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Pope Francis set to depart for visit Georgia, Azerbaijan on Apostolic Journey

Pope Francis set to depart for visit Georgia, Azerbaijan on Apostolic Journey

(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis sets off on a three-day Apostolic Journey to Georgia and Azerbaijan on Friday, as a continuation of the pastoral visit he began to the Caucuses region with his trip to Armenia last June.

Ecumenical challenges will be at the heart of his encounters in Georgia, alongside the task of encouraging the small Catholic community in the predominantly Orthodox nation.

Listen to Philippa Hitchen’s report from Tbilisi:

When Pope John Paul II visited this former Soviet nation, it was only the second time he had travelled to a majority Orthodox country. Just a decade on from the fall of the Berlin wall, he was pursuing his vision of reconciliation between the East and Western Churches so that Europe could, as he put it, breathe with both lungs again.

His trip to Romania earlier in the year had been hailed as a step in that direction, as he and Patriarch Teoctist made history by attending liturgies in Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Not so in Georgia though, where it was President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, who had to persuade Patriarch Elia to invite the pope, while Orthodox leaders warned worshippers to stay away from a papal Mass at the sports stadium in Tbilisi.

So what can Pope Francis expect and what progress has been made on the ecumenical scene in this country where Catholics, of 3 different rites, make up less than 2 percent of the population?

At one level relations remain difficult, as Georgia’s ambassador to the Holy See told me frankly ahead of the papal visit. The Orthodox Church here did not take part in the pan-Orthodox Council last June, did not approve of the document signed by the international dialogue commission in Chieti last week and does not take part in other ecumenical bodies like the World Council of Churches.

Two days before the pope’s arrival, the English speaking ‘Georgia Today’ paper ran a ‘Focus on Church wars’, detailing protests by a handful of ultra-nationalist agitators and arch-conservative priests.

But at a deeper level, the patient dialogue has produced results, with the same Patriarch Elia this time sending official representatives to the papal Mass at the sports stadium on Saturday morning.

Over the past two decades the local Caritas, the Camilian fathers, Salesian sisters and others have built trust and respect through their hospitals and schools, drop-in centres and soup kitchens for the poorest people living in the run down suburbs and rural areas. More recently they’ve also been providing support for refugees fleeing from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

While the Orthodox Church is recognised in the Constitution as playing a special part in the country’s history, Catholics have been quietly working wherever they can at parish level to provide spiritual and practical support to all people in need.

The Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Church, Mgr Giuseppe Pasotto puts its neatly when he says “we are free to be who we are, with nothing to defend and everything to give”.

So there are no Vatican flags or papal posters plastered on the walls here – only photos of the candidates in next week’s parliamentary elections. Don’t expect any ecumenical breakthrough or even the kind of warm embraces that we saw the pope receiving from other Orthodox leaders in Assisi recently.

But what the pope will do is to strengthen the small but vibrant Catholic Church here. He’ll bring a much needed message of peace to the still volatile region. And I wouldn’t mind betting that he will somehow find ways of furthering that vision of reconciliation begun by Pope John Paul 17 years ago.

(from Vatican Radio)

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