ASSUMPTIONIST MARTYRS FROM BULGARIA

 

 

st. Augustin College- Plovdiv

Kamen VITCHEV, Pavel DJIDJOV and Josaphat CHICHKOV,

 

To all brothers, sisters, and friends of the Assumption,


Today, 23 April 2002, the Holy Father declared three of our brothers, Kamen VITCHEV, Pavel DJIDJOV and Josaphat CHICHKOV, Martyrs of the faith.

They will be beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sunday, 26 May 2002, in the main square of the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

 

Plovdiv

Plovdiv

Who were these three men, whose names may strike many of us as very foreign?


Father Josaphat CHICHKOV, the eldest of the three (born in 1884), was for a long time a teacher and educator of young men preparing for the priesthood. He was a simple man, especially effective with struggling students and something of a technophile, using some of the “modern” tools being invented (typewriters with the Cyrillic alphabet, moving picture cameras and gramophones) for his ministry. Accused of being a spy for the Vatican and Western capitalist powers, he was in fact “guilty” of being a good and popular educator and a loving pastor.


Father Kamen VITCHEV (born in 1893), perhaps the best known of the three, was a teacher, a scholar, and a leader. When he was arrested in December of 1951, he was Vicar Provincial for the Assumptionists in Bulgaria.

He had been a teacher at the Assumptionist seminary in Istanbul and for a much longer time at the College of Saint Augustine in Plovdiv. In Bulgaria he became widely known as an effective teacher and preacher of the faith and very active in inter-Church activities.

He published regularly in the Assumptionist journal of Eastern theological studies called “Échos d’Orient” and fostered friendly relations with the Orthodox clergy in Plovdiv, who were often guests of the community.

His articles dealt with erudite issues of Orthodox canon law, as well as events of note in the Catholic and Orthodox churches and reflections on the life of the Christian in the world.

Undoubtedly his published thoughts on the merits of a Christian vision of the world as opposed to the dominant atheist and materialist doctrines did not make him a favorite of the regime. He was “guilty” of being a fine scholar and educator and passionate about the cause of unity between the Eastern and Latin churches.

He had himself been ordained a priest in the Byzantine rite.

 

icon by Fr. Dont Lamothe AA.

Father Pavel Djidjov was the youngest of the three (born in 1919). An accomplished athlete, a practical man, trained in business studies, he was entrusted with the financial management of the Assumptionist mission in Bulgaria, but invested most of his energies in the education of young people. During his teaching years at the Assumption school in Varna, on the Black Sea, he was known for his unambiguous position regarding the Party in Bulgaria. He was “guilty” of defending religious freedom in the face of a totalitarian regime and was greatly beloved by his students and unambiguous in his loyalty to the Church.

 

All three were shot before a firing squad in the central prison of Sophia, Bulgaria, during the night of 11-12 November 1952.

They had given their life generously at the service of their people and for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Father Pavel wrote just weeks before his arrest:

 “A diocesan priest has been condemned to death, another to 20 years in prison, two others will soon be put on trial. We’re awaiting our turn… May God’s will be done!”

Why is this beatification such a grace for us? Obviously, it’s a great joy for every member of the Assumption family, for our brothers, our sisters, all our lay friends, to have three of “our own” so greatly honored by the Church.

The Assumption itself is honored: the way of life embraced by these three men surely inspired them along the way of holiness. But the fact of their martyrdom touches us most deeply.


It’s not that martyrdom is easy for us to understand. And recently it’s been even more difficult because we’ve had to deal with people who claim to be martyrs when they give their life in order to destroy their enemies. It helps to understand our three martyrs by considering what martyrdom meant for Jesus.

Like Kamen, Pavel and Josaphat, he spoke passionately for the truth, the truth that his Father asked him to communicate to men and women, namely that they are not alone, abandoned, or adrift, that meaning in their life does not depend on success or material well-being. Ironically enough, people were upset with that truth, maybe with the way that God decided to communicate it to them. How did Jesus react to his critics?

