Pope presses Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox agenda de­spite Mass ab­sence

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OBITUARIES - By Ni­cole Winfield and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili

TBILISI, GE­OR­GIA >> Pope Fran­cis’ ef­forts to im­prove re­la­tions with the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Church suf­fered a set­back Satur­day af­ter the pa­tri­ar­chate de­cided at the last minute not to send an of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tion to his Mass and re­minded the Ortho­dox faith­ful they can­not par­tic­i­pate in Catholic ser­vices.

Fran­cis still pressed on with his agenda, in­sist­ing that Catholics must never try to con­vert Ortho­dox and bow­ing in prayer along­side the Ortho­dox pa­tri­arch af­ter they both lit a can­dle in the Ortho­dox cathe­dral.

Fran­cis called for the historical di­vi­sions that have “lac­er­ated” Chris­tian­ity to be healed through pa­tience, trust and di­a­logue.

“We are called to be one in Je­sus Christ and to avoid putting dishar­mony and di­vi­sions be­tween the bap­tized first, be­cause what unites us is much more than what di­vides us,” he told Pa­tri­arch Ilia, amid the Ara­maic chants and hyp­notic bells tolling at the cathe­dral in the spir­i­tual cap­i­tal of the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Church.

Satur­day’s de­vel­op­ments on the sec­ond and fi­nal day of Fran­cis’ visit to Ge­or­gia re­flected the “one step for­ward, two steps back” progress that of­ten ac­com­pa­nies the Vat­i­can’s out­reach to the Ortho­dox Church, which split from the Catholic Church over 1,000 years ago over is­sues in­clud­ing the pri­macy of the pope.

On Sun­day, Fran­cis heads to largely Shi­ite Mus­lim Azer­bai­jan, where the Catholic Church en­joys good re­la­tions with the gov­ern­ment de­spite al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights abuses and the sup­pres­sion of dis­sent.

Be­fore Fran­cis’ Cau­ca­sus visit, the Vat­i­can spokesman had said the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Pa­tri­ar­chate would send a del­e­ga­tion to the Mass in a Tbilisi sports sta­dium “in a sign of the rap­port” — sug­gest­ing that the chill which had clouded St. John Paul II’s visit in 1999 had warmed. And Fran­cis had re­ceived an un­ex­pect­edly warm wel­come from the Ortho­dox leader upon his ar­rival Fri­day.

But Ortho­dox pa­tri­ar­chate spokes­woman Nato Asa­tiani said Satur­day that the del­e­ga­tion had stayed away from the Mass “by mu­tual agree­ment.” The pa­tri­ar­chate up­dated a state­ment on its web­site say­ing “as long as there are dog­matic dif­fer­ences be­tween our churches, Ortho­dox be­liev­ers will not par­tic­i­pate in their prayers.”

The de­ci­sion ap­par­ently came af­ter Fran­cis’ ar­rival in Tbilisi was met with protests by hard-line Ortho­dox op­posed to ec­u­meni­cal ini­tia­tives. On Satur­day, about 100 mem­bers of the hard­line Union of Ortho­dox Par­ents demon­strated out­side the sta­dium where Fran­cis cel­e­brated Mass. Other protesters greeted him at the Ortho­dox cathe­dral and out­side a Catholic-run re­hab cen­ter.

“It’s typ­i­cal pros­e­ly­tiz­ing,” said pro­tester Fa­ther David Klividze. “Can you imag­ine how it would be if a Sunni preacher came to Shi­ite Iran and con­ducted prayers in a sta­dium or some­where else? Such a thing could not be.”

Ge­or­gia is over­whelm­ingly Ortho­dox, with less than 3 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion — or about 112,000 peo­ple — Catholic, ac­cord­ing to Vat­i­can sta­tis­tics.

Vat­i­can spokesman Greg Burke said the Vat­i­can ac­cepted the Ortho­dox de­ci­sion not to at­tend the Mass.

An Ortho­dox del­e­ga­tion at the Mass would have been an ex­cep­tion to the rule, and Fran­cis had been sched­uled to per­son­ally greet the del­e­ga­tion. In their ab­sence, Fran­cis in­stead thanked “those Ortho­dox faith­ful” who were present, in­clud­ing mem­bers of an Ortho­dox choir.

Or­ga­niz­ers had ex­pected the Meskhi sports sta­dium, ca­pac­ity 27,000, to be full for the Mass, but it held a few thou­sand peo­ple when Fran­cis be­gan the cel­e­bra­tion. There was no of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion for the low turnout of Catholics.

Other than Ge­or­gian Pres­i­dent Giorgi Margve­lashvili, there were no prom­i­nent Ge­or­gian politi­cians at the Mass. With a par­lia­men­tary elec­tion next week, politi­cians might have been re­luc­tant to alien­ate hard-line Ortho­dox vot­ers.

Fran­cis in­sisted that Catholics must never seek to con­vert Ortho­dox, say­ing they are Catholics’ brothers and sis­ters, chil­dren of the same God.

“Prose­lytism is a grave sin against ec­u­menism,” Fran­cis told Catholic priests and sem­i­nar­i­ans af­ter his Mass.

Prime Min­is­ter Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other cabi­net min­is­ters did show up for Fran­cis’ visit to the seat of the Ortho­dox church, where he pressed his call for im­proved Catholic-Ortho­dox ties.

The Ortho­dox cathe­dral is lo­cated in Mt­skheta, the spir­i­tual cap­i­tal of Ge­or­gia and where Chris­tian­ity took root in the 4th cen­tury. The 11th-cen­tury fres­coed Svetit­skhov­eli cathe­dral, one of three Mt­skheta mon­u­ments on the UNESCO World Her­itage list, is said to have housed Christ’s tu­nic.

Fran­cis re­ferred to the pre­cious relic Satur­day.

“The holy tu­nic, a mys­tery of unity, ex­horts us to feel deep pain over the historical di­vi­sions which have arisen among Chris­tians. These are the true and real lac­er­a­tions that wound the Lord’s flesh,” he said. Chris­tian hope, he added, “gives us the in­cen­tive to be­lieve that dif­fer­ences can be healed and ob­sta­cles re­moved. It in­vites us never to miss op­por­tu­ni­ties for en­counter and di­a­logue.”

Ilia wel­comed Fran­cis warmly to his church, ex­press­ing his “pro­found es­teem and broth­erly love” and em­brac­ing him with three kisses on the cheek.

“May God’s will unify Chris­tians on the foun­da­tion of the true faith,” he said.

While hard-lin­ers op­posed the pope’s visit, other Ortho­dox wel­comed it.

“The visit of the pope is very sig­nif­i­cant,” said Ami­ran Tsik­lauri, a res­i­dent of Tbilisi. “The pope is not only spir­i­tual leader for Catholics but also the per­son who calls and urges for peace around the world.”


Pope Fran­cis, right, greets uniden­ti­fied re­li­gious rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the end of a Mass in Tbilisi’s sta­dium, Ge­or­gia, on Satur­day. The pon­tiff is trav­el­ing to Ge­or­gia and Azer­bai­jan for a three-day visit.

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