Thursday, August 7, 2014

Notes on Christianity in the Republic of Georgia

This summer has been our first opportunity to live in an Orthodox country and I wanted to share some of our experiences and observations about Christian life in Tbilisi and Georgia in general.   Christianity has deep roots in Georgia that extend all the way back to the original Apostles.  Georgia was first evangelized by Andrew and is the final resting place of Matthias (the one who was chosen to replace Judas)—his tomb was once in a church around which a military fortress was built, now only 4 miles from the Turkish border, but the church was razed by the Ottoman when they took the fort and only a cross inside marks St. Matthias’ grave.  Georgia has been attacked by many powers.  The Turks alone have gone to war with the Georgians over 300 times trying to take and occupy the land.  In the southeastern part of the country we visited a monastery—Davit Gareja—where the Persian army entered and slaughtered all the monks on one Easter Sunday.  We have also visited another monastery—Gelati—in the central region of the country that saw monks fall to the same fate at the hands of Arab armies.  Both monasteries contain the monks’ relics and are truly beautiful, located on mountain sides or in the desert.  The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mksheta, the old capital, is built over a grave that contains the robe Christ wore while carrying the cross to the crucifixion, not the burial cloth, and came to Georgia from a Jewish man named Elioz who returned from Jerusalem to Mksheta.  The robe ended up with his sister who was buried with it and the cathedral rests over this space.  The church is beautiful and incredibly peaceful, you recognize that you are in a holy place when you enter there.  Even with all this history, the contemporary Christian life in the country is not strong.

What is the best way to describe the contemporary Christian life in Georgia?  When one remembers that the Soviet occupation lasted from the early 1920s until 1991, there will be a long and difficult recovery period.  But the Georgian Orthodox Church seems to be clinging to political power and continues to be very nationalistic.  The prevailing mentality wishes to block all other religious expression (there is not a legally recognized constitutional right to change religion) and to propose the Orthodox faith through the dominance of culture thus making it the only possible option.   New churches are being constructed and old churches are being restored, but other than at a formal level, the Orthodox Church does not have a cultural presence.  In a sense, it is like the situation Giussani described in The Risk of Education where Italy in the 1950s had many people attending Mass, but few saw a place for Christ in their lives.  Faith had become a formality and was almost meaningless in individual lives.  This is the case here.  But the situation is much weaker than in Italy as only 8% of the population is faithful to the Orthodox religion.  There is a catechesis crisis as very few their faith and superstitions are abundant.  In some ways, the Church teachings seem to conform themselves to the dominant political culture rather than being faithful to the Gospel; maybe I am wrong but this is what our experience suggests.

Tomb of Apostle Matthias
The Catholic Church has endured suffering with almost all of its parishes being taken by the communist government and given to the Orthodox.  The Marxist government only allowed the Church to maintain one parish in Tbilisi and all the others were confiscated.  The Catholic cathedral in Tbilisi was appropriated by the state to use for storage.  When communism ended, the government allowed the Church to re-gain the cathedral but the other parishes continued to be in the hands of the Orthodox.  Even the beautiful gothic cathedral of Batumi remains under Orthodox control.  It is strange to visit these appropriated churches because the Orthodox have maintained frescos, some of the statues (probably those that could not be removed!) and confessionals (some turned into small gift shops) that are out-of-place in  an Orthodox-style place of worship.  The architecture is classically Catholic—Latin cross plan with side naves separated by columns rather than Greek cross which is typical of the Orthodox Church—and the buildings have Latin inscriptions indicating their Catholic name.  These are parishes that have been stolen by the Orthodox who now do their best to block the Catholic presence in Georgia. 

The Catholic Church is not pursuing the return of its lifted parishes but trying to build new parishes to replace the ones that were stolen.  The Church has been successful in building a new beautiful parish in Batumi although it is already too small as the Sunday Mass crowds are too large for its seating capacity.  In Kutaisi, the Church is meeting in a house and cannot receive the authorization to build a new parish because the local mayor has received pressure from the Orthodox Church and will not sign the authorization permit.  The Church has invested much time in gaining approval for all the necessary components for this construction project, but although everything else has been approved, the project cannot start until the mayor signs the paper.  Ironically, the historic Catholic Church in Kutaisi, now in Orthodox hands, is named for the Immaculate Conception and the local hierarchy has built a theological college outside its doors.  After taking the only Catholic parish, they are refusing to allow the Catholic Church to replace it. 

