Pope’s Caucasus Trip: Encouraging Unity and Promoting Peace

The Holy Father’s visit concluded his three-nation papal tour of the Caucasus region of former Soviet republics. He visited Armenia in June.

Pope Francis meets with Georgia Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sept. 30, during his papal visit to the country.
Pope Francis meets with Georgia Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sept. 30, during his papal visit to the country. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis held up paths to peaceful coexistence, Christian unity and interreligious harmony, while condemning gender ideology, divorce, and violence in the name of religion, during his three-day apostolic voyage to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which wrapped up Oct. 2.

The Holy Father’s visit concluded his three-nation papal tour of the Caucasus region of former Soviet republics. He visited Armenia in June.

For years, the region has suffered from numerous tensions and conflicts: Georgia primarily with neighboring Russia; Armenia with its Muslim-majority Azerbaijan neighbor over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Georgians are mostly Orthodox, Azerbaijan is a Shiite Muslim-majority nation, and the three states are celebrating 25 years of independence from the former Soviet Union.

The Pope praised both Georgia and Azerbaijan for regaining personal liberty, promoting civic and economic growth and building democratic institutions, but he also issued advice and warnings for the future.

In his first discourse, to civic leaders and diplomats on arrival in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Sept. 30, Francis called for a “climate of civilized dialogue, where reason, moderation and responsibility can prevail,” especially at a time when there is “no shortage of violent extremism.”

He praised Georgia for its rich Christian culture, for being “in a particular way” the “bedrock of European civilization,” and for being a “natural bridge between Europe and Asia.” On the plane back to Rome, he said he was surprised by the breadth of Christianity there and that it has so many martyrs.

But he stressed that to achieve peaceful coexistence, priority must be given to “human beings in their actual circumstances” and that ethnic, political, religious and linguistic differences should be seen as “a source of mutual enrichment” rather than grounds for exploitation and discord.


Patriarch Ilia II

At a meeting later that afternoon with the Catholicos and Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, the spiritual head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Pope said it was “divine Providence” that he should visit Georgia’s Orthodox Christians during this jubilee year and at a time when the world is “thirsting for mercy, unity and peace.” This demands an ardent renewal of “our commitment to the bonds which exist between us,” he said.

Through “peace and forgiveness,” he added, “we are called to overcome our true enemies, who are not of flesh and blood, but the evil spirits from without and from within ourselves.” And he expressed hope that difficulties would not be an obstacle but a stimulus to grow in cooperation and “common witness.”

A meeting followed with the Assyrian-Chaldean community in Georgia, during which the Holy Father prayed to the Lord to “envelop in paschal light those who are deeply wounded” by persecution and to “raise up Iraq and Syria from devastation.”

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Pope’s encounter with the Assyrian-Chaldean Catholics, many of whom have been subjected to violence and persecution throughout the region, was an opportunity to show his closeness to the Church in Syria and Iraq.

“This is extremely important,” Burke told Vatican Radio, observing that although it is currently impossible for the Holy Father to travel to either country, nonetheless they are “both places very close to his heart, with the Church suffering there.”


Tbilisi Homily

In his homily at an open-air Mass in Tbilisi Oct. 1, the Pope focused on the example of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, whose “little way” showed us “the trust of a little child who falls asleep without fear in his Father’s arms” because the Lord does not “demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.”

“As a mother takes upon herself the burdens and weariness of her children, so, too, does God take upon himself our sins and troubles,” the Pope said. “Beyond any evil we are capable of, we always remain his children; he wants to take us in his arms, protect us and free us from harm and evil.”

The Pope pointed out “doors of consolation, which must always be open, because Jesus especially loves to enter through them,” and he highlighted these as “silent prayer in adoration, confession, the Eucharist.” It is through these doors, he said “that the Lord enters and gives new flavor to reality.”

He then called on the faithful to pray for the grace of a simple, believing and loving heart, so to “live in peaceful and complete trust in God’s mercy.”

Symbolizing the continued difficulties in Catholic-Orthodox relations, fewer than 3,000 of the facility’s 27,000 seats were filled at the Mass, in Tbilisi’s Mikheil Meskhi Stadium. The Vatican was hoping for more Orthodox believers to attend, but the patriarchate announced earlier this week that its clergy could not take part “due to dogmatic differences.”


Leave Doctrine to Theologians

On the plane back to Rome, the Pope said Patriarch Ilia II was “truly a man of God,” urged emphasis on “things that unite us and separate us” and said to leave doctrine to theologians.

Burke told Vatican Radio that “nobody’s naïve; there are complications” in relations, but he preferred to focus on the “good perspectives.”

He highlighted a “beautiful” meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Ilia II the day before, when they had a “very familiar tea together” and the patriarch said: “May God bless the Church of Rome.” Despite the difficulties, Burke said, “There is much goodwill.”

