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Francis with Patriarch Ilia.
May the intercession of the Georgian martyrs “bring relief to the many Christians who even today suffer persecution and slander, and may they strengthen in us the noble aspiration to be fraternally united in proclaiming the Gospel of peace.” Francis said this in the speech he pronounced in the audience hall of Tbilisi’s Patriarchate, after a private meeting with 84-year-old Ilia II, who has served as Patriarch and Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church since 1977.
Patriarch Ilia instigated reforms that allowed the Georgian Church to gradually regain the influence it had lost as a result of the anti-religious policies of the USSR’s communist authorities. In the final years of the Soviet era, Ilia II was actively involved in the country’s social life. On 9 April 1989 he took part in a peaceful demonstration held in Tbilisi, against Soviet authorities, urging participants to take shelter in Kashveti church to avoid bloodshed, but in vain. The crowd was forcibly dispersed by Soviet troops, claiming the lives of 22 people and wounding hundreds. The incident is known as the “Tbilisi Massacre”. Today, the frail and hunchbacked Patriarch walked along with help from the Pope, who offered him an arm as they entered the audience hall.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is among the least ecumenical of the Orthodox Churches and has strong ties with the Patriarchate of Moscow: Save for any last-minute surprises, Francis and Ilia II are not expected to pray together. There are very small minority groups that opposed the Pope’s visit. About ten of these opponents stood outside Tbilisi airport holding up two banners with the messages: “The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor” and “Pope, you are not welcome”.
But the atmosphere inside the Patriarchal palace was totally different. A trembling Ilia II who had difficulty speaking, called the Pope a “beloved brother in Christ”. The Patriarch talked about the risks of globalisation and advances in the technical, scientific and cultural fields but also about the steps backward “in spirituality and in behaviour in general”. Ilia II talked about the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, lamenting the existence of 600,000 internally displaced people in Georgia. Finally, he spoke about dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, thanking the Pope for “this possibility to work” on the Vatican Library’s inscriptions and documents relating to Georgia’s past. “His visit is a historic occasion for our country,” he concluded, “may God bless both our Churches”. The Patriarch presented the Pope with a Georgian icon which the Pope kissed as the choir chanted “the Kyrie Eleison”. Francis then took the floor, thanking the Patriarch off the cuff for listening to the Ave Maria composed by Ilia II: “Such a beautiful thing could only come from the heart of a son, from the heart of a child!”
In his speech, Francis remembered that Ilia “opened a new chapter in relations between the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the Catholic Church. On that occasion, you exchanged with the Bishop of Rome a kiss of peace and a pledge to pray for one other.” The reference was to the Patriarch’s visit to the Vatican in June 1980, when he embraced St. John Paul II. Francis also talked about the Georgian faithful who are carrying out research at the Vatican Archives and pontifical universities and about the presence of a Georgian Orthodox community in Rome, which has “received hospitality at a church in my own diocese.
Quoting the Georgian poet Rustaveli, (“Have you read how the Apostles write about love, how they speak, how they praise it? Know this love, and turn your mind to these words: love raises us up”), he observed: “Truly, the love of the Lord raises us up, because it enables us to rise above the misunderstandings of the past, above the calculations of the present and fears for the future.”
The Pope then quoted St. Nino “who is considered equal to the Apostles” and “spread the faith with a particular form of the cross made of vine branches”. “The multitude of saints, whom this country counts,” he added, “encourages us to put the Gospel before all else and to evangelize as in the past, even more so, free from the restraints of prejudice and open to the perennial newness of God.”
“By means of peace and forgiveness,” Francis said, “we are called to overcome our true enemies, who are not of flesh and blood, but rather the evil spirits from without and from within ourselves”. Francis then recalled that Georgia “is rich in courageous heroes, in keeping with the Gospel, who like Saint George knew how to defeat evil. I think of many monks, and especially of numerous martyrs, whose lives triumphed “with faith and patience”: they have passed through the winepress of pain, remaining united with the Lord and have thus brought Paschal fruit to Georgia, watering this land with their blood, poured out of love”. The Pope asked these martyr saints to intercede for persecuted Christians.