Pope grieves with Bulgarian Orthodox after Patriarch's death

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Patriarch Maxim of Sophia, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Credit: Иван Иванов via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Pope Benedict XVI sent his condolences to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Tuesday after the death of their Patriarch, Maxim of Sophia.

“On behalf of the Catholic Church, I wish to assure you and all the bishops, priests, and faithful of the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria that I join in prayer in your grief,” read the message sent Nov. 6.

Pope Benedict noted Patriarch Maxim's work for the Church and people of Bulgaria. He remembered the warm reception given to his predecessor when he visited the country in 2002, and was thankful for the good relations between Catholics and Bulgarian Orthodox fostered by Patriarch Maxim.

“I sincerely hope that the good relations can continue in order to promote the proclamation of the Gospel,” he wrote.

Patriarch Maxim died at age 98 in the early hours of Nov. 6. He succumbed to heart failure after spending several weeks in hospital, according to 24 Hour News of Bulgaria.

Patriarch Maxim had been head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church since 1971. He became a monk, was ordained in 1941 and was consecrated a bishop in 1956.

The patriarchate will be vacant until the the Bulgarian Church holds a Council within the next four months to choose a successor. In the meantime, the church's Holy Synod will choose an interim patriarch.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church experienced a schism in the 1990s, following allegations that Patriarch Maxim's election had been orchestrated by the communist government of the country.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has some 6.5 million members in Bulgaria, and an additional 2 million in central and Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

In the 2011 census, 59 percent of Bulgarians identified as Bulgarian Orthodox, and less than one percent identified as Catholic.

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