Pope Francis led an open-air Mass in Sofia on Sunday and met the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the first leg of a three-day trip to the Balkans.
Pope Francis met with Patriarch Neofit at the headquarters of the Holy Synod, the Bulgarian church's governing body, before praying alone in the Orthodox cathedral. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had ruled out interfaith prayers or services with Pope Francis.
Thousands of people attended the Mass in Prince Alexander I Square.
In North Macedonia, the pontiff is to visit the Memorial House of Mother Teresa in the capital, Skopje. Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Skopje, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
The refugee issue
In a meeting with government officials on Sunday, Pope Francis urged Bulgarians to open their hearts and homes to "well-meaning migrants" and recognize they were fleeing war and poverty "to find new opportunities in life or simply a safe refuge."
"To all Bulgarians who are familiar with the drama of emigration, I respectfully suggest that you not close your eyes, your hearts or your hands – in accordance with your best tradition – to those who knock at your door," Francis told officials at the presidential palace in Sofia.
"Your land has always proven to be a bridge between east and west," the pontiff added, referring to the refugee crisis that saw millions of people fleeing the war-ravaged Middle East and North African countries to seek safety in Europe.
But there is a considerable opposition to refugees in Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest member state. Its center-right coalition government includes three nationalist, anti-migrant parties, and has sealed off the country's border to Turkey with a barbed-wire fence. It also wants the European Union to close all borders to migrants.
Read more: Refugees' suffering grows in Bulgaria
At the same time, the country's population is dwindling. According to the UN, Bulgaria's current population of 7 million is expected to shrink to 5.4 million by 2050 and 3.9 million by the end of the century. Analysts say the country may need more immigration to stabilize its economy.
Referring to the population crisis, the pope told Bulgarian officials that they need to "deal with what can only be called a new winter: the demographic winter that has descended like an ice curtain on a large part of Europe."
Francis, who is the second pontiff to visit Bulgaria after Pope John Paul II in 2002, is also seeking to build new paths of dialogue with the Orthodox Church, whose relations with the Catholic Church are cordial but not particularly warm.
The pontiff says the "wounds" of division caused by the 1,000-year-old schism in Christianity would be healed "with the help of God, and in his good time, these contacts will have a positive effect on many other dimensions of our dialogue."
The pope's trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia remains a delicate issue. US media cited the vice director of the US bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs as saying that Pope Francis may need to be particularly careful and navigate many potential "minefields."
But Orthodox theologist Bojidar Andonov said the visit was likely to "draw greater attention to our country," adding that his Bulgarian compatriots admired the pope's compassion for the weakest members of society.
The pope is a role model for many people in Bulgaria in terms of "his leadership of and service to the church, and also with regard to our metropolitan bishops," Andonov told DW.
shs/jm (AP, dpa)