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Francis in Georgia amidst growing anticipation. The suffered witness of the small Catholic community

Pope Bergoglio will be in Tbilisi and then in Azerbaijan from September 20 to October 2. The Catholic population in Georgia amounts to less than 1% while a large majority are Orthodox. Three testimonies to discover the joys, hopes and obstacles that will be shared with the Pope

“Catholics in Georgia are preparing to welcome the successor of Peter, looking forward to a testimony of the faith which they strongly need in an environment which not always encourages their presence”, said Father Akaki Chelidze, chancellor of the Apostolic Administration for the Caucasus and the Latin rite, first Catholic of the Camillian order in Georgia to live out the religious profession after two centuries of Soviet, Russian domination. Today the Country has approximately 6 million inhabitants, most of whom are Orthodox (85%), while Catholics amount to 50 thousand (0.8%). In the Catholic community there is growing anticipation for the visit of Pope Francis to Georgia and Azerbaijan, due to take place from September 30th to October 2.

Encouraging signs and hanging problems. Father Chelidze said that the decision of the Orthodox Church of Georgia to “receive the illustrious guest in the best possible way” is “very encouraging”, seen that – he told SIR – “in the public arena criticism of Pope Francis has been advanced by members of the ultra-orthodox community.” A couple of months ago Fr Chelidze reported acts of vandalism against the catholic church in the city of Rustavi, where authorities gave permission to build a church after many years. Graffiti against the present apostolic nuncio Monsignor Giuseppe Passoto, “guilty” of having placed a Holy Door on the site that will house the new church, was found on the external walls of the new place of worship in Tbilisi

 

Relations with the Orthodox community. Fr Maciej Mamaj, 48, Polish prelate, vicar of the Saint Peter and Paul parish church in Tblisi, said he deplores “the lack of openness to dialogue shown by Georgia’s Orthodox Church.” The prelate said that following John Paul II’s visit to Georgia in November 1999 the Orthodox religious hierarchy imposed a severe penalty to all those who had attended celebrations or meetings with the Pope. After having been granted national sovereignty in 1991, when the Georgian Orthodox Church was deemed to side with the nationalist faction, it was said that “a true Georgian is  Orthodox and those who are not Orthodox are considered traitors”, said Fr Mamaj, noting a “widespread” feeling whereby the Catholic presence “disturbs” and “destroys the national unity of the Georgian people.” The prelate denounced the appropriation of five Catholic places of worship in Gori, Kutaisi and Batumi by national authorities, along with the transformation of some of these sites into Orthodox cathedrals. “By paradox – he said – during the years of Communist rule cooperation and dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox Church were exemplary.”

Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Tbilisi. The church dedicated to the saints Peter and Paul in Tbilisi was the only church that remained open to worship in Georgia in the 1970s, under Communist dictatorship, “which managed to destroy everything”, as recorded by one of the major scholars on the history of Catholicism in the Caucasus Fr Roman Dzwonkowski.

His words are confirmed by the figures:

In 1884 there were almost 30 thousand practising Catholics in Tbilisi (known at the time as Tiflis), 25 thousand of whom were Poles. St. Peter and Paul’s parish church, erected in 1851 on the initiative of the then Apostolic Visitator for the Caucasus Fr Maksymilian Orlowski, in 1884 could count on the presence of 2 300 faithful, of whom 1900 were Polish, 95 French, 86 Italians and others with different nationalities.

Mass in Georgian, Russian, Latin, Polish and English. Today, Fr Mamaj remarked, the same parish church is attended by some 400 faithful, 150 of whom, of Indian, Pakistani, or African origin, attend the Sunday Mass celebrated in English. Each Sunday at 11.30, Mass is celebrated in Georgian before 120 faithful, while the afternoon liturgy is celebrated in Latin with readings and answers from the faithful in the Russian language. The latter is attended by 20 to 40 faithful. The weekly liturgy for approximately one hundred faithful, members of the Neo-Catechumenal community, is celebrated on Saturday evenings. The liturgy is celebrated in Polish each second Wednesday of the month. However, added Fr Mamaj, “it is attended by approximately a dozen people, most of whom are senior citizens.” “I look forward to the Pope’s visit as days of joy, and I hope it will be a time for drawing closer to God and to our brothers”, said Fr Mamaj. “I hope that the wind kindled by the Pope is the wind of the Holy Spirit.”

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