Monseigneur Roncalli and Bulgaria

Bulgaria-Italy Survey » SOCIETY | Author: Kiril Plamen Kartalov |June 3, 2011, Friday // 11:24
Bulgaria: Monseigneur Roncalli and Bulgaria Pope John XXIII. Photo from Wikipedia

Article by Kiril Plamen Kartaloff for the "International Survey: Bulgaria-Italy" of (Sofia News Agency).

Kiril Plamen Kartaloff is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of Milan. He is the author of Papal Diplomacy (Sofia 2009) and Paradigms of Political Science (Sofia 2010). He is also the editor of the Bulgarian edition of the Breviarium Politicorum Secundum Rubricas Mazarinicas (Sofia 2010).


Due to the impossibility for the present paper to present in detail the various aspects and issues in terms of Angelo Roncalli's 10-year stay in Bulgaria (1925-1934) – years of great importance to the future John XXIII – I aim to outline briefly some significant stages of his mission.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in Sotto il Monte (Bergamo) on the 25th October 1881. He grew up in a family of servants with patriarchic views and modest financial affordability. In 1892, with the help (incl. financial) of the parson F. Rebuzzini, whose death in 1898 left him with the book De Imitatione Christi – a major source of Roncalli's spiritual life – he was granted admission to study in the Seminary in Bergamo, where he put on the ecclesiastical robe in 1895.

This was the year when the young Roncalli, barely 14 years of age started to write his "spiritual notes", (entitled in 1902 Il Giornale dell'Anima and published posthumously in 1964), which he stopped writing a year before his demise. In 1900 he was granted a scholarship to study in Apollinare, the Pope Seminary in Rome, just to continue his studies in theology that had been suspended between 1901 and 1902 due to his military conscription in Bergamo. On 13th July 1904 he graduated in Theology and went on to study Law in Apollinare. However, in 1905, before his graduation, he was summoned in Bergamo as a secretary to the new Bishop Monseigneur G. R. Tedeschi, where he held the post until Tedeschi's death in 1914.

He started his conscription in May 1915 as a sergeant. As of 28th March 1916 he was a military priest (chaplain), never setting foot on the battlefield.

At the beginning of 1921, Cardinal G. Van Rossum summoned him in Rome to entrust him with the chairmanship of the central committee of the Opera della Propagazione della Fede in Italy. In 1925 the Pope Pius XI appointed Roncalli an apostolic visitor in Bulgaria granting him the title Bishop of Aeropolis in Palestine. What might have seemed a temporary mission ended up as the beginning of his diplomatic career, keeping him in Sofia for a decade, taking him to Istanbul in 1935 and eventually, in 1945 to Paris, where he was in charge of the prestigious Nunciature in France, traditionally regarded as "cardinal".

Monseigneur Roncalli first arrived in the Bulgarian capital on 25th April 1925. His mission was to enforce the local Catholic Church; to visit catholic refugees from Thrace and Macedonia that had found haven in Bulgaria; to help Bulgarian catholic people with Orthodox religious beliefs elect a Bishop; to establish the Seminary for the education of the Bulgarian Clergy; to care for the church brotherhoods1. Monseigneur Roncalli's action plan was at first a temporary mission, part of the big plan of Pius XI to awake the Catholicism in the East – both the Slavonic and the Mediterranean.

For six consecutive years, the visitor conducted this activity, being familiar with Bulgaria and mostly with the catholic communities, which consisted of about 35000 laity, the majority being of Latin origin and mainly connected with the diplomatic services of the western forces (predominantly French), and one "uniat" minority, treated with hostility by the Latin as well as the Orthodox faiths.

Monseigneur Roncalli was struck during his first visits by the poor state of church activity in Bulgaria and by the country's poverty as a whole2. This motivated him to take care of separate individuals, but also to be actively involved in dealing with natural disasters, such as the earthquake of April 1928, when he found himself side by side with the victims of the disaster, setting up "Pope canteens" trying to help catholic and orthodox church followers.

In 1931, after six years of hard work, Monseigneur Roncalli was appointed an apostolic delegate – a permanent representative of the Holy See in a certain country, but without a diplomatic function (as a nuncio). The objections to the institution of a permanent representative of the Holy See stemmed not from the Bulgarian Government, but rather from the Bulgarian Orthodox church, which was beginning to question the function of a Pope delegate in a non-catholic state. It feared that formal relationships could be established and also a possible concordat between The Vatican and Sofia, which would eventually try to challenge Bulgaria as an Orthodox country.

