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Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Funeral Service for the late Patriarch Neofit of Sofia and All Bulgaria

On Saturday, 16 March 2024, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided over the Funeral Service for the Late Patriarch Neophyte of Sofia and of all Bulgaria.

In the Eulogy that he delivered, His All-Holiness emphasised to the clergy and the people of the Church of Bulgaria that their mourning and sorrow is shared by all Orthodox Christians and indeed “the Holy Great Church of Christ in Constantinople, our and your common spiritual Mother and Provider! And this is exactly what is underlined by the presence and joint prayer among you at this time of the speaker of this eulogy and my the entourage “.

Also, His All-Holiness referred to his personal ties with the Late Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria, listing his many virtues and gifts. “I have known the blessed man personally for many years,” he noted, among other things, “We came to know the departed man personally over many years, and we appreciated his modesty, meekness, gentleness, kindness and sweetness of character and demeanour, his faithfulness to the sacred Orthodox Faith and our ancestral Tradition, his love for the Church, his respect to the sacred and venerable customs of the God-made Vessel, the Church, his affection for his native Bulgaria, his devotion to the Mother Church of Constantinople. He enjoyed profound love on our part”.

Finally, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew also made a special reference to the peaceful Christian ethos of the Late Hierarch, which was vividly underlined by the Message he issued during the recent feast of the Epiphany, where he condemned the aggression against other peoples and the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Following, in detail, is the speech of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during the Funeral Service of the Late Patriarch Neophyte of Sofia and all Bulgaria:

Your Beatitude and Most Reverend representatives of the local holy Churches of God,

Your Eminence Metropolitan John of Varna and Veliki Preslav, Vice-Chairman of the Holy Synod of the Church of Bulgaria, and other Brother Hierarchs,

Your Excellency Rumen Radev, President of Bulgaria,

Your Excellency Nikolai Denkov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, and other most distinguished Authorities of Bulgaria,

Most honourable representatives of other Church Confessions and Religions,

Your Excellencies, representatives of the Diplomatic Corps in this land,

Most devout Clergy of all ranks and Most holy Monastic Fathers and Mothers,

Dearest children of the Holy Orthodox Church in Sofia and the entire divinely-protected land of Bulgaria,

“When Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” (Gn. 49.33)

This is precisely what happened in the case of the new Jacob of the pious Bulgarian people, the venerable Patriarch of Grace, Neofit of blessed memory, our respected and beloved Brother and Concelebrant in the Lord, after spending some four months on a hospital bed due to physical illness. He was the third Patriarch of All Bulgaria to serve from February in the Lord’s year 2013, following the elevation of the Most Holy Church of this Land to Patriarchal status and dignity, after the late First-Hierarchs Kyril and Maxim. As Bishop of Levki first and of Dorostol and Cherven subsequently, while more recently as Metropolitan of Ruse-by-the-Danube, the late Patriarch Neofit faithfully completed almost half a century of honorable church ministry, twenty-eight of which he devotedly served as Hierarch and eleven of which he humbly served as Patriarch, peacefully living out the years of his life, to the very end blessing, counselling and supporting like a nurturing father does with his children, finally being added to the list of his late predecessors and of his renowned fellow-countrymen in the heavenly mansions in God’s hand.

This is a time for mourning, as human beings do! It is a time for ecclesiastical and national mourning for Bulgaria! Physical separation is painful; being orphaned is difficult; emotions are high! As the Wisdom of Sirach exhorts us: “Weep for the dead and let your tears flow . . . May your mourning correspond to the value of the deceased (22.11, 16–17) Mourn, dear brother Bulgarian Orthodox Christians who are left as orphans, venerable Hierarchy, noble Clergy, pious Leaders, ascetic Monks and good Nuns, Theological School of the University of Sofia (whose first Dean he was after its restoration), academic teachers of Theology and practitioners of sacred church music (which the late Patriarch knew so well, taught so zealously, and exercised meekly), doctors and nurses of the Military Medical Academy in Sofia (who ministered him so attentively and affectionately throughout his illness, becoming witnesses of his suffering, but also his patience), faithful and Christ-loving people, everyone!

But it is not just you! All Orthodox share in your mourning and sorrow. All “those of us who have the same piety and the same mother” (Ecumenical Patriarch St. Philotheos Kokkinos), and especially our Holy Great Church of Christ in Constantinople, our and your common spiritual Mother and Sustainer! This is precisely what emphasizes our presence among you and our prayer alongside you at this hour—both in our person and in the form of our Entourage. The Ecumenical Patriarch has once again come to Sofia—just as in November 2012, when we buried the venerable Patriarch Maxim of blessed memory—this time to mourn with you once more, to pray with you and befittingly honor your departing and God-loving spiritual Father, “in a manner that corresponds to the value of the deceased”! We have come to lay upon the venerable body of our holy Brother the flowers of love and honor on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as to offer our final embrace of farewell, in peace and concord, but also fraternally to support all of you.

