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Georgian Byzantine Catholics


Historians cannot tell with precision when the Georgian Church broke ties with Rome. When contact with Rome became impossible because of the domination of the Mongols from the 13th to 15th centuries, there occurred a gradual estrangement from Rome and a turning toward the East. In the schism that had earlier separated Constantinople from Rome, Georgia remained neutral. It is known only that George of Mthatsminda (11th century), the official speaker of the Georgian Church, defended before the emperor the position of Rome. Until the middle of the 13th century it did not appear likely that the Georgian Church would be separated from Rome. In their letters to the pope, both Queen Rusudan and her minister (122345) recognized the primacy of the pope. Thus one can conclude only that separation from Rome was not an official, juridical act. Support of Constantinople was favored by political conditions and encouraged by the century-old traditions that Georgia shared with Byzantium. However, notwithstanding the actual separation, Georgia's kings from the 13th to the 19th century always kept a desire for communion with the Roman Church.

Several Latin religious orders, chiefly the Franciscans and Dominicans, worked in Georgia for reunion. In 1329 Pope John XXII erected a Catholic see at Tiflis and appointed the first Latin bishop of Georgia, thus beginning a line that continued until 1507. The Theatines and Capuchins worked until the 18th and 19th centuries establishing a nucleus of Latin Catholics. They numbered about 50,000 before World War I. A smaller nucleus of Georgian Catholics at the end of the 19th century embraced the Armenian rite because it was forbidden by Russian law until 1917 for any Catholic to follow the Byzantine rite. In 1917, when Georgia cut off ecclesiastical bonds from the Moscow patriarchate, a small group of Georgians sought communion with the See of Rome as a fledging Georgian Byzantine Catholic community. This was a very small group that numbered at its peak 10,000 in 1920, whereas there were 40,000 of the Latin rite during that period. Two religious congregations of the Immaculate Conception were founded in 1861 in Constantinople by Father Peter Karishiaranti to work among the Catholics of Georgia of both Byzantine and Latin rites, but they had died out by the 1960s.

The nascent Georgian Byzantine Catholic community of the early 20th century was impeded by the fact that no hierarchy was ever established for them. The small Georgian Byzantine Catholic parish in Constantinople is the only surviving vestige of the small community. After Georgia regained its independence in 1991, the Latin Catholics and Armenian Catholics experienced a resurgence and renaissance. The future of the incipient Georgian Byzantine Catholic community remains uncertain.

Bibliography: r. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, 6th ed (Rome 1999)

[a. s. manvel/eds.]

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