Monseigneur Roncalli was close to the Bulgarian Tsar Boris, whom he contacted directly throughout the whole period of his stay in Bulgaria, and even afterwards. After a meeting with the Bulgarian monarch on 21st February 1928 Monseigneur Roncalli stated in a note: "As always, the tsar is really benevolent and cordial... so great is his admiration for Rome and everything he has seen in the Vatican...He was clear in his agreement and high appreciation of the directives that I follow. In a number of occasions he highlighted his delight in my tactfulness and good manners that I try to attach to my work and my relations with everyone. He has many times spoken highly on that particular matter. As for the orthodox way of thinking, which here combines religion and nation, he has said that a century's time of work is needed for it to be changed and considered. On the whole, the meeting with him inspired me to continue my service here following the same criteria that have guided me in my judgments so far. All the time, the conversation had an air of gaiety and mutual trust with ever so spiritual repartee at times. Tsar Boris seemed to me as charming as ever"3.

This relationship between the representative of the Pope and the Bulgarian monarch did not change even after the "incident" concerning the tsar wedding, which was the most impressive episode of the Bulgarian experience of Monseigneur Roncalli. In 1927, the tsar met Princess Giovanna of Savoy, daughter of Victor Emmanuel III, and expressed his wish to marry her. The marriage would bind the Bulgarian monarch family with the Savoy Family at the same time taking further and consolidating the relationships between Bulgaria and Italy.

It is in the 1920s and 1930s when Sofia was often visited by Italians, who had their own Italian club and schools4. Don F. Galloni, a priest from Brescia, established Opera Pro Oriente with the greatest fondness towards the Bulgarian national confidence. After the Soviet occupation Don Galloni stayed in the Bulgarian capital as the regent of the Apostolic Government until 1949, when he was expelled by the communist government. In 1929 Italo Balbo flew over Bulgaria with his squadron of 35 aircraft, giving a special demonstration in the skies over Varna5.

In the port of Varna, the cruiser Quarto of the Italian naval forces threw its anchor and Monseigneur Roncalli performed prayer liturgies on board. Indeed, within the tokens of respect of the Italian authorities towards Bulgaria, the role of the high Italian priest was definitely of certain interest. The Italian diplomats in Sofia treated with utmost care his personality bearing in mind that his activities could contribute to the expansion of the Italian presence in the country6.

The marriage of the tsar faced the issue of the religious belonging. The Holy See, in order to give its consent to a marriage of the catholic princess to an orthodox groom demanded of the latter to baptize and raise his children in the faith of the Roman church. This contradicted with the will of the Orthodox Church and the public opinion. The greatest setback in this case was Article 38 of the Constitution, which stated: "Le Roi ne peut professer aucune autre religion que la religion orthodoxe". Hence many controversial issues and unfulfilled requirements.

Monseigneur Roncalli was supposed to mediate in this problem between Pius XI and the Bulgarian monarch. The Holy See had no intention to concede let alone give up its duty to baptize and bring up children of mixed marriages as Catholics. On 25th October 1930 Giovanna and Boris married in Assisi. The mixed catholic marriage, sanctified in the Basilica in Assisi, concealed the "imaginary plan of the Vatican to turn Bulgaria to the Roman Church using dynasties"7.

The tsar seemed to fully accept the view of the Holy See, just happy to have the coronation ritual in Sofia. In fact, having just returned to Sofia, the tsar couple received not only the orthodox blessings and the ritual of coronation. The act of marrying was actually doubled in an Orthodox church, which was a violation of the duty that Tsar Boris had promised to keep before that. Pius XI made a formal complaint about the actions of the Bulgarian authorities. The marriage of the Royal members turned into a serious issue of the state as it was an incident in the relationships between the Vatican and Bulgaria.

The second unpleasant incident occurred when the first child Maria Louisa was born. Roncalli reminded that a Catholic baptism should be performed in compliance with the duties negotiated at the moment of matrimony. However, the princess was christened by metropolitan Stefan in the Orthodox tradition. The situation came to an open fight between the apostolic delegate, who protested in the name of Boris's duties in this matter, and the Bulgarian press, which supported the orthodox character of the Tsar's family.

The years spent by Roncalli in Bulgaria were also years when the closeness with the Orthodox Christians stimulated him to demand unity of the Christians. Roncalli took to heart the need of a bond between Catholics and Orthodox followers as he wrote: "Catholics and the Orthodox Christians are not enemies but brothers. They have the same faith, share the same sacraments, most of all the Eucharist. We are kept apart by misunderstandings connected with the holy creation of the church of Christ. The authors of these misunderstandings have been now gone for centuries. Let's abandon the ancient arguments and work in our spheres so that we could make our brothers better people by offering them our best examples...and although we have so far followed different paths, we shall no doubt meet in the unity of our churches to create, all of us together, the true and unified Church of our God Jesus Christ".

