- La sollecitudine ecclesiale di Monsignor Roncalli in Bulgaria (1925–1934). Studio storico-diplomatico alla luce delle nuove fonti archivistiche by Kiril Plamen Kartaloff
On March 28, 1959, in his first Easter message to the world, Pope John XXIII looked back with some nostalgia over the events of his life that had led to the papal office. He knew that his ministry embraced all the peoples of the earth. Nevertheless, he confessed that he felt a “particularly warm tenderness” for Bulgaria where he had spent the “most vigorous years” of his life, 1925 to 1934. He recalled with great affection “that fine, hard-working, honest, and sincere people, and their beautiful capital, Sofia.”1
In this new book Kiril Plamen Kartaloff, a Bulgarian historian of Vatican diplomacy and correspondent of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, examines the ten years that Angelo Roncalli spent as the papal representative in Orthodox Bulgaria, first as apostolic visitator (1925–31) and then as apostolic delegate (1931–34). Drawing on a wealth of documentary evidence only recently made available by the Vatican Secret Archives and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Kartaloff paints a very detailed picture of the complex problems that Roncalli faced during his years in this Balkan kingdom.
As the first papal representative in Bulgaria, Roncalli’s initial mission was to oversee the reorganization of the Catholic Church there and to provide for the appointment of a bishop for the small Catholic community of the Byzantine rite. He would also help to establish the first Catholic seminary in the country and, when the time came, to find a suitable building to house the offices of the apostolic delegate.
But the most difficult issues concerned the religiously diverse royal family. King Boris III (1894–1943) was baptized Catholic but became Orthodox upon accession to the throne because the Bulgarian constitution required it. He eventually was able to marry Princess Giovanna of Italy (1907–2000) at the basilica in Assisi with the permission of Pope Pius XI, on the conditions that they would not remarry in an Orthodox ceremony and that any children would be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. But when the couple returned to Sofia, they attended [End Page 176] a liturgy in the Orthodox cathedral that had all the hallmarks of a second wedding. To make matters worse, the couple’s first child, Marie Louise (b. 1930), was baptized into the Orthodox Church in clear violation of the promises made at the time of the royal marriage. This caused consternation in Rome, and Pius XI publicly denounced King Boris at a consistory in March 1933. (Roncalli had managed to convince the pope that Queen Giovanna was innocent in this matter.)
During these royal crises, Roncalli stayed in very close personal contact with the main actors. Even though he did not have any previous training in diplomacy, he presented the position of the Holy See clearly and firmly while also maintaining a friendly and respectful relationship with his interlocutors. This comes across clearly in the lengthy and sometimes verbatim quotations that Kartaloff provides from reports sent by Roncalli to the Secretariat of State on crucial conversations with the king and government ministers.
Biographers of John XXIII have often asserted that through his service in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, he grew to appreciate the traditions of the Orthodox churches and that this explains why he made Christian unity one of the central concerns of the Second Vatican Council. The evidence that Kartaloff gathers shows that, while in Bulgaria, Roncalli shared the “unionist” approach of the times and encouraged the Orthodox to “return to Catholic unity.” Even so, he eschewed the standard reference to the Orthodox as schismatics, and called them “separated brethren.” He insisted that they were separated from Rome, not from Christ. “Catholics and Orthodox are not enemies but brothers,” he wrote in 1926...