News Headlines > Orthodox delegation fail to turn up for papal Mass

02 October 2016 | by Christopher Lamb

Orthodox delegation fail to turn up for papal Mass

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Georgian spokesman says as long as there are 'dogmatic differences' its members won't share prayers

Pope Francis’ attempts to heal the ancient rift between eastern and western Christianity suffered a setback on Saturday after a delegation from the Georgian Orthodox Church stayed away from a Mass in Tbilisi.

Before Francis left Rome, the Vatican said a delegation representing the Georgian patriarch would be present at the liturgy celebrated at a sports stadium “in a sign of the rapport between the two churches.” It was also suggested that relations had warmed since John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999 where Orthodox believers were banned from attending a Mass.  

But a spokesman for the Orthodox said the delegation didn’t turn up on Saturday by “mutual agreement” with the patriarchate’s office later saying in a statement that "as long as there are dogmatic differences between our churches, Orthodox believers will not participate in their prayers.”

It is a sign of the difficulties which has held up progress in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, something which this Pope has worked hard at trying to improve: he had an historic meeting with the Russian patriarch earlier this year and has developed close ties with the leader of global orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

According to Vatican spokesman Greg Burke the decision not to attend Saturday’s Mass was conveyed to the papal delegation on Friday night while adding Orthodox law did not allow for participation from the patriarchate.  

Improving relations with the Orthodox are one of the themes of Francis’ weekend visit to the Caucasus region, and on Saturday he once again called for the historic divisions in Christianity to be healed through patient dialogue. 

But the Georgian Orthodox are some of the most hostile to Catholics with about 100 protesters gathering outside the Mass today accusing the Pope of proselytising and when he stepped off the plane in Tbilisi some held up signs describing the Vatican as a “spiritual aggressor.”

Nevertheless, on Saturday Francis described proselytising as a “great sin” against ecumenism telling priests and religious that they must never seek to convert orthodox. And in the evening he went to the cathedral in Mtskheta, the area where Christianity took root in the country in the 4th century.

"The holy tunic, a mystery of unity, exhorts us to feel deep pain over the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians: these are the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord's flesh," the Pope said in the cathedral. 

Here he also lit candles alongside the Orthodox Patriarch, Ilia II, with the two bowing their heads in prayer alongside each other. This followed a meeting between the leaders on Friday where they toasted each other with the patriarch saying Francis’ visit would improve relations between the churches while describing the Pope as a "dear brother.”

During his homily at the Mass on Saturday, the Pope discussed the importance of women for the Church citing the female figure of Saint Nino, who brought the Christian faith to Georgia. 

Quoting Saint Therese of Lisieux the Pope said women love God in greater numbers than men and that: “here in Georgia there are a great number of grandmothers and mothers who unceasingly defend and pass on the faith.”

There were, however, only a few thousand in the stadium to hear his words even though organisers had expected it fill to its capacity of 27,000. The low numbers were a surprise given it was a beautifully sunny day in Tbilisi.  

The division between Christianity in the east and west dates back to the Great Schism of 1054 when the church split over a row about the trinity and the authority of the Pope. The latter issue is the main sticking point today. 

Tomorrow, Francis continues his visit by travelling to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a Muslim majority country: here, he is due to take part in an inter-faith gathering and meet with one of the most important figures in global Islam, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, Allahshukur Pashazadeh.

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