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Orthodox delegation stays away from pope’s Mass


    Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a Mass at the Meskhi stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. The pontiff is traveling to Georgia and Azerbaijan for a three-day visit.

TBILISI, Georgia >> Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Saturday for Georgia’s tiny Catholic community and pressed his mission to improve ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church, but only a few thousand Catholics turned out and an expected delegation from the Orthodox church stayed away altogether.

In the run-up to Francis’ Caucasus visit, the Vatican spokesman had said the Orthodox Patriarchate would send a delegation to his Mass “in a sign of the rapport between the two churches” — suggesting that the chill that had clouded St. John Paul II’s 1999 visit had warmed slightly.

But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said Saturday that the delegation had stayed away “by mutual agreement.” There was no immediate comment from the Vatican, but Francis’ arrival had been met with protests by hardline Orthodox opposed to any ecumenical initiatives by their church.

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. There was no immediate explanation for the low turnout on the brilliantly sunny day.

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

In his homily, Francis urged his faithful to find consolation in God and not be “saddened by the lack of harmony around us.”

“It is when we are united, in communion, that God’s consolation works in us,” he said.

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. 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 this time around 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.

Francis’ visit has been met with some protests by hardline Orthodox, who demonstrated outside the airport and Chaldean church holding signs saying “The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor,” and “Death of papism.”

The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, indicating something of an institutional shift that has accompanied Georgia’s geopolitical aspirations. Georgia is anxious to join NATO and is pursuing an eventual membership in the 28-nation European Union. The papal visit is being seen in Georgia as the government’s attempt to win allies among Europe’s Catholic nations.

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

The Orthodox cathedral is located in Mtskheta, the spiritual capital of Georgia and where Christianity took root in the 4th century. The 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral, one of three Mtskheta monuments on the UNESCO world heritage list, is said to have housed Christ’s tunic.

“For the Christian world and not only, the visit of the pope is very significant,” said Amiran Tsiklauri, an Orthodox resident of Tbilisi. “The pope is not only spiritual leader for Catholics but also the person who calls and urges for peace around the world.”

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