Pope to beatify 3 Bulgarian martyrs from the time of the Communist dictatorship
On the occasion of his first pastoral journey to Bulgaria - the country of the Apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius - Pope John Paul II will beatify three Assumptionist Fathers in the town of Plovdiv, according to the French Provincial of the Augustinians /Assumptionist Fathers.
The three priests - Kamen Vitchev (of the Byzantine rite), Pavel Djidjov and Josaphat Chichkov (both of the Latin rite) will thereby become the first "blesseds" of the Assumptionist congregation. Ever since its foundation 150 years ago this congregation has been engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Churches, especially in the field of education and the media. They currently own the largest Catholic media group in the world, the Bayard group in France.
The biographical details of these priests fit very much into the historical context of the national liberation movement of Bulgaria, following the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the 1860s. At that time two thousand Orthodox Bulgarians went over to Catholicism within the Eastern rite. Their archbishop at the time, Archbishop Joseph Sokolski, who was consecrated in Rome in 1861 by Pope Pius IX, asked Father Emmanuel d'Alzon, the founder of the Assumptionist Fathers to send him priests to minister to his faithful. He himself was kidnapped by a Russian agent and died 20 years later in imprisonment in a monastery in Kiev. Father Victorin Galabert set up the first Assumptionist mission in Bulgaria. In 1864 the tiny St Andrew's school was set up in Plovdiv - which was then known as Philippopoli - and later, in 1884, the college of St Augustine, the most renowned grammar school in the entire Balkan region, right up to its liquidation by the communists in 1948. This marked the beginning of the communist mass terror campaign against the Christians. The first victims were the Orthodox and the Protestants. Soon after this there was a wave of persecution against the Catholics too, with show trials and trumped-up accusations.
The three priests, Kamen Vitchev, Pavel Djidjov and Josaphat Chichkov were all shot dead on 11 November 1952, along with their bishop, Bishop Eugen Bossilkov (who was already beatified in 1998), in the central prison of Sofia. They had all been condemned to death as "Vatican spies" and "imperialist lackeys" in a show trial, steered from Moscow and aimed against the Church, which began on 3 October 1952. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave and were never recovered. They were acknowledged as martyrs, murdered "in odium fidei" - in hatred of the Faith.
Father Kamen Vitchev (1893 - 1952)
Branded as a “ringleader of the imperialist war preparations” against the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and the “democratic republics”, Father Kamen Vitchev was shot dead at the age of 59. He was the Superior of 20 Bulgarian Assumptionist Fathers. The remaining members of his congregation were expelled from the country, since they were foreign priests.
Petar (Kamen) Vitchev was born on 23 May 1893 in Srem, Bulgaria, the son of Orthodox parents. In his adult years he entered the Assumptionist Order as a novice in Gempe, near Louvain, Belgium. His religious name was Kamen, which is the Bulgarian for "stone" or "rock" (Peter). Following his theological studies in Louvain he was appointed professor at the St Augustine College in Plovdiv in the Summer of 1918. Following this he taught in the minor seminary of Koum-Kapou in Constantinople. It was there that he was ordained a priest of the Byzantine rite on 22 December 1921. As a doctor of theology of the university of Strasbourg, he returned to the College of St Augustine in Plovdiv. His charismatic personality inspired the young students. He lectured on the topics of youth and social work.
He also published his theses in the Catholic newspaper "Istina" and in the Journal of Byzantine Studies.
Father Pavel Djidjov
When he was arrested in the night of 44 July 1952, along with Father Kamen, Father Pavel was just 33 years old.
Joseph Djidjov was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria on 19 July 1919 into a Catholic family of the Latin rite. He attended the St Andrew's school run by the Assumptionist Fathers and then the college of St Augustine in Plovdiv, until his final exams in 1938. On 2 October 1938 he became a novice in Nozeroy, France, taking the name Pavel. He studied philosophy and theology in Lormoy, near Paris. In 1942 he took his permanent vows. On returning to Bulgaria he continued his studies in Plovdiv until 1944. He was ordained a priest of the Latin rite on 26 January 1945 in Plovdiv. Before beginning his ministry in Varna on the Black Sea he prepared himself with an additional course in economics and the social sciences before taking up the post assigned to him as bursar of the mission there. He was known as a committed priest and anti-communist among the students in Varna and Plovdiv. In addition to his duties as bursar of the St Augustine's College, he was also an excellent sportsman and ran the "Lokomotiv" sports club in Plovdiv. His courageous commitment and his dynamic approach were evident to all.
Father Josaphat Chichkov (1884 - 1952)
Robert Matthew Chichkov was born on 9 February 1884 in Plovdiv, then known as Philippopoli, in a deeply religious Catholic family. At the age of nine he attended the school of Kara-Agatch (Andrinopoli). On 29 April 1900, as a 16-year-old, he became a novice in the monastery of the Assumptionist Fathers of Phanaraki in Turkey. He took the religious name of Josaphat. In 1904 he studied philosophy and theology in Louvain, Belgium. It was there that he was ordained a priest of the Latin rite on 11 July 1909.
From 1914 until 1919, during the First World War, he taught in the St Augustine College in Plovdiv. In 1929 he was appointed Superior of the French-Bulgarian minor seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in both rites (bi-ritual) in Yambol. While there he introduced one of the first-ever Cyrillic script typewriters. He also introduced cinema and gramophone meetings with the young people. He regularly met with the then apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Roncalli - the future Pope John XXIII - who was nuncio in Bulgaria from 1925 to 1935 and who expressed great admiration for his work.
In July 1937 he was appointed Superior in Varna, where he also remained during the Second World War. Following the expulsion of the foreign priests, Father Josaphat became parish priest of Varna.
The communist militia arrested and imprisoned him as early as December 1951. This merry musician, wonderful teacher and creative spirit was the perfect match for the communist “profile” of a Western spy. Aged 68 at the time of his death, he was also the oldest of the three martyred Assumptionist priests.
All three men remained faithful to the motto of their congregation, which is "Thy Kingdom come!".