Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for more than 40 years, died on Tuesday, Nov. 6 from heart failure. He was 98.
The Holy Synod announced the news to the Bulgarian people in a statement, noting that Maxim had passed away early Tuesday morning in a hospital in the capital Sofia, where he had been for over a month.
The Associated Press noted that 13 senior clergy of the Holy Synod in Bulgarian will gather first to make funeral arrangements for Maxim, before beginning the search for his official successor, which can take up to four months.
Maxim, whose real name is Marin Naidenov Minkov but was popularly nicknamed as "Grandfather Maxim", was named as Patriarch on July 4, 1971, and has led the country's orthodox church for 41 years. Orthodox Christianity is the main religion in Bulgaria, and claims a membership of over 80 percent of the country's 7.4 million people.
Maxim was instrumental in holding the Church together after the collapse of communism in 1989. The newly elected democratic government sought to make sweeping changes to the country and replace figureheads of major institutions that were appointed at the time of communist rule, but the country's separation of church and state maintained that only the Church is responsible for its leadership.
The church was split in two, however, with breakaway clergymen demanding that a new synod be formed with its own leadership. The main Alexander Nevski cathedral in Sofia was the site of a number of clashes between the rival priest groups, with the newly formed synod drawing up to 30 percent of the nation's 1,000 priests to its side – although the majority stayed loyal to Maxim and the Orthodox Church.
Still, under Maxim's leadership the two groups ended hostilities in 2010 and the rival was dissolved, with the Church starting a process of healing and recovery.
Maxim also did his part in mending relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, and met with Pope John Paul II during the latter's visit to Sofia in 2002.
The Sofia Globe reported than in the hours after Maxim's death, the bells tolled at the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, and a book of condolences was opened for the public at the Holy Synod.