We usually think of Bulgaria as a Greek Orthodox country. So it is. But it also has a small but centuries old Latin Catholic minority of 70,000. Bulgaria cast its lot with Nazi Germany in World War II, and when conquered by the Russians in 1944, it was promptly sovietized. The Latin Catholics stood firm under both its Nazi and the Soviet regimes.
Vincent Eugene Bossilkov, a Bulgarian cradle Catholic who became bishop of the Catholic diocese of Nikopol, represents well the Christian spirit of this Bulgarian Catholic group.
Vincent Bossilkov was born in Belene, Bulgaria, on November 16, 1900, the son of a peasant couple. At age 11 he entered the minor seminary, conducted at Oresc by the Passionist Fathers. His teachers saw in this talented youngster the signs of a priestly vocation, so they sent him to school in Belgium and the Netherlands. He was admitted to the Passionists in 1919, and took his first vows in 1920 and his final vows in 1923. He then returned to Bulgaria for his theological studies and was ordained to the priesthood in 1926. (Thus was fulfilled his mother’s hope. As a child, Vincent had fallen into the turbulent Danube and almost drowned. In thanks for his rescue, Beatrice Bossilkov had consecrated him to God.) After ordination he was sent to Rome for further studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. His dissertation for the doctorate of theology was on the history of relations between Bulgaria and the popes.
Father Eugene of the Sacred Heart (his official Passionist religious name), could have become an “office priest” after his ordination, but being more pastoral in disposition he asked to be assigned to a busy parish at Bardaski Gheran. There he proved to be an ideal pastor, educator and ecumenist. An arresting speaker, he was called upon in 1938 to deliver the key address at the 250th commemoration of Bulgaria’s uprising against the Mohammedan Turks. During the early years of World War II, this ecumenically popular priest did much to save the Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis.
When Soviet Russia conquered Bulgaria in 1944, its over-lords devised a new national constitution that aimed at extinguishing religion, particularly Catholicism. Father Bossilkov was appointed Bishop of Nikopol in 1947. Soviet Bulgaria permitted him to go to Rome on his ad limina visit in 1948. He saw Pope Pius XII, and the Pope comforted him and encouraged him as he returned to his frightened flock.
Courage was certainly needed. Once the new constitution was in force, the government began to suppress every Catholic church organization, confiscate all church property, and expel all non-Bulgarian missionaries. Religious orders were abolished, and all their members dispersed. The Communists tried to set up a “national”, popeless, Catholic church that they could control. They even offered the Bishop the chance of heading it. But Bossilkov insisted that the faithful maintain their full communion with Rome.
Matters came to a head m summer 1952. The Bishop and twenty-nine other clerics and ten leading Catholic laymen were arrested and jailed in mid-July. The state-controlled press announced that Bossilkov and others were to be tried for a number of crimes against the nation. As usual, his interrogators used many sorts of psychological and physical torture. The Soviet-style “showtrial” took place in Sofia, September 29 to October 11, 1952. News of the arrest and projected trial reached other countries and called forth international protest. Pope Pius XII denounced this “wave of terror”. U.S. President Harry S. Truman objected in the name of humanity. Cardinal lldefonso Schuster of Milan compared the persecution to those of ancient pagan Rome.
Undeterred, the Bulgarian officials carried the trial through. They assigned graded penalties to most of the clergy and lay prisoners; but the Bishop and three Augustinian priests they condemned to death for “spying and diversionary activities for the Vatican.” Then there was silence. Not until 1975 was the Pope informed by a Bulgarian official that the Bishop had been executed in prison.
Bulgarian Catholics had known this earlier. The Bishop’s niece, Sister Gabriela Bossilkov, had visited him in prison. She last saw him alive, chained hand and foot, on October 6, 1952. On that occasion she told him that a friend had recommended that he ask for mercy. “No,” he answered; “I feel the Lord had given me the grace to accept death … But take courage and never fear. Our Lady will never abandon you. Greet my brothers and all my friends, and tell them I have not betrayed the Church: nor the Holy Father, nor the Apostolic Delegate.” When visiting the jail on November 11, his niece was shown a statement: “Bossilkov, executed the 11th November 1952. But, the jailer would not tell her the location of “a tomb for spies.” The government had meanwhile spread the rumor that Bossilkov had not been shot, but sent to Siberia as a prisoner.
Though he was hailed as a martyr from the start by those who knew him, the Bishop’s beatification and that of the three Augustinian priests was delayed because of lack of information and political caution. Eventually it was decided not to wait until further information was available about the three priests. Pope John Paul II declared Bishop Bossilkov “blessed” on March 15, 1992. In beatifying at St.Peter’s this first martyr from behind the Iron Curtain, the pope read this passage from one of Blessed Eugene’s last letters: “I have the courage to live; I hope I will also have it to suffer the worst and to stay faithful to Christ, to the Pope and to the Church.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara