Catholic Church in Georgia
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The Catholic Church in Georgia, since the 11th-century East–West Schism, has been composed mainly of Latin-Rite Catholics; Catholic communities of the Armenian Rite have existed in the country since the 18th century.
A Georgian Byzantine Rite Catholic community, though small, has existed for a number of centuries but does not, however, constitute an autonomous ("sui iuris") Church. Canon 27 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines these Churches as under a hierarchy of their own and recognized as autonomous by the supreme authority of the Church. "No organized Georgian Greek Catholic Church ever existed", though, outside Georgia, "a small Georgian Byzantine Catholic parish has long existed in Istanbul. Currently it is without a priest. Twin male and female religious orders 'of the Immaculate Conception' were founded there in 1861, but have since died out." This was never established as a recognized particular church of any level (exarchate, ordinariate, etc.), within the communion of Catholic Churches, and accordingly has never appeared in the list of Eastern Catholic Churches published in the Annuario Pontificio.
Christianity in Georgia began in earnest with the evangelization by Saint Nino in the 4th century. Georgian Christianity then developed in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition, although contact with Rome did occur. The East–West Schism did not immediately end contacts between Georgia and Rome, although the break was recognized by the mid-13th century.
Around this time, Catholic missionaries became active in Georgia, setting up small Latin communities. A Latin-Rite bishopric was established in 1329 at Tbilisi, but this was allowed to lapse after the appointment of the fourteenth and last of its line of bishops in 1507, owing to a lack of support among Georgians.
In 1626, the Theatine and Capuchin orders established new missions in Georgia. In the following centuries a community of Latin Catholics began to form, members of this community commonly being referred to as "French", which was the dominant nationality of the missionaries. Both orders were expelled by the Russian government in 1845.
However, an agreement between Pope Pius IX and Tsar Nicholas I in 1848 permitted the establishment of the Latin-Rite diocese of Tiraspol. This was based in Russia, but all Transcaucasian Catholics, including the Georgians, were aggregated to it. The Russian part of that diocese is now called Saint Clement in Saratov.
Towards the end of the 19th century, some Georgian Catholics wished to use the Byzantine rite traditional in Georgia, but were thwarted by the outlawing of Byzantine "Uniate" groups. Accordingly, since the tsars forbade their Catholic subjects to use the Byzantine Rite, and the Holy See did not promote its use among the Georgians, some of them, clergy as well as laity, adopted the Armenian Rite. There existed at that time the Armenian Catholic diocese of Artvin, which had been set up in Russian Transcaucasia in 1850. It is now a merely titular see, listed as such in the Annuario Pontificio.
Outside the Russian Empire, in Constantinople, Peter Kharischirashvili (Pétre Kharistshirashvili) founded in 1861 two religious congregations of the Immaculate Conception, one for men, the other for women. These served Georgian Catholics living in the then capital of the Ottoman Empire. They also served in Montaubon, France. These congregations are long extinct, although some of their members were still alive in the late 1950s. The building that housed the male congregation, Fery-Quoa, still stands in Istanbul, now in private ownership. Their clergy gave Georgian Catholics in Constantinople the possibility to worship in accordance with the Georgian Byzantine rite, but they were under the authority of the local Latin Catholic bishop. The Georgian Catholic priest Michel Tamarati was the first to study the history of Catholicism in Georgia, eventually producing the oft-cited L'Eglise géorgienne des origines jusqu' à nos jours in French in 1911.
Only after the granting of religious freedom in Russia in 1905 did some Georgian Catholics resume the Byzantine rite, without reaching the stage of having a separate diocese (particular Church) established for them.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Georgian Catholics were some 50,000. About 40,000 of these were of Latin rite, the others mainly of Armenian rite. Canonically, they depended on the Latin diocese of Tiraspol, which had its headquarters at Saratov on the Volga.
In the brief period of Georgian independence between 1918 and 1921, some influential Georgians expressed an interest in union with the Church of Rome, and an envoy was sent from Rome in 1919 to examine the situation. As a result of the onset of civil war and Soviet occupation, this came to nothing.
In 1920 it was estimated that of 40,000 Catholics in Georgia, 32,000 were Latins and the remainder of the Armenian rite.
Some sources state that, in the 1930s, an exarch was appointed for Byzantine-Rite Catholics in Georgia. This statement is not backed up by objective evidence, and it would have been indeed astounding if the Holy See had chosen that period, when the Soviet government was forcing all Byzantine-Rite Catholics in its power into union with the Russian Orthodox Church, to name for the first time a bishop for the extremely few such Catholics in Georgia, instead of appointing one for the Latin or Armenian Catholics in the country.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Latin Rite apostolic administration (pre-diocesan jurisdiction) of the Caucasus was established on 30 December 1993, with headquarters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, with a territory including Georgia, Armenia and until 2001 Azerbaidjan. It estimates the number of its faithful as 50,000, a number very similar to that given for Georgian Catholics of all rites in 1914.
Georgians of Armenian Rite are in the care of the Ordinariate for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe, which was established on 13 July 1991, covering a vast area including Russia and Ukraine, much vaster than Georgia, which has some 400,000 faithful in all (Annuario Pontificio 2012).
Kevin R. Yurkus [Crisis Magazine, July 2005] provides the following pertaining to the Georgian Byzantine Catholic Church:
The Georgian Church began in 337 and used the West Syriac Rite of St. James. When the neighboring Armenians rejected the Council of Chalcedon, the Georgians accepted the conciliar decrees and adopted the Byzantine Rite.
Theatine and Capuchin missionaries worked for reunion in Georgia, but under Imperial Russia in 1845, Catholics were not allowed to use the Byzantine Rite. Many Catholics adopted the Armenian Rite until the institution of religious liberty in 1905, which allowed them to return to the Byzantine Rite. In 1937 the Georgian Catholic exarch, Shio Batmanishvili (or Batmalishviii), was executed by the Soviets.
At present, the Georgian Catholic Church has no organized hierarchy.
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There are approximately 80,000 Catholics in Georgia – around 2% of the total population. They are mostly found either in Tbilisi or in the southern region of the country, where exclusively Catholic villages exist. There are three Catholic churches in Tbilisi; the Cathedral of Our Lady in the old town, the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, and Mar Shimon Bar Sabbae Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in Saburtalo. A Neocatechumenal Way Mission involving priests, families in mission and lay persons has been present in Sts Peter and Paul church since 1991, helping and leading the parish.
This church also provides mass in English, catering for the growing Catholic expatriate population of Americans, Europeans, Indians and Maltese. There are only about 1000 practicing Catholics in Tbilisi. Many other Catholic churches were confiscated by the Georgian Orthodox Church after the fall of communism when the state gave all church property back to the Georgian Orthodox church. Recently, a new seminary has been completed on the outskirts of Tbilisi