The Black Hands of Pokrovan


Pokrovan is a small village (200-300 inhabitants) near the Greek border.

From Plovdiv it takes about three and a half hours to get there by car. Itís really the only convenient way to get there, because the bus stops at the neighboring town of Ivailovgrad, some 8 kilometers away (5 miles).
The only Catholic village in the region, its history is rich and full of meaning. In 1925, that is to say from the first year of the ten he would stay in Bulgaria as apostolic delegate, Giovanni Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, traveled to this remote village in order to visit the parish and its faithful.

The small church, where Mass is still celebrated in the Byzantine Rite, having just been rebuilt to replace the older one destroyed by the Turks, conserves the memory of this visit thanks to a commemorative plaque located on the wall just next to the main door.
Pokrovan has also played a role in the Assumptionist history of Bulgaria. In fact, Fr. Ivan Stanev, on the request of Bishop Stratiev, accepted to go there in 1975 to serve this isolated parish. He stayed for nearly twenty-five years, until his death in 2001.

After the ďeventsĒ of 1989 (fall of Communism), with the help of two Eucharistine Sisters who had arrived before him, he actively began a program of catechesis for children and adolescents, something that was forbidden by the regime before that time.

Since it was located near the border, one needed to obtain special permission to go there during the Communist period. Even to this day one can see along the road the control posts where the police forbade free entry to and exit from the areas adjacent to the village.

If you didnít know the way, it was not easy to get directions from road signs....because there werenít any! At the time of the previous regime it was one more way to exercise control and to restrict freedom.

After Fr. Stanevís death, for the last few years, Fr. Assen Karaguiosov has been the pastor of the village. Since he was a young religious undergoing formation in France when the Communists took control of his country, Fr. Assen wasnít able to return home and spent the better part of his life in France, especially in Toulon.

When he returned to Bulgaria at the age of 75, after the change in regimes, Bishop Cristo, the ordinary of our diocese, entrusted the parish of Pokrovan to him. At the end of December, 2005, as a result of a bad fall, he had to end his ministry.

Now it is the community here in Plovdiv that has taken over by assuring Mass once a month and on major feasts.
Itís a strange experience for someone like me, who is used to contemplating the face of Christ in Fra Angelicoís paintings in Florence, to encounter the same Christ in the faces of Pokrovanís parishioners, faces marked with the labor, the sufferings and the joys of a poor and difficult country life, in a place where time seems to have come to a stop.

Nevertheless, itís not so much the faces that strike me; itís the hands.
Those who have attended a Byzantine liturgy know that after the Mass one distributes the ďanaphora,Ē that is to say a piece of blessed bread.

The people receive in their hands this bread given by the priest and then kiss his hand. So it is that now my hands have encountered those of the people of Pokrovan several times. Sixty people or so, mostly elderly, line up to receive the bread as they kiss my hands.

They do it by taking my hand in their hands. Large hands, black, hardened by work meet my hands, white, well kept, which have never known the hard work of the fields. I always have a strange feeling.

I also have the sense that the hands of these people are Godís hands which take mine and kiss them. Whatís surprising is that this isnít just an impression; itís the truth.

Truly God is touching me and caring for me concretely.
How beautiful is the God of Pokrovan! No need to miss the paintings of Florence, for here God is encountered in a living painting.