Pope heads to Balkans in May to visit Bulgaria, Macedonia

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Pope Francis will make a three-day visit to Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Vatican announced.

He will be the first pope to visit the Republic of Macedonia, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

"Accepting the invitation of the respective highest authorities" of both nations and of the Catholic communities there, Francis will travel to Bulgaria May 5-7 and Macedonia May 7, Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said in a written statement Dec. 13.

While the pope's itinerary will be published later, Burke said the pope would visit the Macedonian capital, Skopje, which is the birthplace of St. Teresa of Kolkata, and the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and the city of Rakovski -- the city with the largest number of Catholics in Bulgaria, which is predominately Orthodox. Catholics make up less than 1 percent of Bulgaria's 7 million people.

The Vatican released the logo and motto of both trips. "Do not be afraid any longer, little flock" from Luke 12:32 was chosen for the Republic of Macedonia. The colors -- red and gold -- match the colors of the nation's flag and three blue stripes bordering the bottom symbolize the blue stripes of Mother Teresa's white sari.

The motto for the trip to Bulgaria is "Pacem In Terris" (Peace on Earth), the title of a 1963 encyclical by St. John XXIII, who served in Bulgaria in the '20s and '30s as a Vatican diplomat, and the prayer for peace Francis will make during the trip, the Vatican said.

St. John Paul II visited Bulgaria in 2002, planning his visit around the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Greek brothers who evangelized in Central Europe in the ninth century, before the Orthodox-Catholic split of 1054. The Polish pope had named them co-patrons of Europe and described them as unity figures for modern Catholics and Orthodox. Their feast day is celebrated by the Orthodox Church May 11 and by the Catholic Church Feb. 14.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is about 64 percent Orthodox, 33 percent Muslim and less than half of 1 percent are Catholic or belong to other Christian denominations. 

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