Let us, however, beware, brothers and children, lest our mourning be inappropriate, like the bewailing of others, who do not have hope! We are sending off a man of God, someone who dedicated his entire life in consistent faith to our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Conqueror of Death, and to the service of His Church. We are burying a bishop of love, a successor to the Apostles, a witness and herald of the Resurrection, just as the disciples were. His departure is like sleep and rest in Christ the ever-living God. It is a luminous transition from sorrow to joy, from the ephemeral to the eternal, from toil and struggle to reward and amaranthine crowns. Take courage and give glory for all to God, the Lord of Life!

We came to know the departed man personally over many years, and we appreciated his modesty, meekness, gentleness, kindness and sweetness of character and demeanor, his faithfulness to the sacred Orthodox Faith and our ancestral Tradition, his love for the Church, his respect to the sacred and venerable customs of the God-made Vessel, the Church, his affection for his native Bulgaria, his devotion to the Mother Church of Constantinople. He enjoyed profound love on our part. When he visited the Phanar as Metropolitan of Ruse, he gave us the joy of liturgical participation in the Agape Vespers at the venerable Patriarchal Church. Again as Metropolitan, he also collaborated favorably in the Fourth Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Consultation of June 2009 at Chambésy, Geneva. Later, as Patriarch of Bulgaria he took part in the Sacred Synaxis of the Primates of the Most Holy Autocephalous Churches—first in Constantinople in March 2014 and in the magnificent Primatial Concelebration in the venerable Patriarchal Church of St. George on the Sunday of Orthodoxy on March 9 that crowned the deliberations of that Synaxis. He further took part in a similar sacred Synaxis of the Primates two years later at our Patriarchal Centre in Chambésy, where he even happily cosigned the relevant common decisions. Sadly, however, he did not grant us the blessing of his presence and active participation (as well as that of our dearly beloved Church of Bulgaria), despite what had been jointly agreed, five months later at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that convened in Crete. In January 2018, we were immensely delighted to welcome him and his honorable Entourage to the Queen of Cities in order for us to perform in the region of the Phanar the official opening service of the holy Church of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and Archdeacon that was renovated and embellished completely, in the presence of His Excellency President Erdoğan of the Republic of Turkey as well as the then Prime Ministers of Turkey and Bulgaria. The ensuing reception that we organized for Patriarch Neofit at the Venerable Centre of Orthodoxy, along with our fraternal encounter and collaboration, left everyone with sentiments of spiritual joy, peace, and jubilation.

Moreover, the irenic Christian ethos of the late Patriarch was vividly underlined in his Message on the last Feast of Theophany that he issued from his hospital bed for the blessing of the Military Flags of your country. In this message, as he blessed the defensive Army that protects Bulgaria, he condemned aggression against other peoples and the ongoing war against Ukraine, thereby becoming worthy of Christ’s Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt. 5.9). Nevertheless, what crowned his elderly head like another crown of blessing was his vast and deep patience as he glorified God in the harsh hours of his months-long illness. He could hear St. John Chrysostom saying: “If you are the body of Christ, then bear His cross” (Homily on the Letter to the Ephesians III). And he bravely bore it till the end! The same Saint with the Golden Mouth defines patience as “the queen of virtues, the foundation of achievements, and a tranquil harbor” (Letter XIII to Olympias). From this tranquil harbor of patience, he now sails away with a pure priestly vestment, he blesses his precious flock and his cherished earthly homeland, he warmly embraces his Brother Hierarchs, he calmly proceeds in the hope of resurrection and eternal life, and he safely berths from now one at the well-moored and peaceful, heavenly harbor of the Kingdom of God. His voyage is escorted by St. Clement of Ohrid, St. John of Rila, St. John Koukouzelis (whose musical steps he successfully followed from childhood), and all the Saints—both old and new—who sanctified the land of Bulgaria, along with his patron St. Neofitos. He is protected by the maternal tenderness of the Most Holy Theotokos and he is awaited by Him who said: “This is the man to whom I will look, to him that is humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (Is. 66.2)

“Truly blessed,” Lord, “is the one you have chosen and adopted,” our Brother and Concelebrant Patriarch Neofit. We fervently beseech You: “You glorified his life on earth. Now also deem worthy his departure from this life to the entry of the Saints, who were pleasing to You from the ages. Grant him devout reward for his pastoral labor. Receive him resplendent into Your heavenly wedding chamber. Endow him with angelic boldness so that without shame he may stand at Your inaccessible Throne.” Yea, Lord Jesus Christ, and “be a consolation for Your flock.” Amen!