Saint Clement of Ochrida-Bulgaria

November 25 is celebrated as Saint Clement’s Day in Bulgaria, the occasion for honouring a founding father of the nation’s culture. Clement was undoubtedly a good, holy man, but he was also much more than that: in his hands, the awakening of Bulgarian nationhood was given strength and nurture.

Orthodox Christianity loves nothing as much as a good schism. For those who may be new to the subject, a schism is a split between two groups of believers, caused by a difference in interpretation of the Bible. Back in Clement’s day, the great controversy was the so-called “trilingual schism”, some church elders holding that only Hebrew, Greek and Latin could be used in church.

Clement was completely opposed to this, arguing that God has given each people its own tongue, and therefore it can’t be wrong to praise Him in the beautiful Bulgarian language. As a bishop, Clement preached and conducted services in Bulgarian, in the process doing much to forge a sense of national identity.

A man of peace, Clement endured much trouble and persecution during his life. His calling was to work among the Slavs, bringing them to Christianity by means of gentle persuasion. Driven out of Moravia (now the Czech Republic) in the year 885, he devoted the rest of his life to caring for the Bulgarians.

At the time, the ruler of the Bulgarians was Prince Boris I, known as “the converter”, because of his ardent desire to bring his entire people to God. He sent Clement to the remote south west, to the town of Ochrida, where the holy man set about raising the standard of living of the local people, particularly through education.

Rather than terrifying simple country folk with fire-and-brimstone sermons about the agonies of hell, Clement chose to use the power of straightforward human kindness. He taught the children to read and write. If the question arose as to why he was a religious believer, he would explain gently and compellingly what God meant to him, without ever attempting to force his views on anyone. It worked spectacularly. Clement’s influence grew and spread, and he was soon famous across the length and breadth of the Bulgarian territories, both as a holy man and as an educator.

Today, the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Sofia preserves various relics of Clement, revered as he is as a father of the Bulgarian Church. However, it is as the foster-father of learning that he is best remembered by most Bulgarians. Indeed, there is hardly a town or village in modern Bulgaria which does not have a school or college named “Vasti Clement”. Even the University of Sofia, Bulgaria’s Oxford, proudly bears the name of this wise and decent man.

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