En masse, Ortho­dox body opts out of pope’s Mass

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - WORLD - By Ni­cole Win­field and Misha Dzhindzhik­hashvili

TBIL­ISI, Ge­or­gia — Pope Fran­cis’ ef­forts to im­prove re­la­tions with the Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Church suf­fered a pub­lic set­back Satur­day af­ter the pa­tri­ar­chate de­cided not to send an of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tion to his Mass and re­peated that Ortho­dox faith­ful can­not par­tic­i­pate in Catholic ser­vices.

Fran­cis nev­er­the­less pressed on with his agenda, in­sist­ing Catholics must never try to con­vert Ortho­dox and bow­ing in prayer along­side the Ortho­dox pa­tri­arch af­ter they both lit a can­dle in the Ortho­dox spir­i­tual head­quar­ters. He called for the his­tor­i­cal di­vi­sions that have “lac­er­ated” Chris­tian­ity to be healed through pa­tience, trust and di­a­logue.

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 Ortho­dox and other Chris­tian churches.

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

In the run-up to 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 be­tween the two churches” — sug­gest­ing that the chill that had clouded the 1999 visit of St. John Paul II to Ge­or­gia had warmed.

And Fran­cis re­ceived an un­ex­pect­edly warm wel­come from the Ortho­dox leader upon his ar­rival Fri­day, with Pa­tri­arch Ilia II call­ing Fran­cis my “dear brother” and toast­ing him, say­ing: “May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome.”

But Ortho­dox pa­tri­ar­chate spokes­woman Nato Asa­tiani said Satur­day that the del­e­ga­tion had stayed away “by mu­tual agree­ment.” The pa­tri­ar­chate up­dated a state­ment on its web­site say­ing that, “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 Fri­day in Tbil­isi was met with protests of hard-line Ortho­dox op­posed to any ec­u­meni­cal ini­tia­tives by their church. On Satur­day, about 100 mem­bers of the hard-line Union of Ortho­dox Par­ents demon­strated out­side the sta­dium where Fran­cis cel­e­brated Mass.

“It’s typ­i­cal pros­e­ly­tiz­ing,” said pro­tester the Rev. 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. There­fore, we are speak­ing against this.”

Vat­i­can spokesman Greg Burke said the Vat­i­can ac­cepted the Ortho­dox de­ci­sion not to at­tend, which he said had been con­veyed to the pa­pal del­e­ga­tion Fri­day night. Ortho­dox law didn’t al­low for the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the del­e­ga­tion, he said.

Fran­cis had been sched­uled to per­son­ally greet the del­e­ga­tion at the end of the Mass. In­stead, Fran­cis thanked “those Ortho­dox faith­ful” who were present.

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. “One must not pros­e­ly­tize the Ortho­dox.”

Or­ga­niz­ers had said they ex­pected the Meskhi sports sta­dium, ca­pac­ity 27,000, to be full for the Mass, but only a few thou­sand peo­ple were present by the time Fran­cis be­gan the cel­e­bra­tion. There was no im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion for the low turnout of Catholic faith­ful.

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

Fran­cis’ main ec­u­meni­cal event of the day was an evening visit to the seat of the Ortho­dox church, where he pressed his call for im­proved Catholic-Ortho­dox ties.


Pope Fran­cis, cen­ter, passes through a Holy Door be­fore cel­e­brat­ing Mass in a Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, sta­dium Satur­day.

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