Today I was given a special gift: a tiny piece of black cloth, stitched onto a small cloth with little flowers, all set into a gold ring with a glass cover. It is a second-class relic (something worn by or used by a saint), of Blessed Eugene Bossilkov, one of my great personal heroes.
Bl. Eugene Bossilkov, with home parish in Rousse behind him
He was the Latin-rite bishop of Nikopolis in Bulgaria. I’ve always had a special affection for that small state, for over 40 years. I think it is because I read Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul, his autobiography, and he wrote about going there as Apostolic Delegate. He was then Bishop Angelo Roncalli, in the Vatican diplomatic service.
When he went, the majority Orthodox Church wanted nothing to do with Catholics, and especially the pope’s representative. During his service, the Bulgarian tsar married an Italian princess, and their children were raised Orthodox, despite an agreement that they would receive Catholic Sacraments. The Roman Catholics were a small minority, but very patriotic. The Byzantine Catholic Bulgarians were even smaller, and patriotic, but incredibly poor.
To everyone’s surprise, Msgr. Roncalli was a great success. It turned out that “Roncalli” is a Bulgarian name, and the locals thought that his ancestors might have been part of the exodus of Catholics who fled Bulgaria after the Chiprovtsi Uprising of 1688 against the Ottoman Turks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiprovtsi_Uprising and suddenly the Apostolic Delegate was a son of Bulgaria. This popularity and his own humility and gentleness and generosity helped him in serving the Byzantine Catholics, the Church to which I was being drawn as a young teenaged boy who definitely wanted Catholic priesthood (I’m told since I was three years old) yet wanted to be connected with the Catholic East.
And here I met some of the most poignant figures, the Byzantine Catholic Bulgarians who were driven out of their homes in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and accepted exile and refugee camps rather than give up their allegiance to the successor of Peter, the Pope. So John XXIII gave me an introduction to a little-known chapter of my still little-known Byzantine Catholic Churches, the Bulgarians, and now through the internet I know those Carmelite and Eucharistine Nuns who were driven out of their monasteries and who refused to abandon Byzantine Catholicism.
Blessed Eugene Bossilkov was a Roman Catholic Bulgarian, consecrated a bishop in 1947. He was a Passionist, a member of that missionary order dedicated to Jesus’ saving Passion, which is another devotion of mine. He went to Rome in 1948 for his ad limina visit to Pope Pius XII, and many urged him to stay abroad, and accept exile. But he returned, and was pressured to break with Rome and found a national Bulgarian Catholic church, free of papal control. He refused, and was convicted in a show trial. He was shot with several priests and other Bulgarians, and no one knows where their bodies are, even today. When his weeping niece was given back his possessions at the prison gate, the guard whispered “Don’t cry, he was a good man.” For a communist soldier to say that, the bishop had obviously made a deep impression.
For more, go to: http://www.cptryon.org/cpexams/bossilkov/bio.html
Short biography, Bulgarian State Police statement on his innocence, sermon of Bl. John Paul II at beatification in Bulgaria (all English) http://passionistcharism.wordpress.com/blessed-eugene-bossilkov-cp/
Bulgaria was so cut off from the world, that only in 1975 did Pope Paul VI find out that he was dead, and that was by asking Marshal Josip Tito of Yugoslavia the blunt question “Where is Bossilkov.” “Dead”, but even Tito did not know the date (Nov. 11, 1952). Janice Broun wrote eloquently of the Bulgarian Catholics (1984) struggling in isolation with no seminary, police at the doors of the churches, priests living in shacks, and Carmelite nuns crammed into a church choir loft and attic: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/rcl/11-3_310.pdf Yet they endured.
American Catholics talk now of possible religious persecution, because of the mandate to provide Catholic-insurance provided sterilization, abortifacent pills, and contraceptives. The ins and outs of that are still going on and I want to write more soon. But I will write this: once you let the State step into the doorway of religious freedom, and let the State give mandates that contradict a faith’s teachings, it is very hard to shut that door again. It was the mistake of the English and Welsh bishops with Henry VIII when he demanded their support for his break with the Pope in 1535, because they had not stood up for Catholic teaching on marriage and loyalty to the successor of Peter. They had not stood up any of the previous seven statutes that slowly changed England from Mary’s Dowry to a schismatic Church ( cf. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05445a.htm especially paragraphs 4-6, and watch EWTN’s new series on Mondays).
