Wrapping up a busy first day in Bulgaria, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for the nation’s small Catholic population, telling them not to get bogged down by past failures but to allow God to beckon and surprise them, remembering his call is rooted in love.
Speaking to those gathered for his Mass in Sofia’s Knyaz Alexandar I square, Francis said God both calls and surprises his people, “Because God loves. Love is his language. That is why he asks Peter, and us, to learn that language,” he said, referring to the day’s Gospel scene in which Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”
After spending so much time with Jesus, Peter in saying yes finally understands that “to love means to stop putting himself at the center.”
After landing in Sofia in the morning, Francis met with Bulgarian authorities, including a private meeting with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who leads a coalition with a strong anti-immigrant stance, and held a meeting with Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Neophyte.
Prior to Mass, Francis prayed the traditional Marian Regina Coeli prayer, recited during the liturgical Easter season instead of the Angelus, offering the prayer in front of the icon of Our Lady of Nessebar, meaning “Gate of Heaven,” and which was a devotion close to Saint John XXIII, who before becoming pope served as the Vatican’s apostolic delegate in Bulgaria for nearly a decade.
In his address, Francis stressed that Jesus Christ is alive and never abandons his people, regardless of their shortcomings and failures.
“This faith in Christ, risen from the dead, has been proclaimed for two thousand years in every part of the world, thanks to the generous missionary effort of so many believers, called to give themselves completely and selflessly to the spread of the Gospel,” he said, and pointed to the example of St. John XXIII and his efforts toward ecumenism.
He spoke of his activities with members of the Orthodox church while in Bulgaria, which, while being a majority Orthodox country, “is a crossroads where various religious expressions encounter one another and engage in dialogue.”
In his homily for Mass, attended by Bulgaria’s small minority Catholic population, Francis focused on the Gospel scene in which Jesus, after his resurrection, reveals himself to his disciples after a night of unsuccessful fishing. Not only does he work a miracle by filling their nets with fish, but afterward he challenges Peter, asking him three times, “Do you love me?”
Though Jesus had called the disciples to be fishers of men at the beginning of his ministry, after witnessing Jesus die and be placed into the tomb, Peter goes back to his former life of fishing, and the other disciples follow.
“They seem to take a step backwards,” Francis said. “The weight of suffering, disappointment, and of betrayal had become like a stone blocking the hearts of the disciples. They were still burdened with pain and guilt, and the good news of the resurrection had not taken root in their hearts.”
Going backwards like this reveals a certain “nostalgia for the past” and a “tomb psychology” which “tinges everything with dejection and leads us to indulge in a soothing sense of self-pity that, like a moth, eats away at all our hope,” preferring to give up rather than continue forward.
“Then the worst thing that can happen to any community begins to appear - the grim pragmatism of a life in which everything appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness,” the pope said.
However, he noted that after Peter’s denial, Jesus comes to Peter again and reminds him of the first call. God, he said, doesn’t expect to encounter people without problems or limitations, but he calls them and encourages them to persevere.
“His is the power of a Love that overturns every expectation and is always ready to start anew,” and which not only invites people to be surprised, “but also to do surprising things.”
“He is the Lord of surprises, who breaks down paralyzing barriers by filling us with the courage needed to overcome the suspicion, mistrust and fear that so often lurk behind the mindset that says, ‘We have always done things this way,’” he said, adding that God ultimately calls and surprises his disciples because he loves them.
This love, he said, is a source of strength that believers must renew each day, and which is capable of overcoming one’s shortcomings and sins.
“Today we are called to lift up our eyes and acknowledge what the Lord has done in the past, and to walk with him towards the future, knowing that, whether we succeed or fail, he will always be there to keep telling us to cast our nets,” Francis said.
Quoting his new post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit, the pope said love, particularly a love which is young in spirit, is an invitation for believers “to testify to the love of Christ, a love that inspires and directs us to strive for the common good.”
This love, he said, then enables one to serve the poor and to become protagonists of “the revolution of charity and service, capable of resisting the pathologies of consumerism and superficial individualism.”
Francis closed his homily with a mandate to Catholics in Sofia: “Brimming with the love of Christ, be living witnesses of the Gospel in every corner of this city.”