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Happy Birthday, Your Holiness! The article from the Georgian government’s media outlet Agenda.ge is worth reading in its entirety, as it provides a concise summary of Patriarch Ilia’s career, the state of the Church in the Soviet era and its current state.

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Long regarded as the most trusted and popular identity in the country, he is particularly respected for his activities in the last decades of the Soviet era. Having been appointed as Patriarch in 1977 with KGB acquiescence, who mistakenly assumed he would be a safe pair of hands to protect USSR imperial interests, he ascertained that Georgian public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of a sovereign Georgian state independent of the USSR, and threw his support behind this cause. His address to the crowd in front of Georgia’s parliament on April 9, 1989 , immediately prior to the massacre of civilians by Soviet troops armed with shovels, is very well known here:

The tenfold increase in operating churches and monasteries, fifteen-fold increase in serving clergy, temples overflowing with parishioners every weekend, and widespread attraction of Church life for Georgia’s youth are remarkable achievements under Patriarch Ilia’s stewardship of the Church in Georgia. May God grant him many years to come.

Today the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II turned 83. He has lead the spiritual life of the Orthodox Georgian parish for 38 years……

……. The  Prime Minister of Georgia, the  President and the United States’ Ambassador to Georgia released special congratulations today for Ilia II…..

The Patriarch had to take the responsibility of being a Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia in a very hard period, when Christianity was suffering significant suppression from the Soviet Union time ideology. 

Ilia II was born as Irakli Ghudushauri-Shiolashvili in Vladikavkaz, currently Russia’s North Ossetia.

…..He is a descendant of the influential eastern Georgian mountainous clan with family ties with the former royal dynasty  of Georgia – Bagrationi.

In 1967 he was consecrated as the bishop of Tskhumi and Abkhazeti in west, currently occupied region, and elevated to the rank of metropolitan in 1969.

 After the death of the Patriarch David V, he was elected the new Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia on December 25, 1977. 

In the new position Ilia II initiated a range of reforms, enabling the Georgian Orthodox Church to largely regain its former influence and prestige by the late 1980s. 

In 1988 there were only 180 priests, 40 monks, and 15 nuns for the faithful, who were variously estimated as being from one to three million.

 There were 200 churches, one seminary, three convents, and four monasteries. During the last years of the Soviet Union, Ilia II was actively involved in Georgia’s social life…..

….Currently there are about 2,000 acting churches and monasteries in Georgia and up to 3,000 spirituals (parish clergy and monastics). 

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Georgia’s neighbouring country to the south and east, Azerbaijan, is known to most people as a Turkish-speaking region of Iran wrested from Persian control by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not commonly known that for many centuries an indigenous Christian nation existed in Azerbaijan until it was eventually overwhelmed by Persians from the east and Armenians from the west. This country was known as Caucasian Albania (to distinguish it from the Albania in the Balkans).

Caucasian Albanian tribes spoke a number of East Caucasian languages and are believed to be related to the Lezgins of the North Caucasus. The only remaining tribe who identify as having this ancestry are the Udi; the ancient Caucasian Albanian capital cities of Qabala and Barda were located within the Udi domain, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Georgian Iberia. The village of Zinobiani, near Kakheti’s Kvareli town, was settled with Udi refugees from Azerbaijan in 1922 and these families still live there. The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hers were incorporated into the Georgian state in the 5th century and assimilated by the Kakhetians; the resulting Hereti region makes up most of current-day eastern Kakheti including the Shiraki region.

The Apostle Bartholomew is reputed to have evangelised the Caucasian Albanians. He is believed to have proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania, and to have converted members of the royal family to Christianity in Baku. He was martyred on the orders of the pagan King Astyages by crucifixion, and his relics later transported to Mesapotamia.

The Church was definitively established by the 1st century missionary Saint Elisaeus, who proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania and Persia, and he established the first Christian temple in the Caucasus, in Kis. In 313 the Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr declared Orthodox Christianity to be the State Religion of Caucasian Albania, predating King Mirian of Iberia’s declaration of Iberia as Christian nation in 337.

King Urnayr was baptised by Catholicos Gregory I of Armenia, and hence the Church of Caucasian Albania has had a close relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church over the years. While at times it has declared its autocephaly, at other times it was considered subordinate to the Armenian Catholicosate.

Many churches were built throughout Caucasian Albania, but unfortunately time and the attention of Muslim marauders over the past 1300 years have destroyed most of them.  The Church of Kis, built in a Georgian style in the 13th century, is the best preserved, having been renovated in 2003.

Given that much of Caucasian Albania was under the control of Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar, it is not surprising that Georgian architectural influences are seen here. The original church of this village was built by Saint Elisaeus in the 1st century.

