TBILISI, Georgia (CNS) — Paying honor to the steadfast faith of Orthodox Christians in Georgia, Pope Francis nevertheless 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 Sept. 30 and welcomed him to the patriarchal palace after the pope’s meeting with the Georgian president.
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 percent of Georgians are Orthodox; Catholics from the Latin, Armenian and Chaldean churches form about 2 percent 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.
Small groups of Orthodox faithful gathered on the road outside Tbilisi airport holding signs protesting the pope’s visit. One sign called him a “heretic” and the other accused the Catholic Church of “spiritual aggression.”
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 globalization 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. The 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 evangelize 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 evangelizing 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.”