And because of that, people were confused as to what to do because the bishops did not speak up, and those revolts that did rise were undone by royal betrayal and foolish nobles more eager for monastic land than their own souls.
So: I have this tiny piece of cassock. From a bishop who knew the dangers right away, and who stood up, and spoke, and knew the power of upcoming torture: “do not believe them if they say that I have broken with the pope. ”
Where did this little piece go with Bishop Bossilkov? Over there, clergy usually wear cassocks under their vestments – did it witness his Masses? Did it go around the house and offices? Did it go on his visits to parishes, visits where police agents were always present?
What has this piece of cassock heard? Did it hear people talking with their bishop about their souls, about their hopes for their children, about their fears in a country changing so rapidly from peasant-supported kingdom to Soviet-ruled police state? Was it in his room when he prayed? Did it hear his prayers? Did it feel his sweat as he worked and worried, or his tears when he prayed?
For each of us, days come when we have to take a stand on something that we know violates our Catholic Faith. It could be a racist joke, a sexist comment, a story mocking priests or Sisters. It can be worse than that. It can even be the simple invitation to a Sunday morning brunch with no chance of going to Mass and we say, “Oh, God will understand” with a laugh as we shut the house door and go to one banquet rather than go to the Eucharistic Banquet. And that Sunday leads to other Sundays and we miss the Mass, and Communions, and sermons and bulletin notes that would have given us information to guide our souls, and so we drift — like a dead fish with no direction, we drift. And out the door we go.
Bossilkov did not drift. He spoke, he wrote, he prayed, he suffered – terribly – and he died. And this little piece of black cloth heard it and felt it, until its owner was taken away. Or was it part of the cassock he wore into prison? The one returned to his niece, Sr. Gabriella, with a bloody and torn shirt? Did my tiny piece of a cassock hear and feel its owner in his last days? What is it that I have now in my room? What witness is it?
In July of 1952 he went to the countryside to visit his niece, a Sister, at a house the Church owned, where he could rest. Most of the priests of Plovdiv diocese had been arrested. He wanted to rest before his turn would come, but before he could go back, he was arrested at gunpoint on July 16. In prison he met over 40 priests, Sisters, Nuns, and lay teachers and catechists. Such terrible people, charged with espionage and corrupting Bulgarian youth!
In 2004, I was accused of being an American spy, of using a forged passport, and was ordered out of a car on the Ukrainian border, at gunpoint. One woman soldier was yelling accusations at me, another woman soldier pulled the car door open, and a man soldier stood in front of the back door, blocking the priests from getting out. The Hungarian border was at the end of the bridge, where business was going on normally. Being an American, I was ready to obey the orders of the police and went to get out, while the Ukrainian citizens were yelling at me to get in and the guards moved toward me to pull me.
Now, that was plenty of fright for me, and I knew that the accusations were false, and indeed designed to scare me off from pursuing my research, as everyone in both Ukraine and Hungary later agreed. But we were far from the embassy in Kyiv, and what would happen to me if they pulled me out?
What must it have been to know that the charges are false, by your own countrymen, and knowing that there was no hope of relief, or escape, or of convincing your captors that they were serving an insane system? And to be tortured, torn apart and put back together for more torture, all for nothing, except to praise the name of Jesus and proclaim that you are still a Catholic. THAT is what I write about, and the names of those murdered by insane communism must be remembered, so that the insanity is not repeated by leftists anywhere else, or rightist fascists either. And to draw on their intercession when bravery is needed, and consolation of their life with Christ.
Who knows where this bout of anti-Catholicism, the last acceptable prejudice as Schlesinger called it, is headed? Rash voices call it persecution – for now, it is rank prejudice and hatred, I think. But prejudice goes in bad directions, very fast. So, may we call on the martyrs to guide us so that our speech is honest and authentic. May we call on the martyrs that all American Catholics, 7o% of whom do not go to Mass every week, would be on fire for Christ and His Church. May we call on the martyrs if persecutions begin. And may we keep the State out of religious liberty, and keep that door shut. Once its foot intrudes …. we loses.
Christ is risen. Indeed He is risen.