On 12 March 1917, less than two weeks after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, an assembly of Georgian bishops, priests, monks and lay people reclaimed the church’s autonomy and restored the catholicosate. But the church’s newly found freedom, like the state’s, was short-lived. In 1921, Soviet Russia annexed Georgia. Religion was suppressed and several eminent church figures, including the catholicos-patriarch, were killed. Though the Soviet authorities permitted the Georgians to remain independent of the Orthodox Church of Russia, they ruthlessly persecuted the church. In 1917, more than 2,400 churches operated in Georgia. By the mid-1980’s, however, only a handful of monasteries survived and 80 churches remained active. Yet, Georgians did not give up their Orthodox faith.
“In order to receive Communion, my family walked for miles,” said Father Giorgi Getiashvili, a prominent pastor in Tbilisi. “People went to church quietly, secretly. If there were no priests in the churches, people went anyway and prayed. The rituals did not exist. People just went.”
Revival. As the Soviet system lost its grip in the late 1980’s, the Orthodox Church of Georgia — led by Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II — returned as a major force in the lives of all Georgians. Renewal gathered steam especially after Georgia declared its independence in 1991. Churches throughout the country have reopened, new structures consecrated and two theological academies and six seminaries opened.
Vocations to the priesthood have increased significantly. New religious houses for men and women are actively working to improve all aspects of Georgian society, which has been battered with the collapse of the planned and controlled economy of the Soviet era.
Today, the resurgence of Orthodoxy is highly visible. Stores now sell Georgian and Russian icons, as well as prayer books. When Orthodox Georgians pass in front of a church, they are apt to make the Sign of the Cross.
“These traditions are passed from generation to generation. Everything we have today has been practiced for a very long time, even centuries,” said Father Giorgi.
“It’s due to God’s strength we have been able to preserve it.”
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Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.
Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Georgian Orthodox Church Revival/restoration