The papal visit to Georgia has left us with a stark image of just how far off Catholic-Orthodox unity remains. Last Saturday, the Holy Father celebrated Mass in a stadium in the capital, Tbilisi. Instead of the usual rapturous throng, there were thousands of empty seats. The bishops of the Georgian Orthodox Church had chosen not to attend and their flock had followed suit. The Georgian Church’s website explained that “as long as there are dogmatic differences between our churches, Orthodox believers will not participate in their prayers”.
The snub came days after a breakthrough agreement between Catholic and Orthodox theologians. They had gathered in the Italian town of Chieti to discuss two highly contentious issues: papal primacy and the synodal structure of the Church. They concluded that for the first 1,000 years of Christian history, believers in the East and West had a similar understanding of primacy and “synodality”.
Writing at catholicherald.co.uk, Fr Mark Drew said the Chieti agreement was, if anything, a vindication for the Orthodox. “The document has accepted a reading of the first millennium which is more in tune with the way Orthodoxy has tended to see it than that favoured by Catholic apologetics until recent times,” he wrote. Nevertheless, one Orthodox community dissented from the agreement: the Georgian Orthodox Church.
This wasn’t the first time that the Georgian Orthodox have rejected a broad theological consensus. The Church, which represents some 3.6 million of the world’s 217 million Orthodox Christians, pulled out of the historic Pan-Orthodox Council in June. It had objected to several council documents, especially “The Relation of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World”.
It is tempting to dismiss Georgian Orthodox leaders as throwbacks to an anti-ecumenical age, but they serve a useful purpose. They remind us that, despite major theological advances, Catholics and Orthodox believers remain deeply estranged in many parts of the world. They also demonstrate that the Orthodox Church is not monolithic, but rather a complex and unstable grouping of fiercely independent churches.
Pope Francis knows this well, of course. He recognises that Catholic-Orthodox reunion will, in all probability, take centuries. That is why the Georgian Orthodox snub is unlikely to trouble him: it is only a minor setback on a journey desired by Christ himself.
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