Pope Francis’ visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia may not be as sensational as his trips to the Arabian Peninsula or the United States. But it reveals much about the similarities in the life stories of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The nine years Roncalli spent as the Vatican’s representative in Bulgaria (1925-34) were a decisive period in the formation of the future Pope John XXIII.
When he arrived in Sofia on April 25, 1925, Bulgaria was a country upset by the political upheavals and on the verge of civil war. The country had just been shaken by two attacks.
The first was a failed assassination attempt against the king. The second, just 10 days before Roncalli’s arrival, was the bombing of the cathedral in Sofia, which killed 128 people.
During his diplomatic mission in Bulgaria, the future pope had the opportunity to learn about Eastern Europe and non-Roman Catholic Christianity; namely, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
But he also gained insight into the complex mix of colonialism connected to Western powers and the Catholic missions. He also began exploring the Muslim world in nearby post-Ottoman Turkey, even before being appointment papal diplomat to Istanbul at the end of 1934.
A future pope’s early rejection of nationalism
Roncalli traveled extensively throughout Bulgaria. This offered him first-hand experience of a reality shaped by historical, political, social and ecclesiastical coordinates of great complexity.
It gave him unique insight into the conflicts between the nations and religions wedged along the frontier of Eastern Europe.
There was Greece to the south, the area of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west, and Soviet Russia to the north.
To the southeast was also the newly emerging Turkey, which was struggling with a social, political and cultural revolution against forced Westernization, made necessary by the end of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I.
All this was part a big geopolitical game for the Churches in the last gasp of the “long nineteenth century,” a period that started with the French Revolution (1789) and ended with the death of Pius XII (1958).
During this period the Church struggled to maintain its social and political standing by compromising with authoritarianism.
After World War I many in the Vatican and in Western Christianity saw an opportunity to occupy the vacuum left in Eastern Europe by the collapse of the empires of Austro-Hungary and Czarist Russia.
But Roncalli saw that linking nationalism with religion, both in the Orthodox East and in the Catholic West, would be a central problem.
As a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, he began rejecting nationalism and the theological and religious expressions used to support it. He developed antibodies against the fusion between nation and religion, between Catholicism and ideology.
This shaped his interpretation of the interwar period, World War II and of the beginning of the Cold War, right up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Roncalli’s aversion to Churches wedded to nationalistic causes became part of the future pope’s world vision.
It was starkly different from those who wished to put political ideologies at the service of the Church, something typical in much of the clerical culture during an era when authoritarianism and fascism reigned in much of Europe.
The spectre of the long nineteenth century
Are we returning to those times? There are certainly warning signs.
Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and strongman of the Italian government, recently visited Hungary and praised its militarized wall to keep out immigrants.
It was part of his ongoing efforts to forge a political alliance with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, another self-professed Christian leader in today’s Europe.
There is also Steve Bannon, the former strategist of Donald Trump, who continues to stir up and encourage populist movements among the people of the Old Continent as they get set to vote later in May for representatives to the European Parliament.
The problem posed by the marriage of the Church and ethno-nationalism is nowhere as evident as in the situation between Russia and the Ukraine. That is why Pope Francis has called Ukrainian Catholic Church leaders to the Vatican next July for an extraordinary meeting on the matter.
All this speaks of a political and religious crisis similar to the one Archbishop Roncalli saw during his time in Bulgaria.
At the political level, support for the liberal and democratic order was collapsing both nationally and internationally, bowing to pressure from a social and economic system that produced inequality.
At the religious level, there was a rise in neo-traditionalism, fundamentalism, intolerance and xenophobia in an effort to justify the defense of the Judeo-Christian roots of the West.
Similarities can be seen in the international political situation of today and that of the 1920s and 30s.
But the position of the Catholic Church today is not that same as it was back then. Church leaders such as Roncalli learned important lessons from that interwar period and from World War II that led to an important shift from previous thinking.
In early 1959, just months after he was elected to the papacy and took the name John XXIII, he announced plans for the Second Vatican Council.
It is thanks to that council and the papal teaching of the last sixty years, that the Catholic Church today is squarely on the side of internationalism and multilateralism and opposed to nationalism and xenophobia.
