Following immediately after the celebration of the Georgian Church’s Autocephaly, we commemorate the life of Saint Ambrosi, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia in the turbulent 1920’s when Georgia was overrun by the Red Army and forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Saint Ambrosi is seen as a bold and patriotic figure who was frequently in trouble with secular authority. He was persecuted by the Russian colonial authorities for agitating for the Georgian Church’s autocephaly to be restored, and likewise persecuted during the early years of the Bolshevik regime for his faith, as a means of intimidating the laity.
Our father among the saints Ambrose (Khelaia) the Confessor, (Georgian: (ამბროსი აღმსარებელი, Ambrosi Aghmsarebeli), was the Catholicos–Patriarch of All Georgia of the restored Church of Georgia. He was Catholicos-Patriarch from 1921 to 1927. He is commemorated of March 16.
Besarion Khelaia was born on September 7, 1861 in Martvili, Georgia. He received his primary education at the theological school in Samegrelo, before entering the Tiblisi Theological Seminary. After his graduation in 1885, Besarion married, and then was ordained to the Holy Orders later that year. Fr. Besarion served as priest in Abkhazia for eight years in Sukhumi, New Athos, and Lykhy. In addition to his priestly duties, Fr. Besarion taught the Georgian language and participated in a number of philanthropic organizations. He also published a series of articles under the pseudonym of Amber denouncing the policy of Russification in Abkhazia.
In 1896, Fr. Besarion’s wife died. In 1897, he enrolled in the Kazan Theological Academy. During his time at the academy, Fr. Besarion was interested in both the literary-cultural life of Kazan and in Georgian national independence. His research in the primary sources about the history of Georgia produced several essays including one entitled “The Struggle Between Christianity and Islam in Georgia”. One professor recommended that he continue on that theme and present his research for a master’s degree.
Fr. Besarion graduated from the Kazan academy in 1901 and, before returning to Georgia, received his tonsure as a monk, with the name Ambrose. In Georgia, Fr. Ambrose was raised to the dignity of archimandrite and appointed abbot of Chelishi Monastery in Racha province where he joined with other Georgians in fighting for restoration of autocephaly of the Church of Georgia. At Chelishi, Archim. Ambrose, with the blessing of Bishop Leonid of Imereti, restored the deteriorating monastery and seminary, and attracted gifted young people to study at the seminary.
In 1904, Archim. Ambrose was transferred to the Synodal office in Tbilisi and was named abbot of the Monastery of the Transfiguration.The Georgian hierarchy continued to press for restoration of autocephaly without success, pointing out to Tsar Nicholas II the deterioration in church life and organization that had occurred under the exarchate. The 1905 council of Georgian clergy in Tbilisi, in which Archim. Ambrose participated, was broken up by police. This incident resulted in his exile to the Troitsky Monastery at Ryazan.
In 1908, Archim. Ambrose was accused of conspiring in the murder of the Exarch of Georgia, Abp. Nikon (Sofiisky) and was deprived of the right to serve in the Church. This time, he was exiled to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ryazan where for a year he was held under strict guard until he was acquitted and reinstated with his rights. But, he was still kept in Russia.
As Russia was overtaken by the chaos of the 1917 revolutions, Archim. Ambrose returned to Georgia in 1917 and rejoined the struggle for restoration of autocephaly of the Georgian Church. On March 12, 1917, a Georgian synod proclaimed autocephaly, and elected Bishop Kirion Catholicos-Patriarch, actions that the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia refused to recognize. Thus, communion was broken between the two churches. With autocephaly, Archim. Ambrose was consecrated Metropolitan of Chqondidi. He was later transferred to Tskum-Abkhazeti.
In March 1921, Bolsheviks forces overthrew the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, outlawed the Church, closed the churches and monasteries, and began the persecution of the clergy. Amidst the chaos, Catholicos-Patriarch Leonid died from cholera.
Elected on September 7, 1921, Metr. Ambrose was enthroned Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia on October 14, 1921. On February 7, 1922, Catholicos-Patriarch Ambrose sent a memorandum to the Conference of Genoa describing the conditions under which Georgia was living since the Soviet invasion, and protested in the name of the people of Georgia who had been deprived of their rights, against the occupation of Georgia by the Soviets, and demanded the intervention of civilized humanity to oppose the atrocities of the Bolshevik regime.
Such a memorandum was unprecedented for the Bolshevik regime and the response by them was immediate. In February 1923, Patr. Ambrose and his council were arrested and imprisoned. In a public show trial, Patr. Ambrose and his fellow clergy were accused of hiding historic treasures of the Church in order to keep them from passing into the hands of the Soviet state. In his defense at the end of the trial, Patr. Ambrose stated,” My soul belongs to God, my heart to my country; you, my executioners, do what you will with my body.”
While expecting execution, the Bolsheviks did not dare to execute him and sentenced Patr. Ambrose to eight years imprisonment. His property was also confiscated. During the time of his imprisonment from 1923, Metr. Kalistrate was locum tenens. The public outcry over the extent of the Red Terror in Georgia caused the Bolsheviks to moderate their pressure on Georgian society. In March 1926, the Bolsheviks put forward an amnesty for the 1924 insurrection and suspension of religious persecutions. Later in 1926, Ambrose and a few Georgian clergy were released from prison. However, the strains of the years showed, and Patr. Ambrose soon reposed in Tbilisi on March 29, 1927.
At an expanded council of the Holy Synod of the Church of Georgia in 1995, the life of Ambrose (Khelaia), Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia was discussed and in recognition of his great achievements he was glorified in behalf of the Georgian Church and nation as St. Ambrose the Confessor.