SOFIA, Bulgaria – Thousands of mourners waited for hours on Thursday to pay their respects to the late Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Maxim at a church in Sofia.
Maxim’s body remained on display in an open coffin at the St. Nedelya Church, and a memorial service was held on Thursday morning. The 98-year-old patriarch died on Tuesday of heart failure at a Sofia hospital where he had been for a month.
Orthodox Christianity is Bulgaria’s dominant religion and is followed by more than 80 per cent of the country’s 7.4 million people.
Maxim was at the helm of the church for more than four decades, leading it through its post-Communist revival and withstanding efforts to oust him by rebel priests who saw him as a communist stooge.
Church elders held prayers in the church, where Maxim’s body lay surrounded by flickering candles in an open casket placed on a purple velvet-covered platform. Maxim had his patriarchal crown on his head and a cross and geranium in his hands. His patriarchal vestments and veil were placed at his feet.
Mourners filed past the coffin in a steady stream, many bowing to kiss his portrait or the cross.
“It is a great loss, he was like a father to us,” said Ivanka Stefanova, a 72-year-old retiree.
Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of world’s Orthodox Christians, laid a bunch of white roses at the coffin.
Bartholomew described Maxim as a “fighter filled with patience” during the difficult times for the nation.
“God gave His help so that the Bulgarian people could breathe freely today and Maxim could see before he died that Bulgaria was part of the European Union,” Bartholomew said.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov who attended the memorial service said Patriarch Maxim will be remembered as a “holy man, a pillar of the Church.”
His funeral will be held Friday, proclaimed by the government as a day of mourning, at the Troyan Monastery, near the village of Oreshak where Maxim was born.