15:53 Oct. 1, 2016
Despite warm welcome given to Pope, Georgian Orthodox Church ignored the Mass
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, AP reports.
In the run-up to Francis' Caucasus visit, the Vatican spokesman had said the Orthodox Patriarchate would send a delegation to the Mass in a Tbilisi sports stadium "in a sign of the rapport between the two churches". But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said Saturday that the delegation had stayed away "by mutual agreement."
The patriarchate updated a previous 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 update apparently came after Francis' arrival Friday in Tbilisi was met with protests of hardline Orthodox opposed to any ecumenical initiatives by their church.
Francis had been scheduled to personally greet the delegation at the end of the Mass. Instead, Francis thanked "those Orthodox faithful" who were present.
Organizers had said they expected the Meshki sports stadium, capacity 27,000, to be full for the Mass, but only a few thousand people took their seats in the stands by the time Francis entered on his popemobile and began the celebration. Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, with less than 3 percent of the population — or about 112,000 people — Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.
Earlier Francis had received a surprisingly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Friday for the three-day visit that also includes a stop in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. Patriarch Ilia welcomed Francis as my "dear brother" and toasted him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome."
It was a different tone compared to the chill that characterized John Paul II's 1999 visit, when Ilia greeted him only as a head of state, not a religious leader. Then, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass.
The last-minute decision not to send an Orthodox delegation to Francis' Mass, and to repeat that Orthodox shouldn't attend, suggested a "one step forward, two steps back" progress that often characterizes the Vatican's ecumenical efforts.
Other than Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, there were no prominent Georgian politicians on hand for the Mass. "That suggested that with parliamentary elections planned for next week, politicians might have been reluctant to alienate any hardline Orthodox voters with their presence," AP states.
Upon arriving in the country's capital city of Tbilisi on Sep.30, Francis met with the president, prime minister, parliament speaker, representatives of diplomatic corps and religious leaders. Pope will visit Azerbaijan on October 2, local media AzVision adds.