Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct 3, 2016 / 04:05 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The tiny community of the Catholic Church in Georgia was barely surviving just decades ago. Now it has an opportunity to regenerate itself following Pope Francis' model of the “Church of consolation,” the local Catholic bishop has said.
“During his Mass, Pope Francis did not speak of a strong and powerful Church, but rather of a Church able to give consolation. And I thought: this is the Church I like, a Church that has openings and does not get used to things,” Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto explained.
Bishop Pasotto is an Italian religious of the Stigmatine congregation. He moved to Georgia in 1993, was appointed apostolic administrator of the Caucasus region in 1996.
“The path of our Christian community was beautiful and exciting. We started from zero,” he told CNA. “Back in 1993, there were Christian communities, but we had to teach them Mass again, as they were only used to praying the Rosary. So, we drafted the Missal and prepared new catechesis. We had a wonderful feedback.”
He then stressed that “perhaps Catholics in Georgia are less enthusiastic, but this is normal. It is just like a plane: it takes off quickly, but then it has to keep the route. I am not worried.”
Bishop Pasotto keeps this optimistic view also for what concern ecumenical relations, despite the tensions experienced between Catholics and Orthodox Christians during the last years. The Pope’s visit to Georgia included meetings with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Illa II.
Bishop Pasotto recounted: “After the Pope left, I asked Patriarch Ilia if he was really happy about the visit. Patriarch Ilia replied: ‘I am very happy the Pope came here. I met a good man.’ The Pope told me the same thing about Ilia Saturday, while we were together in the car: ‘Do you know that this Patriarch is really a good man?’ Both of them used the same words, by chance, with no knowledge of what the other said.”
Certainly, the Church of Georgia faces some hard situations, and further theological discussion is needed. For example, the phenomenon of re-baptism is always increasing. Orthodox Christians in the country baptize for a second time Catholics who marry Orthodox Christians, as they do not recognize the Catholic baptisms.
“I spoke once with an Orthodox bishop and I noted that it was a bad thing that my baptism was not recognized,” Bishop Pasotto reflected. “He said that this was a Georgian Orthodox Synod decision. I replied that this meant I was not Christian then, nor was the Pope. In response to his protest that I was Christian because I believed in Christ, I explained to him that those who believe in Jesus Christ are catechumens, but as long as they are not baptized they are not Christian. And he agreed some further reflection was needed.”
The dialogue is not easy, though things were not so bad in the past. Patriarch Ilia was the first Georgian Orthodox Patriarch to visit the Pope in Rome, back in 1980. Then the situation worsened. After the fall of Communism, some priests coming from the Russian Orthodox Church spread a notion of ecumenism that did not allow any ecumenical relations.
“This new ‘philosophy’ of closed ecumenism was opposite of the Georgian habit, which is generally tolerant toward every denomination. But this new thought spread, and there were pressures from some of the monasteries that put at risk the unity of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with the threat of schism,” the bishop said. “So Patriarch Ilia had to make a step back, in order to preserve the unity of the Church." Despite the difficulties, there is now a community that feels strengthened by the Pope’s visit.
“After the Pope’s visit, the cathedral was filled with people and everyone had a special story to tell about the Pope and how they met him or they saw him,” recounted Bishop Pasotto. “Our challenge now is to value this enthusiasm, so that it does not go wasted.”