On his second and final day in Bulgaria, Francis sought to encourage both refugees and the tiny Catholic community here, celebrating the sacrament of First Communion for nearly 250 children. But his efforts to warm relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church appeared to stall, as religious leaders stayed away from a peace meeting he convened and one powerful metropolitan called his visit "an attack on Orthodoxy."
Francis has sought to build bridges with the conservative Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Neofit, welcomed him upon his arrival Sunday. But the church's governing Holy Synod had made clear from the start that its representatives wouldn't participate in his events.
Francis opened his day visiting the Vrazhdebna refugee center, in a refurbished school on the outskirts of the capital, Sofia. Children from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere sang for him and gave him drawings.
Francis thanked them for their joy and hope, and told them that he knows well the pain of leaving behind their countries. He compared their suffering to the cross Christ bore. "Today, the world of migrants and refugees is a kind of cross, the cross of humanity," Francis said. "It's a cross that many people suffer."
Bulgaria's center-right government has been criticized by human rights groups and the European Council for its treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors. The government, which includes three nationalist, anti-migrant parties, has called for the EU to close its borders to migrants and has sealed off its own border with Turkey with a barbed-wire fence.
"He (the pope) is a great man," said Taha Saber Ismael, an Iraqi Kurd who was among about 50 refugees who greeted Francis at the center. "I hope he helps us." Speaking with Bulgaria's Catholic community Monday, Francis said refugees are all children of God and deserve love.
"Seeing with the eyes of faith is a summons not to spend your life pinning labels, classifying those who are worthy of love and those who are not," he said. Rather, he urged Bulgaria's Catholics to "create conditions in which every person can feel loved, especially those who feel forgotten by God because they are forgotten by their brothers and sisters."
The Argentine pope has made the plight of migrants and refugees a hallmark of his papacy, urging governments to build bridges, not walls, and to do what they can to welcome and integrate refugees. His visit falls just three weeks before the European Parliament elections across the EU in which nationalist, anti-migrant parties are expected to make a solid showing.
Francis' outreach to refugees was one of his main priorities of the trip, the second by a pope to Bulgaria after St. John Paul II visited in 2002. Then as now, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was deeply suspicious of the intentions of the leader of the Catholic Church, which split with the Orthodox over 1,000 years ago.
Francis had hoped to make progress healing the schism. But no Bulgarian Orthodox religious leader attended his interfaith peace meeting Monday evening on a rain-drenched Sofia square, though none was ever officially expected.
The event was attended by Jewish, Protestant, Muslim and Armenian Orthodox faith leaders, as well as Bulgaria's religious affairs director, Emil Velinov. The Vatican had previously only said that a children's choir from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church would sing at the event.
Earlier in the day, one of the Holy Synod's members, Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second biggest city, called Francis' visit a "political act" and an "attack on Orthodoxy." "The goal is to unite all the churches around Rome, and when the Antichrist comes, for the Pope to meet him." Nikolay was quoted by the website podtepeto.com as saying.
Speaking at a congregation in Plovdiv on Sunday, Nikolay said: "We will not give up Orthodoxy. We did not give up Orthodoxy in the five centuries of slavery," he said, referring to the period when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule.
Nikolay is known for his hard-line views, and he hails from a region near Bulgaria's Catholic stronghold, Rakovsky. Francis traveled Monday to Rakovsky for a First Communion Mass and meeting with the local community, who welcomed him warmly on a sun-drenched spring day.
Nearly 250 jittery children in white robes filled the pews of the Sacred Heart church, the girls wearing crowns of white roses, before receiving the sacrament for the first time. In his homily, Francis told them that receiving their First Communion was a celebration of communion with the whole church, and he urged them to share that joy with others. Speaking simply, Francis engaged in a Q&A session with the kids, explaining to them the basics of the sacrament and living a Christian life in Italian that was then translated into Bulgarian.
Citing local organizers, the Vatican said some 10,000 people were on hand outside the yellow and white church to greet Francis, who arrived into town in his open-sided popemobile. "I haven't slept all night from excitement," said Nevenka Tanceva, a Catholic woman from Ravkovsky as she waited for Francis to arrive. "Pope Francis is a good father to us, he unites all Catholics and all people."
On Tuesday, Francis travels to neighboring North Macedonia for the first-ever papal visit to the country.