TBILISI, Georgia — Speaking to Georgia’s religious and civil authorities on Saturday, Pope Francis affirmed the country’s Christian identity and called the Georgian Orthodox Church to recall the unity of baptism among Christian believers.
“Those baptized in Christ, as St. Paul teaches, have been clothed in Christ,” the Pope said Oct. 1 at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, located just 15 miles northwest of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
“Thus, notwithstanding our limitations and quite apart from all successive cultural and historical distinctions, we are called to be ‘one in Christ Jesus’ and to avoid putting first disharmony and divisions between the baptized, because what unites us is much more than what divides us.”
The cathedral is the seat of the Patriarchate of Georgia, one of 14 autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches. Pope Francis was addressing Patriarch Ilia II, along with religious and civil authorities and representatives of the diplomatic corps and the academic and cultural world.
Pope Francis' visit to Georgia finds a country where dialogue among Christians is particularly difficult, with cool relations between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the country’s tiny Catholic minority.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, to which more than 80% of Georgians adhere — is considered part of the national identity. While it is not an established religion, the Georgian constitution does acknowledge Georgian Orthodoxy’s special role in the nation. Catholics, meanwhile, constitute only about 2% of Georgia’s population.
Pope Francis thanked the Georgian people for their welcome of him and their witness of faith, and told Ilia, “The Lord has granted us the joy of meeting one another and of exchanging a holy kiss; may he pour out upon us the fragrant balm of concord and bestow his abundant blessings upon our path.”
He commended the Georgian language for its “meaningful expressions, which describe fraternity, friendship and closeness among people” and asked that such a fraternal attitude might “mark the way ahead for our journey together.”
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is traditionally held to hold the relics of St. Sidonia, who was buried with Christ’s seamless tunic. Reflecting on this, Pope Francis said the cathedral “invites us to remember the past,” saying this is “more necessary than ever.”
Georgia's history “relates holy testimonies and Christian values, which have forged the soul and culture of the country,” and expresses openness, welcome and integration.
“These are most precious and enduring values, both for this land and the entire region,” he said. “Such values express the Christian identity, which is maintained when deeply rooted in faith and also when it is open and ready, never rigid or closed.”
“The Christian message — as this holy place recalls — has for centuries been the pillar of Georgian identity: It has given stability through so many upheavals, even when, sadly not infrequently, the fate of the nation was bitterly left to fend for itself,” Pope Francis reflected.
“But the Lord never abandoned the beloved land of Georgia, because he is ‘faithful in all his words and loving in all his deeds; he upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.’”
He said God’s “tender and compassionate closeness” is shown particularly by Christ’s tunic, “’without seam, woven from top to bottom,’ [which] has attracted the attention of Christians from the beginning.”
He referred to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who called the tunic a sign of Christian unity, “which could not be definitively rent.” Francis said the tunic “exhorts us to feel deep pain over the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians,” calling them “the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord’s flesh.”
“At the same time, however, ‘that unity which comes from above,’ the love of Christ which has brought us together … urge us to not give up but rather to offer ourselves as he did” and to “sincere charity and to mutual understanding, to bind up wounds, with a spirit of pure Christian fraternity.”
He added that this “requires patience nurtured through trusting others and through humility” and “rejoicing in the certainty which Christian hope allows us to enjoy.”
This certainty helps us believe “differences can be healed and obstacles removed,” he said, and “invites us never to miss opportunities for encounter and dialogue, and to protect and together improve what already exists.”
He pointed to baptism’s profound role in Georgian culture, noting that the Georgian word for “education” comes from the same root and “thus relates strictly to baptism.”
“The elegance of the language helps us think of the beauty of Christian life, that, from its radiant beginnings, is maintained when it remains in the light of goodness and when it rejects the darkness of evil,” he said.
“Such beauty of the Christian life is preserved when, by guarding faithfulness to its own roots, it does not give in to closed ways of thinking, which darken life, but rather remains well-disposed to welcome and to learn, to be enlightened by all that is beautiful and true.”
He assured Georgians of his prayers, that the Lord might “deepen the love between all believers in Christ and the enlightened pursuit of everything which brings us together, reconciles us and unites us.”
“May prayer and love make us ever more receptive to the Lord’s ardent desire, so that everyone who believes in him, through the preaching of the apostles, will ‘be one.’”