Paying tribute to the steadfast faith of Orthodox Christians in Georgia, Pope Francis has urged them to draw closer to other Christians and work together to share the Gospel.
Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, who recently has been cautious in his relations with leaders of other churches, greeted Pope Francis when he arrived at the Tbilisi airport, welcomed him to the patriarchal palace that evening and hosted him again at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.
Walking into a meeting hall at the patriarchate, Pope Francis helped the 83-year-old Patriarch Ilia, who moves with great difficulty because of Parkinson’s disease.
More than 80 per cent of Georgians are Orthodox. Catholics from the Latin, Armenian and Chaldean churches form about two per cent of the population.
In the 1980s, the Georgian Orthodox Church was deeply involved in the process of seeking Christian unity, but its participation has waned in recent years in conjunction with a stronger assertion of Georgian identity, including its language and Orthodox faith.
When the Pope arrived in Georgia, small groups of Orthodox faithful gathered on the road outside Tbilisi airport holding signs protesting the his visit. One sign called him a “heretic” and the other accused the Catholic Church of “spiritual aggression”. The same groups were present the next evening outside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the spiritual centre of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox groups most opposed to dialogue with Western Christians have expressed fear that closer ties with the West will lead to what they see as moral decadence.
Patriarch Ilia told Pope Francis that while globalisation is not “a negative phenomenon per se, it contains a lot of dangers and threats”, including the possibility of creating what he described as a “homogenous mess” that erases specific cultural and moral values.
While the world has experienced progress in many ways, he said, “humanity has taken steps backward in spirituality, in belief in God”.
Nevertheless, the patriarch spoke warmly of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and practical cooperation and he welcomed the Pope, saying, “This is truly a historic visit. May God bless our two churches.”
Pope Francis began his speech by making a personal, improvised comment: “I am profoundly moved by hearing the ‘Ave Maria’ composed by Your Holiness. Only a heart profoundly devoted to the Mother of God could compose something so beautiful.”
“Faced with a world thirsting for mercy, unity and peace,” Pope Francis told the patriarch and members of the Georgian Synod of Bishops, God asks Catholics and Orthodox to “renew our commitment to the bonds which exist between us, of which our kiss of peace and our fraternal embrace are already an eloquent sign.”
While the Georgian patriarchate traces its origins to the preaching of the Apostle Andrew, the Church of Rome – the papacy – was founded by the Apostle Peter. The two Apostles were brothers, Pope Francis noted, and the churches they founded “are given the grace to renew today, in the name of Christ and to his glory, the beauty of apostolic fraternity”.
“Dear brother,” the Pope told the patriarch, “let us allow the Lord Jesus to look upon us anew, let us once again experience the attraction of his call to leave everything that prevents us from proclaiming together his presence.
“The Lord has given this love to us, so that we can love each other as he has loved us,” Pope Francis said.
The love of God and love for God, he said, should enable Catholics and Orthodox “to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future”.
Pope Francis praised the strength of the Georgian people and the Georgian church, which “found the strength to rise up again after countless trials”.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, like the Catholic churches, is still recovering from harsh repression under Soviet rule. In 1917, there were almost 2,500 Orthodox churches in the country, but by the mid-1980s only 80 were open for worship. Catholic parishes suffered a similar fate, with Church property confiscated and used as museums, offices, social halls or given to the Orthodox.
“The multitude of saints, whom this country counts, encourages us to put the Gospel before all else and to evangelise as in the past, even more so, free from the restraints of prejudice and open to the perennial newness of God,” the Pope said.
When differences arise, he said, they must not be allowed to be an obstacle to evangelising together, but a stimulus to get to know and understand each other better, “to intensify our prayers for each other and to cooperate with apostolic charity in our common witness, to the glory of God in heaven and in the service of peace on earth.”
Pope Francis ended his remarks by praying that the Georgian martyrs would intercede to bring “relief to the many Christians who even today suffer persecution and slander, and may they strengthen us in the noble aspiration to be fraternally united in proclaiming the Gospel of peace”.
Vatican officials had hoped that Patriarch Ilia would an official delegation to the Pope’s Mass in Tbilisi, which did not happen, but the patriarch warmly welcomed the Pope to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral that evening, explaining the importance of the site in the history of Georgian Christianity and describing it as a symbol of stalwart faith in the face of the harshest persecution.
Pope Francis responded by praising the way the Georgian Orthodox treasure their history, but he also said that Christian identity is maintained when it not only is deeply rooted in faith, but “also when it is open and ready, never rigid or closed”.
Georgian Orthodox tradition holds that a chapel in the cathedral houses the seamless tunic of Jesus, a garment the Pope described as symbolising “a mystery of unity”.
Contemplating that seamless garment, he said, should make Christians feel “deep pain over the historical divisions” among them. “These are the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord’s flesh.”