TBILISI, Georgia — Pope Francis' efforts to improve relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church suffered a public setback Saturday after the patriarchate decided not to send an official delegation to his Mass and repeated that Orthodox faithful cannot participate in Catholic services.
Francis nevertheless pressed on with his agenda, insisting that Catholics must never try to convert Orthodox and bowing in prayer alongside the Orthodox patriarch after they both lit a candle in the Orthodox spiritual headquarters. He called for the historical divisions that have "lacerated" Christianity to be healed through patience, trust and dialogue.
Saturday's developments on the second and final day of Francis' visit to Georgia reflected the "one step forward, two steps back" progress that often accompanies the Vatican's outreach to Orthodox and other Christian churches.
On Sunday, Francis heads to largely Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan, where the Catholic Church enjoys good relations with the government despite allegations in the West of human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.
In the run-up to Francis' Caucasus visit, the Vatican spokesman had said the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate would send a delegation to the Mass in a Tbilisi sports stadium "in a sign of the rapport between the two churches" — suggesting that the chill that had clouded the 1999 visit of St. John Paul II to Georgia had warmed slightly.
And Francis received a unexpectedly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Friday, with Patriarch Ilia calling Francis my "dear brother" and toasting him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome."
But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said Saturday that the delegation had stayed away "by mutual agreement." The patriarchate updated a statement on its website saying that "as long as there are dogmatic differences between our churches, Orthodox believers will not participate in their prayers."
The decision apparently came after Francis' arrival Friday in Tbilisi was met with protests of hard-line Orthodox opposed to any ecumenical initiatives by their church.
On Saturday, about 100 members of the hard-line group Union of Orthodox Parents demonstrated outside the stadium where Francis celebrated Mass.
"It's typical proselytizing," protester Father David Klividze. "Can you imagine how it would be if a Sunni preacher came to Shiite Iran and conducted prayers in a stadium or somewhere else? Such a thing could not be. Therefore, we are speaking against this."
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Vatican accepted the Orthodox decision not to attend, which he said had been conveyed to the papal delegation Friday night. Orthodox law didn't allow for the participation of the delegation, he said.
Francis had been scheduled to personally greet the delegation at the end of the Mass. Instead, Francis thanked "those Orthodox faithful" who were present.
Francis insisted that Catholics must never seek to convert Orthodox, saying they are Catholics' brothers and sisters, children of the same God.
"Proselytism is a grave sin against ecumenism," Francis told Catholic priests and seminarians after his Mass. "One must not proselytize the Orthodox."
Organizers had said they expected the Meskhi sports stadium, capacity 27,000, to be full for the Mass, but only a few thousand people took their seats in the stands by the time Francis entered on his popemobile and began the celebration. There was no immediate explanation for the low turnout of Catholic faithful on the brilliantly sunny day.
Georgia is overwhelmingly Orthodox, with less than 3 percent of the population — or about 112,000 people — Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.
Other than Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, there were no prominent Georgian politicians on hand for the Mass. That suggested that with a parliamentary election next week, politicians might have been reluctant to alienate any hard-line Orthodox voters.
Francis' main ecumenical event of the day was an evening visit to the seat of the Orthodox church, where he pressed his call for improved Catholic-Orthodox ties.
The Orthodox cathedral is located in Mtskheta, the spiritual capital of Georgia and where Christianity took root in the 4th century. The 11th-century Svetitskhoveli cathedral, one of three Mtskheta monuments on the UNESCO world heritage list, is said to have housed Christ's tunic.
Francis referred to the precious relic Saturday in reference to the fibers that bind all Christians.
"The holy tunic, a mystery of unity, exhorts 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," he said in the cathedral. Christian hope, he said, "gives us the incentive to believe that differences can be healed and obstacles removed; it invites us never to miss opportunities for encounter and dialogue and to protect and together improve what already exists."
While hardliners in the Georgian church opposed the visit, other Orthodox welcomed it.
"For the Christian world and not only, the visit of the pope is very significant," said Amiran Tsiklauri, a resident of Tbilisi. "The pope is not only spiritual leader for Catholics but also the person who calls and urges for peace around the world."
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