Davit Gareja (on the border with
While the Orthodox hierarchy and religious never ‘officially’ threatened the Catholic faithful with violence, this is not true for the Georgian Orthodox faithful.  In 2002, the Catholic bishop led a pilgrimage to a monastery which houses the tomb of St Nina, the saint who brought the Christian faith to Georgia sometime around the fifth century.   When the group was approaching a city they were to pass through on their way, they were first stopped by the police who checked everyone’s id.  Next, the local Orthodox religious showed up and harassed the group.  After they left, a group of laypeople armed with baseball bats and other instruments of violence came and physically threatened the pilgrims if they stepped inside the town.  The bishop was amongst the faithful and decided to end the pilgrimage.  The Georgian Orthodox said that Catholics were not welcome even to pass through their town.  The police and Orthodox clergy were complicit in this threat which they unofficially sponsored.  The local Catholics were ashamed to be Georgian on this day.

Another instance of Orthodox antagonism to the Catholic Church happened in 2003 when the Nuncio came to Tbilisi to sign a bilateral agreement between the Georgian government and the Holy See that would protect freedom of religion and that had been in the works for a long time.  On that day, hundreds of people flooded the streets, including Orthodox priests and a bishop, protesting this signing, saying that they did not want the Catholic Church in Georgia. The Patriarch and the Orthodox hierarchy were behind these protests, which had obviously been planned in advance, but claimed that they had nothing to do with it, that it was the ‘natural’ reaction of the faithful.  The Nuncio and the Vatican were extremely disappointed about this last minute turn-face of the Georgian government.  In a later note published on the Osservatore Romano, the Nuncio publicly expressed his disappointment and accused the Orthodox Church of spreading false rumors about the Catholic Church and the proposed agreement with the Georgian government.  John Paul II suffered greatly because of this ‘betrayal’.

This animosity is still present and we have had only a slight experience of it.  Last Saturday, we hired a taxi to bring us to Kakheti, the wine region of the country, where we would visit some cities and Orthodox churches.  This was a long day as we were picked up in Tbilisi and drove around the region and returned to our apartment fourteen hours later.  The sights were beautiful and when we were at the furthest point from Tbilisi, we passed Telavi to visit the Alaverdi Cathedral, a grand picturesque church surrounded by a stone wall and the Caucasus Mountains in the background.  Our taxi driver accompanied us inside as we walked toward the church; at the main door, we were met by the two young men wearing black shirts (maybe seminarians, servers, or church volunteers) who slammed the huge door in our face and said that we were not enter.  Ironically, they knew nothing about us other than that we were not Georgian (it would not have mattered even if we were of a different orthodox faith, the thing that mattered was our nationality).  After a few moments they walked away, but waited by the entrance in the city wall surrounding the cathedral for us to leave.  In any case, this was the only time in Georgia where we were in any way threatened.             

Icon from Orthodox Church in Tblisi
After the Soviet oppression of the Church, the Catholic population is small and has yet to recover its previous numbers.  The local clergy and bishop are beautiful people who have a great humility and receive foreigners with great affection.  We have spent most of our time attending the small Catholic Cathedral in Tbilisi and have been fortunate to get to know the bishop and local priest.  The bishop asks people to call him Fr. Giuseppe rather than ‘Your Excellency’ or ‘Your Grace’ and actually has worked on the Cathedral renovation with his bare hands.  He has a difficult task in his ecumenical meetings with the Orthodox hierarchy who make life difficult for Catholics.  For example, they do not even recognize Catholic baptism and make life hard for those families where one member is Orthodox and the other Catholic.  Yes, Bishop Giuseppe has a challenging assignment but he may be the perfect person appointed to this task.  I believe that under his leadership the Church has a bright future in Georgia.

After being in Tbilisi for only six weeks, I am in no way an expert.  However, the Orthodox Church, like much of Georgian culture, is not seeking beauty and does not seem to know how to respond to the contemporary world.  It is tied up with nationalism that somehow sees Christianity as connected with the Georgian ethnicity and has a great fear of other Christians.  While this is true of the present, the future may be different.  When one goes to a daily Mass, there are frequently Orthodox visitors who sit in the back pews and are actively engaging the Church.  There are even young Orthodox clergy who attend.  Perhaps they recognize that something is wrong in the orientation of their leadership.  When this generation comes to lead the Orthodox Church, there may be a renewal in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

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