Sofia, May 5, 2016/ Independent Balkan News Agency
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Archimandrite Dionisii, dean of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s landmark Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, is no stranger to controversy.
A 2014 proposal to promote him to bishop was withdrawn by the Holy Synod after a public protest by Orthodox clergy and laity. Now he is at the centre of a row again, over a fireworks display and parade of guards and a brass band at Alexander Nevsky cathedral as Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter.
The Holy Synod is to discuss the controversy at its next scheduled meeting on May 17, following objections expressed in social networks and in the media about the fireworks display, unprecedented in Bulgarian Easter celebrations although it is practiced in the country’s southern neighbour Greece, and about the uncanonical involvement of the military’s National Guard in the solemn Easter liturgy.
In the final moments before midnight brought May 1, in this year’s Eastern Orthodox calendar celebrated as the moment of the resurrection of Jesus, the large crowd outside Alexander Nevsky cathedral was surprised when a lavish display of fireworks erupted in the night sky above their heads.
No less surprising was the presence of the National Guard and the band that played a secular tune during the Easter liturgy. Reports at the time said that at one point, Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit – noted for his fine singing voice in his younger years – had begun to sing a sacred song, but he was interrupted and drowned out by the military brass band.
As media coverage of the controversy continued, Dionisii made a number of television appearances, saying that it had been his idea to have the fireworks display, which had cost about 2000 leva (about 1000 euro). Up to a few days before Easter, there had been no confirmation that there would be money to pay for the display, but a friend had confirmed on Holy Thursday that he would pay the costs, Dionisii told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.
Dionisii said that Patriarch Neofit had known about the plan for the fireworks and the military guard of honour and had approved it. “Do you think that His Beatitude could participate in the event and not know the details?”, Dionisii said rhetorically during his BNT interview.
The Archimandrite disagreed with accusations that fireworks and a military guard of honour were inappropriate ways to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. While doing this was unknown in Bulgaria, now it was welcomed “and we will continue to do so even if someone does not like it”. There were such practices throughout the Orthodox Christian world, he said.
Dionisii’s assertion that the Patriarch had known and approved of the fireworks and brass band was contradicted by a statement from Neofit’s office. Patriarch Neofit had been presented with a fait accompli of an agreement on the participation of the National Guard in worship, and the fireworks display.
Specialist religious news website Dveri said that Dionisii, appointed as dean of the cathedral – head of Alexander Nevsky’s church council – in late 2015 was trying to shine with an innovative and memorable approach to the running of the cathedral.
Dveri added that Orthodox Christians who came to Alexander Nevsky cathedral on Holy Friday (the equivalent term in the Western Christian world is Good Friday) “had to endure another misplaced idea” as the National Guard orchestra played Chopin’s funeral march.
The website noted that soon after being handed the day-to-day running of the cathedral, Dionisii had sparked controversy by trying to introduce a five leva entrance fee for the cathedral. This was abandoned after media reports and a public outcry.
Dveri said that the Holy Synod was not unanimous in its reaction to the Easter display by Dionisii. Some senior clergy wanted him removed from his post at the cathedral but others believed that there would be no consequences.
Bulgarian Orthodox Church Rousse Metropolitan Naum openly criticised the Easter display, quoting the statutes governing the church as saying – in reaction to the claim that Patriarch Neofit had approved the fireworks and National Guard involvement – that the Patriarch had no authority to take such decisions on his own without the consent of the Holy Synod.
Separate media reports said that priests and deacons at Alexander Nevsky cathedral were in revolt against Dionisii.
“We will not serve Holy Mass with him. If he wants, let him do so alone,” priest Kostadin Gavrilov said.
Another priest, Antoni Miloushev, said, “Dionisii does everything on his own, without the blessing of the Patriarch or the Holy Synod”.
In a critical article in daily Trud, a comment said that “you can have fireworks for the birthday of a mutra (a Bulgarian term for an organised crime figure) but for Easter, not”.
The December 2014 protest against Dionisii was rooted in, among other things, his involvement in the handing of the ancient Orthodox church title of Archon – a title dating back centuries, but long in disuse – for a lay patron of the church – to business people of controversial repute.
Reports at the time said that ahead of the meeting of the Holy Synod at which Dionisii’s elevation to bishop was to be decided, he had booked a celebration for 200 people at a luxury hotel in Sofia.