It would have been a contradiction for him to use violent means to convince people that God loved them and was in fact at peace with them. Consequently, having spoken as clearly as he could, he had only one other way to respond to the rejection of his message: martyrdom.

He did what any real lover does: he surrendered himself into the hands of those he loved. It wasn’t manipulation. It wasn’t a power-play. It was hardly to his benefit. Love allowed him to do nothing else. When Fr. d’Alzon, our founder, said that love was “intolerant”, this is what he meant. It can tolerate nothing less than total self-surrender for the sake of the beloved.

This is very different from the hateful and destructive pseudo-martyrdom that some practice. And while most of us will not be called to be martyrs, we are called to be as Jesus was for our world today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Icon by Bulgarian Artist.

The beatification ceremony on 26 May will be a powerful invitation to follow Christ more closely, to broach no compromises when it comes to the quality of our love. Other celebrations in Bulgaria will also help: on Saturday, 25 May, the eve of the beatification, we will gather in the remains of the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv for a vigil of prayer and remembrance, and on 27 May we will be in Sofia for a Mass of thanksgiving, celebrated in the Byzantine rite and presided by the Eastern Exarch of Sofia, bishop Christo Proykov.

But in addition to these celebrations, what else can we do to benefit from the grace offered by such an event? Let me make a few suggestions.

 

1) Get to know Blessed Kamen, Blessed Pavel, and Blessed Josaphat – If you have easy access to the Positio, the 457 page volume written to present the case for the three martyrs to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, then I urge you to read it. With its historical accounts, photos, archival documents, depositions, and trial transcripts, it makes for fascinating reading. This long volume has been conveniently re-worked in a translated and more accessible form in the booklet written by Fr. Pierre Gallay, “The Martyrdom of the Three Bulgarian Assumptionists”.

A third way to become familiar especially with the trial leading to the execution of the three is by way of the video, produced a few years back, and translated into a number of languages:

 “The Balkans Crucified”. Finally, a very popular but historically faithful re-telling of the martyrs’ story can be found in an illustrated booklet by Francis Keller, called “Memory Refound”.

 

2) Prepare for the Feast of the Martyrs on 13 November – The Church has set this date for the liturgical commemoration each year of our three martyrs. You will soon have in hand the prayers and readings to be used for Mass. In addition to preparing the celebration of the Eucharist on 13 November, perhaps you could use the occasion for a special event to make the three martyrs better known to a wider public in your area.

 

3) Think and “dream” about the Assumption’s Mission in the “East” – After my first visit to Bulgaria as Superior General, I became aware that I was breathing from only one lung, my “Western” lung.

As a Catholic, my “Eastern” lung had remained dormant. How can we re-discover that Eastern dimension of our faith? How can the Assumption re-commit itself to the mission in the “East”: in Bulgaria, in Rumania, in Israel, in Greece, in Russia, in Turkey? This is the question that Assumptionist Major Superiors considered when they gathered in Istanbul for a special meeting from April 4th to the 7th. Laity and religious together, we might take the grace of this beatification as a nudge from the Spirit to imagine new ways for the Assumption to play its role in the cause for unity and in helping all Christians live from the wealth of this Eastern tradition.

 

4) Welcome the gift of martyrdom – By this, I do not mean to single anyone out for martyrdom, but I would invite you to think about the ways in which Christians can and ought to be “martyrs” in our world today—not fanatics, but certainly not colorless Christians, and instead passionate lovers of the Good News. It would be a great gift indeed if this beatification helped us to embrace martyrdom as an integral dimension of our Christian vocation.


Finally, let us pray in thanksgiving and for our world, that the Lord might give us peace and life in abundance.


God, our Father, You gave both the grace and the strength of martyrdom to our brothers Kamen VITCHEV, Pavel DJIDJOV and Josaphat CHICHKOV. In a society trying to build itself up without You, You made it possible for them to witness to the Good News of Jesus, your Son. By their intercession and the gift of their life, bestow on us the Spirit of daring in order to live and to proclaim the Beatitudes unceasingly and to become artisans of unity and peace in today’s world. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Fr. Richard E. Lamoureux, a.a., Superior General

23 April 2002 - Rome

 

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