Pope Francis celebrated a Mass today for approximately 3,000 people who turned out at the stadium in Tblisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. The overwhelmly Orthodox Christian nation in Eastern Europe received the pontiff on his second day of an official visit. The crowd at the outdoor papal Mass was one of the smallest yet on the pontiff’s sixteen foreign trips so far. The stadium in the capital has a capacity of 25,000.
The celebration was dampened by a show of Christian divisiveness. A delegation representing the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, Ilia II, stayed away from the celebration despite an invitation. Two days ago, before the Pope arrived, Patriarch Ilia said in a statement that doctrinal differences dating back to the 1054 schism between the Eastern and Western Churches meant that Orthodox Christians would not attend.
In the hope that the Orthodox delegation would attend, the remarks prepared for the Pope included words thanking the representatives from the Orthodox Church. The Pope changed his text, therefore, and instead thanked “Orthodox faithful” who were in attendance. Among them were President Georgy Margvelashvili of Georgia, an Orthodox Christian. "We accept their decision (not to come)," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, an American.
Pope Francis has made considerable to patch relations with Orthodox
churches. There are approximately 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. This year, the Pope met with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the more conservative in the Orthodox world.
Some Georgians protested against the papal visit, standing outside of the stadium with signs reading: A small group held up signs outside the stadium reading: "Vatican is a spiritual aggressor" and "Arch-heretic Pope, you’re not welcome in Orthodox Georgia."
Pope Francis met Patriarch Ilia after his arrival yesterday, and is due to have another today.
In his speech to the small group of Catholics assembled in Tblisi’s stadium, the Pope spoke of the importance of women. He quoted Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, whose feast is celebrated today, the Pope said, “‘they love God in much larger numbers than men do.’” He noted the “great number of grandmothers and mothers who unceasingly defend and pass on the faith” in Georgia, whose female Saint Nino is credited with first evangelizing in the fourth century.
“As a mother takes upon herself the burdens and weariness of her children,” the Pope stressed, “so too does God take upon himself our sins and troubles” in his infinite love for humanity.
The Pope said that God is always ready to offer consolation in times of need, “amid the turmoil we experience in life.” It “liberates us from evil, brings peace and increases our joy.”
But, he warned, we must leave the “doors of consolation” open to Jesus, through daily reading of the Gospel, silent prayers in adoration, confession, and reception of the Eucharist: which both Orthodox and Catholic know as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When the door of our heart is closed, he said, we “get accustomed to pessimism” and “end up absorbed in our own sadness, in the depths of anguish, isolated.” Appearing to make an appeal to Christian unity, the Pope said that God best consoles us “when we are united, in communion” and the Church is “the house of consolation” to which we should turn.
Pope Francis urged the faithful to offer to others the same consolation God provided. “Even when enduring affliction and rejection,” he said, “a Christian is always called to bring hope to the hearts of those who have given up, to encourage the downhearted, to bring the light of Jesus…and his forgiveness.”
“Countless people suffer trials and injustice and live in anxiety,” he continued. And though God’s consolation cannot take away our problems, he said, it “gives us the power to love, to peacefully bear pain.”