TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Saturday for Georgia's tiny Catholic community Saturday and pressed his mission to improve ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church after receiving an unexpectedly warm welcome from the Orthodox leader.
Organizers said they had expected the Meshki sports stadium, capacity 27,000, to be full for Francis' morning Mass. But only a few thousand people filled the stands by the time Francis entered on his popemobile for a pre-service greeting. There was no immediate explanation for the low turnout, but Francis gamely kissed babies and accepted flowers brought up to him 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.
Francis 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 St. John Paul II's 1999 visit. Then, Catholic-Orthodox tensions were so high that the Georgian Orthodox Church urged its faithful to stay away from his Mass.
This time, the Vatican said an official delegation from the Orthodox patriarchate would attend the Mass, along with President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
While Francis' visit has been met with some protests by hardline Orthodox Georgians, the official reception by the Orthodox Church indicated 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."