Calendar
St. Herman Press, Platina, CA

Copyright 2002 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood; used with permission




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