The oldest leader of the world’s unruly family of autocephalous Orthodox Churches and the only patriarch to survive both the Communist era and the post-Communist government’s attempt to oust him, Patriarch Maksim Minkov of Bulgaria, died in the early hours Monday of heart failure at the age of 98 in Sofia’s University Hospital, the church announced. Having led Bulgaria’s main church for over 40 years, the patriarch demonstrated incredible political resilience against the biggest challenge that any major church institution in Eastern Europe faced in recent decades. At the same time, those who knew him, including some in Russia, remember him as a jovial yet deeply spiritual man.
Born in 1914 as Marin Naydenov Minkov, he graduated from seminary in 1935, was tonsured a monk with the name Maksim in 1941, and represented the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Moscow from 1950 to 1955. He became a bishop in 1956, and elected patriarch in Communist Bulgaria in 1971. Recently, in an interview for a documentary about his life, Patriarch Maxim said, “At that time, it was easier to die than to understand and assess how to live and carry out the duties of the First Hierarch of the Holy Church”. In the interview, he recalled his meetings with Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov, saying he used them to ask the government to save another church from demolition, saying, “Of course, I committed sins, like all people do, but I never allowed compromises that’d harm the Church, and I didn’t even allow myself to think that possible”.
Yet, that isn’t what some post-communist leaders, and a significant part of Bulgaria’s clergy, thought after the Bulgarian communist régime fell in 1989.
In 1992, a government led by the Union of Democratic Forces, which saw Maksim as a “Communist stooge”, instigated a schism in the church, questioning the legitimacy of his enthronement and setting up an alternative synod led by Metropolitan Pimen of Nevrokop, which eventually ousted Maksim. Although the majority of church members didn’t follow the new hierarchy, it attracted a number of bishops and priests, and the government recognised it. A long-standing conflict ensued; complete with property disputes, mutual anathemas, and a series of failed attempts at reconciliation. Throughout it, Orthodox Churches across the world, including the Moscow Patriarchate, supported Patriarch Maksim as the only legitimate Bulgarian Church leader.
Whilst it seemed that all the odds were against him domestically, Patriarch Maksim persevered. In 1998, an all-Orthodox Local Council led by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Archontonis of Constantinople, considered “first among equals” by other heads of Orthodox Churches, met in Sofia to confirm Maksim’s legitimacy and reconciled a large part of the breakaway bishops and priests with the Church. Yet, this didn’t stop the schism. Only in 2003 did the government register Maksim’s Synod, and, in 2004, the breakaway churches were returned to his hierarchy in a sweeping police operation, one later questioned in the European Court of Human Rights.
Bulgaria has always been important to Russian Orthodox believers as the source of its liturgical language, Church Slavonic, and the Cyrillic alphabet, used to this day. In the Middle Ages, Bulgarians accounted for a sizable community of the learned monks and bishops in Russia. In Soviet times, it was seen as a culturally-close Eastern Bloc country, which treated its church more liberally than the USSR, and it was thus a source of books and music otherwise unattainable. Contemporary senior Russian bishops see and respect Patriarch Maksim as an “elder”, as he’s surrounded by an aura from these recent difficulties, if not persecution.
On the eve of his visit to Bulgaria in April this year, Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and all the Russias recalled how his father was appointed to accompany a Bulgarian delegation to Leningrad in the late 1950s, and how he remembered, as a child, seeing services led by the “young, energetic, and handsome Bishop Maksim”. That memory, he said, created a special atmosphere for his visit some 60 years later.
Georgy Gupalo, who heads one of the leading Russian Orthodox publishers, Dar, said that he saw Patriarch Maxim several times and that he considers him a “holy elder”. Responding to my questions via email, Gupalo wrote, “I’ve always been surprised by the atmosphere that emerged when he appeared. There was a feeling that everything began to shine. A person of his age usually looks tired. You rarely meet a nearly hundred-year-old man with such bright, jovial eyes, full of light, love, engagement, and something else, that we usually see among children… let’s call it curiosity. He always displayed a keen interest in people. He experienced the bitter taste of rejection, but his sight remained bright and joyful”.
In recent years, Patriarch Maxim was frail and appeared only on major occasions. According to the Statutes of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the longest serving metropolitan… currently, Metropolitan Grigory of Veliko Tarnovo… will preside over the church for the next seven days until the Synod elects an interim head. A specially-convened council of clergy, monks, and believers will elect a new patriarch within four months. The candidate should be at least 50-year- old and must have served as a metropolitan for at least five years.
6 November 2012
One should note with concern the attempt by the First Families to install Tikhon Mollard as First Hierarch of the OCA. The Bulgarian Church, as noted above wouldn’t allow his name to be placed in contention. Neither would the Serbian or Russian Churches. I’m sure that the same is true of the other legit Local Churches. In short, Tikhon Mollard is immature… yes, too immature for the white hat (as, indeed, Fathausen was). Tikhon always gave way to Bobby, Lyonyo, and Fathausen, he never once stood his ground before them, worsening the general situation as a consequence. It doesn’t matter that he’s a nice guy and appears “holy”… we need a leader with guts and determination, and he doesn’t have them. Sadly, he’s a pusillanimous coward… and that’s not what we need now. He’s only 46-years-old… it’s not his time. His name is only being bruited because Vinnie Peterson hates Mel Pleska with a Number One Purple Passion and Lyonyo and Jillions fear for their Grand Fenwickian situations if Mel gets the white hat.
The Parma Sobor delegates should consider this fact…