Pope Francis wrapped up a two-day visit to Georgia on Saturday after suffering a stinging snub from the local Orthodox church and offering a ringing defence of marriage as “God’s most beautiful creation.’’
He started the day celebrating Mass in Tbilisi’s Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, where less than 3,000 of the facility’s 27,000 seats were filled.
The Vatican had expected the Georgian Orthodox Church to send a delegation to the Mass, even though the patriarchate announced earlier this week that its clergy could not take part “due to dogmatic differences” dating back to the Middle Ages.
No Orthodox bishops showed up, forcing the pope to tweak a scripted speech that thanked church representatives for attending the service. Instead, Francis extended his thanks to ordinary Orthodox “faithful.”
Father Antonio Spadaro, a senior Jesuit journalist who was part of the papal entourage, minimized the incident, recalling that when John Paul II visited Georgia in 1999, local media described the option of attending a Catholic Mass as a “mortal sin.”
“We saw nothing like that this time,” Spadaro wrote on Twitter.
One Mass attendee, 20-year-old man Tazo Mintiashvili, told dpa: “I am not Catholic, but I came because I am interested in the pope.”
Nata Koridze, a 40-year-old woman, added: “We are all Christians.”
Georgia, an overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country of 4.9 million people, has 112,000 Catholics, according to the Vatican. The Georgian government’s estimate is almost five times lower, at around 20,000.
The ultraconservative Georgian Orthodox church is tied to the Moscow Patriarchate, and both have strained, but improving, relations with the Vatican, as part of slow-moving efforts to heal the 1,000-year-old Orthodox-Catholic rift.
Fringe nationalist groups, supported by hardline Orthodox priests, staged several protests against the pope’s visit, depicting him as an “Antichrist” and a “spiritual aggressor,” but they were condemned by the Georgian Patriarchate.
In a separate meeting with the local Catholic community, Francis spelled out that conversion efforts towards the Orthodox were “a big sin against ecumenism” – the term that describes efforts to promote Christian unity.
Francis, seen as progressive on some issues, also used his Georgian visit to defend marriage.
He said adultery is inspired by “the devil” and urged anyone tempted to betray their spouse to “seek immediate help.”
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics complained about a “world war to destroy marriage’’ waged with “gender theory,’’ which the Vatican criticizes for offering a more flexible interpretation of a person’s gender identity.
Francis visited a Catholic missionaries’ centre for the sick and disabled, before closing the day with a solemn ceremony at Svetyskhoveli Cathedral, the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with Patriarch Ilia II.
The two elderly leaders, who already had talks Friday, walked in the UNESCO-protected monument hand in hand.
“Our unity lies in true faith,” Ilia said, while Francis deplored “the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians” as “true and real lacerations that wound the Lord’s flesh.”
The papal visit did not attract much media attention in Georgia, a post-Soviet republic locked in a frozen conflict with Russia over secessionist South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The country is mostly focused on parliamentary elections due on October 8.
Francis’ tour of the Caucasus ends Sunday in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim nation with an authoritarian ruler, a Catholic minority even smaller than Georgia’s, and another intractable territorial dispute with a neighbour.
Baku is at odds with Armenia, which the pope visited in June, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.(dpa/NAN)