The Caucasian Albanian Church was caught up in the controversy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which it rejected, and so over the years it has been more closely affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church than with the Eastern Orthodox communion. The Russian imperial government encouraged this affiliation and discouraged autocephalous movements. In recent years, the remaining Udi Christians of Azerbaijan have repudiated their affiliation with the Church of Armenia and have registered with the Azerbaijan government as the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Christian Community. Reportedly, several Udi men are training in Russian seminaries as priests, so it is quite possible that the Caucasian Albanian Church will return to the Eastern Orthodox communion, as it was prior  to 451, and during Georgia’s “Golden Age” when Georgia controlled the region.

On August 5th, the Community celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their Church as an established state church, and explained to the media the history of their people, and the ongoing renovation efforts for their temples in the village of Nij.

For a scholarly review of the Church in Caucasian Albania by an Azeri Academic, read here.

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Today is a busy day for the Georgian Church. In addition to commemorations for Holy King Vakhtang and the Apostle Andrew, the first two Catholicoi of the Autocephalous Georgian Church are commemorated today.

Catholicos is a Greek word (καθολικός ,plural καθολικοί, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘general.’) and in the early days of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the term was used as the title of bishops under its authority, including that of Georgia. The title was also used by the Church of the East which split from Antioch, and by the non-Chalcedonian Church of Armenia, and continues to be used by those jurisdictions. The Patriarch of Georgia is currently styled as the “Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia” and is the only Eastern Orthodox patriarch to bear that title.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

SAINT PETER

Saint Peter was the first Catholicos of Georgia. He led the Church of Kartli from the 460s through the beginning of the 6th century. According to God’s will, St. Peter inaugurated the dynasty of the chief shepherds of Georgia.

It is written in the biography of Holy King Vakhtang IV Gorgasali that the king was introduced to Peter, a pupil of St. Gregory the Theologian, during one of his visits to Byzantium, and he became very close to him. At that time he was also introduced to the future Catholicos Samuel.

The close spiritual bond of the holy king and the Catholicos, combined with their concerted efforts on behalf of the Church, contributed immeasurably to the establishment of friendly political relations between Georgia and Byzantium and the proclamation of the autocephaly of the Georgian Apostolic Church.

Having returned to his own capital, King Vakhtang sent an envoy to Byzantium to find him a wife. He also sent a request that the hierarch Peter be elevated as catholicos and that the priest Samuel be consecrated bishop. He pleaded with the patriarch to hasten the arrival of Catholicos Peter and the twelve bishops with him.

The Patriarch of Constantinople approved King Vakhtang’s request to institute the rank of Catholicos of Georgia. Since the Georgian Church was still under the jurisdiction of Antioch, Peter and Samuel were sent to the Antiochian patriarch himself to be elevated. The autocephaly of the Georgian Church was proclaimed upon the arrival of the holy fathers in Georgia.

St. Peter ruled the Church according to the principle of autocephaly and established a form of self-rule that would later help to increase the authority of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

The mutual respect and cooperation of the Catholicos and the holy king laid the foundations for future, harmonious relations between secular and Church authorities in Georgia. Their example defined the authority of the Church and a national love and respect for the king.

Peter accompanied Holy King Vakhtang Gorgasali to war with the Persians in 502. It is written that “the fatally wounded king Vakhtang summoned the catholicos, the queen, his sons and all the nobility.” St. Peter heard the king’s last confession, granted the remission of his sins, presided at his funeral service, and blessed the prince Dachi (502–514) to succeed him as king of Kartli.

Holy Catholicos Peter led the Georgian Church with great wisdom to the end of his days.

 

SAINT SAMEUL

St. Samuel ascended the throne of the Apostolic Orthodox Church of Georgia in the 6th century, after the holy Catholicos Peter.

Like St. Peter, Samuel was a native of Byzantium. He arrived with Catholicos Peter in Georgia as a bishop, at the invitation of King Vakhtang Gorgasali and with the blessing of the patriarch of Constantinople.

At that time Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta was the residence of the Catholicos.


St. Samuel I

After the repose of Catholicos Peter, Samuel succeeded him, and King Dachi “bestowed upon him the city of Mtskheta, according to the will of King Vakhtang.” St. Samuel led the Georgian Church during the reigns of King Dachi and his son Bakur. He initiated construction of Tsqarostavi Church in the Javakheti region.

What we know of St. Samuel’s activity paints him as a pastor who demonstrated great foresight and cared deeply about his flock. He was also a close acquaintance of the holy martyr Queen Shushanik.

St. Samuel faithfully served the Autocephalous Church of Georgia and labored to strengthen the Christian Faith of the Georgian people to the end of his days.

The Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church canonized the holy Catholicos Peter and the holy Catholicos Samuel on October 17, 2002.

From THE LIVES OF THE GEORGIAN SAINTS by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze, St. Herman Press

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