Today’s Church is in favour of constitutional democracies that respect human rights and religious freedom for all – as we were reminded by the very important document the International Theological Commission recently published on the topic.
But among the differences that distinguish the Church in the 1920s-30s from that of today there is also growing fragmentation.
When Roncalli was a papal diplomat he had to fight against the nationalism and colonialism of missionary religious orders in Bulgaria (especially Italian and French), as well as the delusional attempts to bring Eastern Europe back to Catholicism.
Francis revives the spiritual and political vision of John XXIII
Now the papacy has to fight against nationalism in a Church where lay autonomy makes it obviously impossible to sanction Catholic voters and leaders that embrace nationalism and xenophobia. However, it is clear that the papacy and the Vatican apparatus supporting Pope Francis are not keeping silent.
Several events from the month of May offer a key to understanding Francis’ vision and interpretation of the current moment.
In an important speech on May 2 to members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the pope defended the Catholic concept of the State, including its clear rejection of nationalism.
Two papal trips in May have the aim of sending a clear message on the role the Church is called to play in Europe, different from that of Catholics and other Christians who are trying to manipulate the current moment for political gains.
First, was the May 5-7 visit to Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia. Then, a the end of May and beginning of June, there will be a papal trip to Romania, which will include a visit to an area the country that is home to a large ethnic Hungarian population.
But Francis is not the only voice in the institutional Church that is openly resisting nationalism.
The Holy See’s Secretariat of State and its diplomatic corps, as well as many religious orders, are still a voice of sanity at a time that is witnessing a revival of nationalism within some Catholic intellectual circles, especially in the United States.
Luxembourg’s Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, who is president of the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), recently took a firm stand against the resurgence of nationalism.
“A self-referential Christianity is at risk of adopting this denial of reality and is in peril of creating dynamics that will eventually devour Christianity itself,” he said in the latest issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal vetted by the Vatican.
Hollerich, who is president of an organization that includes bishops from the 28 member states of the European Union, said: “Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin are the priests of these populisms that evoke a false pseudo-religious and pseudo-mystical world, denying the heart of western theology, which is God’s love and love of neighbor.”
Hollerich’s article is among the most important positions that a representative of the Catholic Church has taken on the EU in decades.
It stands in unity with Pope Francis’ attempt to revive the spiritual insight that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli expressed in his famous Pentecost homily of 1944 as apostolic delegate to Turkey during World War II.
Prophetic words from 1944 that are as timely as ever
“We like to distinguish ourselves from those who do not profess our faith or practice our traditions and liturgies: Orthodox brethren, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and believers or non-believers of other religions,” the future pope began.
“My dear brothers and sons, I must tell you that in the light of the Gospel and the Catholic principle, this logic is false,” he then warned.
“Jesus came to tear down walls. He died in order to proclaim universal fraternity. His central teaching is charity.
“Do you think you can barricade yourselves behind your door and say ‘I am Catholic, I think about myself, and I do not care about how others are doing’?
“We are called to live in an age of destruction and hatred, when individual egoism is overruled by nationalistic egoism, with methods that are so brutal that they dishonor the human race. Each and every one of us has to think about how to contribute to the moral reconstruction of this world,” Roncalli said.
It has become commonplace to say that the international political situation may be sliding back to a scenario similar to the 1930s.
Whether this is true or not, the current pontificate has tried to prevent the Church from repeating the mistakes of that era when fear of communism and social disorder pushed the ecclesiastical hierarchies into the arms of nationalist, authoritarian and racist political regimes.
This is why opposition to both John XXIII and Francis is not just theological, but also political. Vatican II continues to stand as the enemy of any new form of Catholic nationalism, both theologically and politically.
There is a danger of returning to the “long nineteenth century” that began with the French Revolution, in which Church teaching refused to acknowledge modernity and engage with the secular world. It was a theological and spiritual paralysis that had huge costs.
As was the case back then, the Church must again make a choice to either follow the Gospel or the current ideologies of the political, economic, and social order. It is a lesson the Roman papacy has learned better than others.
Massimo Faggioli is professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, USA.
This article was published in La Croix International, May 7, 2019.