In more improvised remarks to priests, religious and seminarians in Tbilisi on Oct. 1, Francis stressed the importance of handing down the faith to the next generation and held up as an example the strength of faith of a very elderly Georgian woman who had traveled many miles to see him when he visited Armenia in June.


‘The Most Beautiful Thing’

He praised marriage as “the most beautiful thing that God has created,” condemned divorce as soiling the image of God and advised anyone tempted by the devil to be unfaithful to seek help “immediately.” The Pope also again strongly condemned gender ideology, which he called “a great enemy to marriage today.”

“Today there is a world war to destroy marriage, ideological colonization which destroys, not with weapons, but with ideas,” Francis said. “Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves from ideological colonization.”

Addressing a seminarian by the name of Kote, the Pope stressed the importance of a consecrated person remembering the moment when he or she was “touched by the Holy Spirit” and received his or her vocation. “Don’t turn back when there are difficulties,” Francis said, but “remember that moment.”

The Pope went on to tell the seminarian that proselytism is a “very grave sin” against Christian unity. “We should never proselytize the Orthodox,” the Pope said. “They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ.” He warned him not to condemn but to pursue “friendship, walking together, praying for one another.” Conducting acts of charity is ecumenism, he said, and “never refrain from greeting an Orthodox brother or sister because they are Orthodox.”


‘Defend Us From Worldliness’

Lastly, he urged Georgian Catholics to “defend us from worldliness” and called on the Lord to make us “strong in the faith, which is sure under the protection of the mantle of the Holy Mother of God.”

On the Pope’s second and final day in Georgia, the Holy Father also visited charity workers in Tbilisi, during which he held them up as “beloved of Jesus” and said that their Christian initiatives “are the ripe fruit of a Church that serves, offers hope and shows forth God’s mercy.”

At the Svetitskhoveli Patriarchal Cathedral in Mtskheta, he told the nation’s leaders and diplomats of his esteem for the country and its Christian identity, which, he said, “is maintained when deeply rooted in faith and also when it is open and ready, never rigid or closed.”

He said what unites Catholic and Orthodox is greater than “what divides us” and urged those present not to have “closed ways of thinking, which darken life,” but welcome, learn and “be enlightened by all that is beautiful and true.”

Soon after arrival the next day in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Pope celebrated Mass for the country’s 700 Christians. In his homily, the Pope told the local faithful that God does not “indulge” man’s desire to change the world and people, but to “heal the heart” of each person and change the world by “transforming our hearts.” Faith consists of service and must not be confused with feelings of well-being, he said.

Drawing on the heritage of the country’s carpet-making industry, he said just as every carpet is made “according to a weft and a warp,” so it is also in the Christian life: “Every day it must be woven patiently, intertwining a precise weft and warp: the weft of faith and the warp of service,” the Pope said. “When faith is interwoven with service, the heart remains open and youthful, and it expands in the process of doing good.”

Furthermore, when it comes to service, the Pope said it is much more than merely carrying out duties. The Lord, he said, “asks us for complete availability, a life offered in complete openness, free of calculation and gain.”

He warned of two temptations that can lead away from such service: firstly, growing lukewarm, which can result in a loss of zest for life, “rather like a cup of truly fine tea” that becomes “unbearable to taste when it gets cold.” And secondly, being “overactive” and giving oneself “only in order to gain something or become someone.”


Periphery of the Cenacle

After praying the Angelus, the Pope said some may think it is a waste of time for him to visit Azerbaijan’s very small Catholic community, but he stressed it’s a community “on the peripheries” and that, as in when the Paraclete descended on the “closed periphery of the Cenacle,” the Pope “wastes time as the Holy Spirit did in those days.”

In an address to civil and political leaders in Baku, the Pope reiterated that all religions must rule out exploiting “their own convictions” in the “name of God” to legitimize “subjugation and supremacy.” Instead, it’s important to “promote a culture of peace” through an “untiring willingness for dialogue.”

The same theme continued into the Pope’s final discourse, to interreligious leaders at the “Heydar Aliyev” Mosque in Baku, during which he said “religion is a compass” that “orients us to the good and steers us away from evil.”

God “cannot be used for personal interests and selfish ends; he cannot be used to justify any form of fundamentalism, imperialism or colonialism,” the Pope said. Instead, he believes that religions are called to “build a culture of encounter and peace” based on patience and humility and can never “lend support to, or approve of, conflicts and disagreements.”

Such an approach, he said, is not about “accommodating ‘facile syncretism’ [the view that all religions are the same],” but of “turning spears into pruning hooks.”

“The real question of our time is not how to advance our own causes,” the Pope said in closing, but “how to leave them a better world than the one we have received.”

Religions, he said, must be “active agents working to overcome the tragedies of the past and the tensions of the present.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.