In 1934, when he was about to leave Bulgaria, in his Christmas mass, Roncalli turned to the Bulgarians with the touching words that stirred everyone: "My dear brothers, does anyone know the ways of the future? Wherever I live in the world, if someone from Bulgaria happens to pass by my home at night, amidst the hard times of life, he or she will find a light on for them. Let this Bulgarian knock, they will not be asked a catholic or orthodox Christian. Brother of Bulgaria, just come in, two brotherly arms and a burning heart of a friend will solemnly meet you"8.

As a token of his friendship with the Bulgarians Roncalli changed his Archbishop's name: "I shall from now on be called not Archbishop of Aeropolis, but Archbishop of Mesembria. Thus, my memories of Bulgaria will be daily. And my love will come as many times during the solemn mass as I raise my hand to bless the people or when my hand rests on paper to sign a document. But you too, my brothers keep the memory of me alive, for a friend forever I shall be, a true friend of Bulgaria9.

During the departing meeting with Monseigneur Roncalli the tsar's wife Giovanna said these words of prophecy: "My husband and I will come to the Vatican and greet you as a Pope"10. Reflecting on the memory of this meeting Roncalli wrote in his diary: "God bless women, all of them dreamers! Even the so kind Giovanna has foreseen my duty as a Pope"11.

On 28th October 1958 the white smoke gave its sign in favor of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. After his election John XXIII accepted Giovanna on 8th November. The meeting was full of memories, cordiality and excitement. The tsar's wife addressed the Pope with the words: "Your Holiness, my wish to you of 3rd January 1935 has come true. Back then I and my husband promised...Here I am, alas without Boris, but with all my and my children Maria Louisa and Simeon's best wishes"12.

The extraordinary stature of Monseigneur Roncalli, shaped in Bulgaria, was transparent in his words and deeds. He was a strong personality, open-hearted, sincere, gifted to help as a human and using encouraging words; kind, open, modest and peaceful, trustworthy and inspiring optimism. А remarkable trait in Roncalli's character was his humility and modesty – inherent and spontaneous but consciously sought: "I leave the generous meanness to all the rest, the so-called diplomatic flexibility, and continue to indulge in my benevolence and simplicity of feelings, words and behavior" – he wrote in his diary of withdrawal in 194713. Cardinal Lercaro stated that Roncalli's modesty was not naive, not to speak of "evangelistic lack of spirituality", but a robe of culture – a result of great experience and a long, humble and diligent reflection...14.

This reflection, this mind processing continued for decades up until the last months of his life "combining miraculously with his in-born and brought up talents of realistic thinking, relevance, deep optimism and visionary, upbeat, unbiased open and lovingly insight into different environments and moments that the Providence had given him the chance to come to know"15.

1 See Istruzioni per l' e Mons. Visitatore Apostolico della Bulgaria, 3 aprile 1925, in Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio della Delegazione Apostolica in Bulgaria, busta 2, 6 pp. ds.

2 See Relazione della visita apostolica alle missioni latine della Bulgaria inviata a Propaganda Fide, 24 febbraio 1926, ASV, Arch. Deleg. Bulgaria, b. 2, 115 pp. ds.

3 ASV, Arch. Deleg. Bulgaria, b. 13, fasc. 1, f. 12v.

4 See A. Riccardi, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, un diplomatico vaticano, in Un cristiano sul trono di Pietro. Studi storici su Giovanni XXIII, a cura della Fondazione per le scienze religiose Giovanni XXIII di Bologna, 2003, p. 188.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 189.

7 A. Melloni, Papa Giovanni. Un cristiano e il suo concilio, Giulio Einaudi editore, Torino, 2009, p. 153.

8 F. Della Salda, Obbedienza e pace. Il vescovo A. G. Roncalli tra Sofia e Roma 1925-1934, Marietti, Genova, 1989, p. 262.

9 Ibid.

10 LaF, 8 gennaio 1935.

11 M. Roncalli, Giovanni XXIII. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Una vita nella storia, Mondadori, Milano, 2006, p. 222.

12 Ibid., p. 667, n. 89.

13 Giovanni XXIII, Il Giornale dell'Anima. Soliloqui, note e diari spirituali, edizione critica e annotazione a cura di Alberto Melloni, Fondazione per le scienze religiose Giovanni XIII, Bologna, 1987, p. 392.

14 See Card. G. Lercaro, Giovanni XXIII. Linee per una ricerca storica, Roma, 1965, p. 23.

15 Ibid.

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