The Holy Father braved a taxing trip by helicopter to visit these Orthodox monks Saturday morning and to tell them "that the Latin Church also and the religious of the West are grateful to you for your life and witness!"
"What would Bulgaria be without the Monastery of Rila, which in the darkest periods of your national history kept the flame of faith burning?" the Pope asked when he visited the "Sistine Chapel" of Eastern art, embedded in the mountaintops.
The Pope´s recognition of monastic life was extended to other Orthodox lands with the articulation of significant questions: "What would Greece be without the holy mountain of Athos? Or Russia without the myriad of dwelling places of the Holy Spirit, which enabled it to overcome the inferno of Soviet persecution?"
John Paul II was welcomed at this famous monastery by the hegumen, or superior, Bishop Ioan. The latter had been an ecumenical observer during the Second Vatican Council.
"The divisions were created by men, and it is up to men to repair them," said the superior of the most important monastery of the Balkans.
Shortly after his arrival, the Pope paid tribute to the icon of St. John of Rila, a 10th century nobleman who opposed feudal abuses by founding a community of hermits in its far-off mountains.
The meeting between the two representatives of the Churches, which have been divided for almost 1,000, made it possible for the Pope to emphasize the spiritual life, which the monks are called to exemplify, as the way that will also serve to restore the lost unity.
"More than ever in the lives of Christians today, idols are seductive and temptations unrelenting," John Paul II said.
"The art of spiritual combat, the discernment of spirits, the sharing of one´s thoughts with one´s spiritual director, the invocation of the holy name of Jesus and of his mercy must once more become a part of the inner life of the disciple of the Lord," the Holy Father added.
Also present at the monastery were the former Bulgarian king and current Prime Minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, his wife Margaret, and two of his five children, Konstantin and Kubrat, who are Catholics.
At the end of the ceremony, the Pope and former king met privately in the monastery´s Hall of Icons, after the Pontiff blessed the tomb of Simeon´s father, King Boris III, who died in 1943.
Boris III´s body had been disinterred by the Communist regime so that Rila would cease to be a symbol of the national conscience. His heart was recovered in 1993 and buried again in the sacred place.
After returning to Sofia in the afternoon, John Paul II received the grand mufti of Bulgaria and other leaders of the Muslim community in the apostolic nunciature.
The Pope also met with leaders of the evangelical communities, which number about 80,000 faithful in Bulgaria.
The 82-year-old Pope´s marathon day was dedicated to Bulgarian Catholics, who in this country worship in the Latin and Byzantine-Slavonic rites.
In Sofia´s Co-Cathedral of the Latins, the Holy Father blessed a statue of John XXIII, who at one time was apostolic nuncio in Bulgaria.
The Holy Father then went to the Eastern-rite Catholic Co-Cathedral to give the faithful a relic of the "good Pope," which will be kept in a new church, whose first stone was blessed by John Paul II himself.