Tbilisi, Georgia, Sep 30, 2016 / 04:13 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis on his visit to Georgia will find a country where dialogue among Christians is particularly difficult, with cool relations between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the country’s tiny Catholic minority. For this reason his trip is “ecumenical, but not according to the common meaning of the word ecumenism,” a top official of the Catholic Church in Georgia told CNA.
The Georgian Orthodox Church — an Eastern Orthodox Church to which more than 80 percent of Georgians adhere — is considered part of the national identity. While it is not an established religion, the Georgian constitution does acknowledge Georgian Orthodoxy's special role in the nation. Catholics, meanwhile, constitute only one percent of Georgia's population, while members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (which is Oriental Orthodox) are three percent, and Muslims are more than 10 percent.
Fr. Akaki Chelidze, a Camillian Father who serves as chancellor of the Apostolic Administration of the Caucasus, spoke about the situation in Georgia. He said the Orthodox Church in Georgia has always considered itself the “necessary glue to keep the nation together.” This is probably why it considers other religious denominations as “rivals, or even obstacles, for the unity of the country.”
The delicate situation with the Georgian Orthodox Church could overshadow the papal visit there. Relations between Catholics and Orthodox are cool: It is no coincidence that there will be no common prayer celebrated by Pope Francis and Patriarch Ilia II, though it is a sign of goodwill that the patriarch was present at the Pope's arrival at Tbilisi airport on Friday.
The way from the airport to downtown Tbilisi, as well as the streets where the Pope passed, were decorated with Vatican and Georgian imagery, but there was no sign or banner to signal the arrival of the Pope. Not until Sept. 29 was a banner celebrating the Pope’s visit set up on the side of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. The banner went up while Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto, Apostolic Administrator of the Caucasus, was saying Mass in the cathedral.
Fr. Chelidze spoke about the broader cultural context. “The Georgian Orthodox Church is very much linked (even senselessly) to the Russian form of anti-Catholicism,” explained the priest, adding that this anti-Catholic attitude has increased in the course of the years. The Catholic portion of the population does not expand, due in part to the Georgian Orthodox Church's regard for Catholic baptisms as invalid: If a Catholic wants to marry a Georgian Orthodox, they must submit to an (attempted) second baptism.
“Pope Francis will not perhaps have the warm welcome he had in Armenia, as the word ‘ecumenism’ cannot even be pronounced in Georgia,” Fr. Chelidze stressed. There will not be a common prayer of the Pope and Ilia II, but neither was there a common prayer back in 1999, during the visit of St. John Paul II. Fr. Chelidze said it is still a positive development that the patriarchate said the Pope will be “welcomed in the best way possible.”
It is also positive that some people of Georgia, even non-Catholics, are happy for the visit. Given the delicacy of the issue of Catholic-Orthodox relations, the Pope will likely not mention it during his speeches. According to Fr. Chelidze, Pope Francis’ visit will mostly concern meeting with the local Catholic Church, to which Pope Francis will provide guidance concerning pastoral care and commitment to charity.
Considering the Caucasus situation, peace will certainly be a core issue. The most known conflicts in the Georgia are the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; they were the subject of a war with Russia in 2008. They have declared their independence from Georgia, and are administered by Russia. Fr. Chelidze said that given the political and socio-economic difficulties, the Georgian people are “waiting to be encouraged.”
According to the priest, the papal trip fills the heart of the Catholic Church in Georgia with hope and recalls the prayer of Jesus Christ for his disciples. “It will be good to hear the Holy Father talking about ‘that they may be one,’ that is, the communion among the different Catholic rites,” Fr. Chelidze said.