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.
In the run-up to Francis' Caucasus visit, the Vatican spokesman had said the 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.
But Orthodox patriarchate spokeswoman Nato Asatiani said Saturday that the delegation had stayed away "by mutual agreement." The patriarchate updated a previous 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 update apparently came after Francis' arrival Friday in Tbilisi was met with protests of hardline Orthodox opposed to any ecumenical initiatives by their church.
"It's typical proselytizing," said Father David Klividze, who was among about 100 people protesting outside the stadium from the hardline Union of Orthodox Parents. "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, 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.
Organizers had said they expected the Meshki 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.
In his homily, Francis urged his faithful to find consolation in God and not be "saddened by the lack of harmony around us."
"It is when we are united, in communion, that God's consolation works in us," he said.
Francis had received a surprisingly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader upon his arrival Friday for the three-day visit that also includes a stop in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.
Patriarch Ilia welcomed Francis as my "dear brother" and toasted him saying: "May the Lord bless the Catholic Church of Rome."
It was a different tone compared to the chill that characterized John Paul II's 1999 visit, when Ilia greeted him only as a head of state, not a religious leader. Then, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass.
The last-minute decision not to send an Orthodox delegation to Francis' Mass, and to repeat that Orthodox shouldn't attend, suggested a "one step forward, two steps back" progress that often characterizes the Vatican's ecumenical efforts.
Other than Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, there were no prominent Georgian politicians on hand for the Mass. That suggested that with parliamentary elections planned for next week, politicians might have been reluctant to alienate any hardline Orthodox voters with their presence.
Francis' visit has been met with some protests by hardline Orthodox, who demonstrated outside the airport and Chaldean church holding signs saying "The Vatican is a spiritual aggressor," and "Death of papism."
The Orthodox patriarchate, though, had criticized the protests, indicating something of an institutional shift that has accompanied Georgia's geopolitical aspirations. Georgia is anxious to join NATO and is pursuing an eventual membership in the 28-nation European Union. The papal visit is being seen in Georgia as the government's attempt to win allies among Europe's Catholic nations.
Francis' main ecumenical event of the day was an evening visit to the seat of the Orthodox church, where he was expected to press 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.
"For the Christian world and not only, the visit of the pope is very significant," said Amiran Tsiklauri, an Orthodox 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."