Brief History of the Georgian Byzantine Catholic Church
By Reader Methodios Stadnik
(Compiled by Reader Methodios Stadnik from Oriente Cattolico and other sources, including personal correspondence from Fr. Christopher Zugger).
In the course of the seventeenth century, the Theatine and Capuchin orders established missions in Georgia. The Congregation for the Propaganda of the Faith by a decree of June 13, 1661 had charged the Capuchins to work in Georgia proper, and they were able to continue their work until their expulsion by the Russian government in 1845.
Through the work of these orders a small Catholic community grew, estimated at the beginning of the First World War to number ca. 50,000 souls. In 1848, following an accord reached between Pope Pius IX and Czar Nicholas I, the Latin rite Diocese of Tiraspol was established into which all the Catholics of Transcaucasia were grouped, including the Georgians.
Through the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, several Georgian Catholics expressed their desire to follow their native oriental rites. Because it was illegal in Russia at this time for Catholics to follow the Byzantine rite, a certain number of Georgians, among which there were also several priests, assumed the Armenian rite. There was in the Russian part of Transcaucasia the Armenian Diocese of Artvin, which had been established in 1850. After the concession of religious liberty in 1905, several Georgian Catholics chose to return to their native Byzantine rite.
After the proclamation of Georgia's independence in 1918, and several influential Georgians having manifested their intention to enter into communion with Rome, an initiative of the Holy See (by Fr. Antoni Deipuch, S.A.) commenced in 1919 for the purpose of studying the matter. But shortly thereafter, the civil war in the former Russian Empire and the occupation of Georgia by the Soviets interrupted relations with Rome. For many years there was no news of the situation of the Catholics that were in Georgia in 1914.
In 1861, Fr. Peter Karischiaranti was successful in founding in Constantinople two religious congregations dedicated to the Immaculate Conception for the Georgians, one male and the other female. Due to the impossibility to have contacts with Georgia itself after the 1920s, these congregations eventually died out. One of the most renowned members of these orders was the scientist and scholar Fr. Michael Tarchnishvili, who died in Rome in 1958. Several Georgian Catholics, isolated from their homeland, have taken refuge in the West, especially in France, Belgium and in Turkey. (image to left--St George, gold, 15th cent.)
Statistics: Georgian Catholics
In 1914, there were around 50,000 Georgian Catholics, of which around 40,000 were of the Latin rite and 10,000 of the Eastern rites (Byzantine and Armenian).
Juridically, they were under the jurisdiction of the Latin diocese of Tiraspol with its residence in Saratov on the Volga. Since that time there has been little news. The community is considered dispersed.
In the West, one parish continued to exist in Constantinople.
The foregoing information is primarily extracted from Oriente Cattolico, which was last published in 1974. Since then, some additional information about the plight and condition of the Georgian Catholics has come to light.
The Georgian Byzantine Catholic Exarch, Fr. Shio Batmanishviii, and two Georgian Catholic priests of the Latin rite were executed by the Soviet authorities in 1937 after having been held in captivity in Solovki prison and the northern gulags from 1923. Fr. Makar, a Georgian Byzantine rite Jesuit companion of Fr. Walter Ciszek, is presumed to have met a similar fate. There is evidence that some of the Georgian Byzantine Catholic and Georgian Armenian Catholic faithful and clergy were sent to the gulags in Kazakhstan and Siberia. The parish in Constantinople was closed in 1974 after the death of its pastor.
According to the research of Fr. Christopher Zugger (personal correspondence to the author dated January 21, 1999) in 1918 there were about 8,000 Georgian Byzantine Catholics and about 20 priests, brothers, and sisters of the Immaculate Conception orders in Constantinople. During the days of persecution, a number of parish priests were stripped naked in the streets, tortured, and then shot. Some of the faithful may have been able to find refuge in the Latin parishes. A priest of Russian-German origin, Fr. Emmanual, was able to keep the Tbilisi parish open until the 1960s. The parishioners were Georgians, Armenians, Poles, and some Russian-Germans who survived the 1941 deportation.
Just recently the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tbilisi was rededicated after its many years of use as a gymnasium during the communist yoke.
Many Georgians who are of the Armenian Catholic rite have persevered through the period of the communist yoke and several of their communities are again flourishing : click here for the Armenian Catholic Church site at which choose "Armenie, Georgia & Eastern Europe" and scroll down to the Georgia section.
Those interested in a more detailed history of the Georgian Catholics should be on the lookout for Fr. Christopher Zugger's forthcoming book, "The Forgotten".
We can only pray that the peace of Christ will come upon all of the Georgian people, whether at home or in diaspora. We also pray that our Georgian Byzantine and Armenian Catholic brothers and sisters may be remembered for their sacrifices for their love of Our Risen Saviour, Jesus Christ, and the unity of His Body, the Church, that they may find peace in Him, and know that their sacrifices are not futile. We pray also that all Georgians may experience the love and peace of Christ and be able to enjoy in pence and harmony the beautiful country with which God has blessed them, and which inspired the following touching sentiments from the daughter of one of Georgia's most infamous sons and former Orthodox seminarian:
"The surrounding mountains drop into a ravine and the village of Ateni.
The place boasts a wonderful golden wine and a church with classic Georgian architecture and eleventh-century frescoes (photo to right)
My heart turned over when I first saw this church set among vineyards and the village among the orchards of peaches.
It's like a bowl of abundant soil with a dome of blue sky
and more sunshine than any other place on earth."
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty letters to a Friend, New York, 1967, p. 202
11th century mural in Ateni Church
A site with some more views of the church at Ateni that inspired these thoughts of Svetlana Alliluyeva.
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