TBILISI, Georgia— In his last address in Georgia, speaking at a Georgian Orthodox Cathedral traditionally known as the burial site of the seamless garment Christ wore on the Cross, Pope Francis on Saturday delivered a powerful plea for unity between Catholics and Orthodox.
The pontiff said the historical divisions among Christians today are “the real lacerations” that wound the body of Jesus.
“The Lord’s tender and compassionate closeness is especially represented here in the sign of the sacred tunic,” Francis said, quoting the passage from the Gospel of John which says that the tunic was “without seam, woven from top to bottom.”
The pope’s words came as he was meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in the Svietyskhoveli Patriarchal Cathedral church in Mtskheta, a historic village a few miles outside of Tbilisi. The building, a masterpiece of the Early Middle Ages, is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Francis then cited Saint Cyprian of Carthage, one of the early Church Fathers, who said that the undivided tunic of Jesus was a representation of the unity which “comes from above” and which could “not be definitively rent.”
“The holy tunic, a mystery of unity, exhort us to feel deep pain over the historical divisions which have arisen among Christians: these are the true and real lacerations that wound the Lord’s flesh,” Francis said.
Yet the “unity that comes from above” the pontiff continued, urges Christians not to give up but to offer themselves as he did, with sincere charity and mutual understanding, in a spirit of “pure Christian fraternity.”
The pontiff, leader of 1.3 billion Catholics representing more than half of the world’s Christian community, acknowledged that this fraternity requires patience and humility, rooted in the certainty “which Christian hope allows us to enjoy.”
The beauty of Christian life, according to Francis, comes from guarding faithfulness to its own roots without giving into “closed ways of thinking which darken life.” Christian identity, in other words, is open and ready, “never rigid or closed.”
Despite the setting, the two religious leaders didn’t pray together, but Francis and Ilia II lit a candle in front of an image of Saint Sidonia, who was allegedly buried where the church is located today, wrapped in the holy tunic.
“Our unity is in the true faith, and only the true faith is useful to humanity,” Ilia said during his remarks.
“True faith, humility and mercy, the patriarch said, “are the most direct and shortest path to salvation.”
The ecumenical relations between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Vatican have always been tough, with the Georgians in practice not accepting the baptism of other Orthodox churches, much less Catholic baptism.
But Francis’ visit to the country saw a stark difference in treatment in comparison to the one St. John Paul II received during his trip, back in 1999.
While the Catholic leader had spoken of his desire to promote reconciliation between the two churches, Ilia II addressed Pope John Paul II as a visiting head of state and spoke of “friendly relations” between the two “countries.”
Yet this time around, despite breaking his commitment to send a delegation to participate on the papal Mass celebrated Saturday morning, Ilia had a more welcoming attitude.
He still spoke about the “two countries,” referring to the Vatican and Georgia- the pope is, after all, a head of state-, but on Friday the patriarch welcomed Francis as my “dear brother” and toasted him saying: “May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome.”
Ilia also told Francis that it was their duty to remind human kind of the spiritual values and that without faith in God the world’s situation of crisis, with terrorist acts, wars, refugees, hunger and ecological problems, will always become more grave.
On Saturday, Ilia close his remarks expressing his “profound esteem and fraternal love” to the pope.
Some observers have pointed out that Georgia’s welcome to the pope, in which the patriarchate played a key role, as the country wishing to improve ties with the European Union and seeing the Vatican as an ally.
Others, however, believe it’s the honest result of years of ecumenism, which Francis earlier on Saturday had said shouldn’t become proselytism.