TBILISI, Georgia—During the second day of his visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Pope Francis focused on women and children, calling the first the “treasure” of the country, and kids the great teachers in welcoming God.
He also called for Church leaders not to be led by the logic of worldly success, but to follow God’s law of love.
“Among the many treasures of this magnificent country, one that stands out is the importance of women,” Francis said on Saturday, celebrating Mass for several thousand people in the Meskhi Stadium. “They love God in much larger numbers than men do,” he added, quoting St. Therese of the Child Jesus.
In Georgia, he continued, there are a great number of women, mothers and grandmothers, who “unceasingly defend and pass on the faith that was sown in this land of Saint Nino; and they bring the fresh water of God’s consolation to countless situations of barrenness and conflict.”
His homily was the second time Francis mentioned Saint Nino. Upon his arrival on Friday, when talking to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, the pontiff had described her as “equal to the Apostles,” because she spread the faith in Georgia in the late third and early fourth century.
The story of Nino teaches she performed miraculous healings and converted the Georgian queen, Nana, and eventually the pagan king Mirian III of Iberia who, lost at night during a hunting trip, only found his way after praying to “Nino’s God.”
It was Mirian who declared Christianity the official religion of Georgia in 327 and Nino continued her missionary activities among Georgians until her death.
Today, she’s still highly venerated in Georgia, both by the small Catholic community and by the Orthodox Church.
In his homily, Francis also spoke of God as the “doors of consolation,” the only response “amid the turmoil we experience in life, is precisely the presence of God in our hearts.”
When people don’t let God into their hearts, the pontiff continued, “we then get accustomed to pessimism, to things which aren’t right, to realities that never change. We end up absorbed in our own sadness, in the depth of anguish, isolated.”
Speaking of the Church and the community it provides, he defined it as the “house of consolation: here God wishes to console us.”
Francis then said that even when enduring affliction and rejection, a Christian is called to bring hope to the hearts of those who have given up, “to encourage the downhearted, to bring the light of Jesus, the warmth of his presence and his forgiveness which restores us.”
God, he said, doesn’t take the problems away, but he “gives us the power to love, to peacefully bear pain.” Francis then called the Church to receive and bring God’s consolation, calling this an “urgent” task.
“Dear brothers and sisters, let us take up this call: to not bury ourselves in what is going wrong around us or be saddened by the lack of harmony between us.”
Yet, Francis continued, there’s an “underlying condition” to receiving God’s consolation, who doesn’t make himself known through grand ideas and extensive studies, but “through the littleness of a humble and trusting heart.”
It’s for this reason he said, quoting the book of Matthew, it’s necessary to “become little like children.”
“Children, who have no problem in understanding God, have much to teach us: they tell us that he accomplishes great things in those who put up no resistance to him, who are simple and sincere, without duplicity,” Francis said.
Talking to the Church and its priests, he said that blessed are the Shepherds “who do not ride the logic of worldly success, but follow the law of love, welcoming, listening, serving.”
The Church, Francis continued, doesn’t have to entrust herself to functionalism and organizational efficiency, nor worry about her image.
The first papal Mass of this Sept. 30- Oct. 2 trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan was celebrated in Meskhi Stadium, where several thousand of the country’s small Catholic community listened attentively to the pope but couldn’t hide the endless rows of empty seats.
The absentees in the celebration were the members of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The patriarch had promised to send a delegation for the first time, to the papal Mass, but they weren’t there. The Vatican spokesman explained the absence saying “their canon doesn’t allow it.”
The law of the Georgian Church prohibits them to pray with Catholics, since the two churches aren’t in Eucharistic communion. Days before the papal visit, on Sept. 28 (and updated at a later date), the patriarchate had sent out a statement discouraging the laity from participating in the papal events.
Yet at the end of the Mass, Francis thanked the faithful of the Georgian Orthodox Church present.
The last-minute decision from the Orthodox not to send a delegation despite the warm welcome Patriarch Ilia II had given the pope on Friday, suggested that the usual “one step forward, two steps back” dynamic of the Vatican’s ecumenical efforts is still ongoing with the Georgian church.
Also missing were members of the political class, beyond President Giorgi Margvelashvili, since with less than a week from parliamentary elections, no one wanted to risk losing the vote of the ultra-Orthodox, who welcomed Francis to the county with signs calling him an arch-heretic.
The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, with the Sept. 28 statement saying that the papal Mass wasn’t an act of “proselytism,” which in itself is change in the Georgian church institutional attitude, in an effort to accompany the country’s geopolitical aspiration of joining the European Union.
In both Caucasus countries the Catholic communities are incredibly small, representing 2.5 percent of the four million people in Georgia.
Concelebrating with Francis were several bishops of the Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church, with whom the pope had shared a prayer for the persecuted Christian communities of Syria and Iraq on the previous evening.
In the afternoon, Francis was scheduled to visit the seat of the Orthodox church, a cathedral located in the historic town of Mtskheta, the spiritual capital of Georgia and where Christianity took root in the 4th century.
The 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral, the second largest building in Georgia, is on the UNESCO world heritage list- one of three Mtskheta monuments on it.
It’s said to have housed Christ’s tunic, the reason why the building is also known as the “burial site of Christ’s mantle.”