Commemorated on March 12
ACCORDING to Holy Tradition, after Pentecost, when the Apostles cast lots to determine who would preach the Gospel in the different parts of the world, the Most Holy Theotokos received Georgia as her portion. But Christ appeared to the Theotokos and told her to send the Apostle Andrew the First-Called in her place. So she blessed Andrew to undertake this great task and presented him with an icon ofherself “Not-Made-By-Hands.”
St. Andrew and St. Simon the Canaanite preached the Gospel first in the region of Atchara in southwestern Georgia, and later along the Black Sea, heading northwards along the coast. St. Simon remained in the northwest, in Abkhazeti, and reposed there (he is buried in Anakopia). The Apostles Matthias and Bartholomew visited the Kartli region at a different time. The relics of St. Matthias are buried in the village of Gonio in Atchara.
At the beginning of the 4th century, before Christianity was declared the state religion in Kartli, the eastern Georgian kingdom, a Church hierarchy already existed in western Georgia, in Bichvinta. The bishop of Bichvinta participated in the First Ecumenical Council.
After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th century, St. Nino arrived in Georgia to preach the word of God during the rule of Equals-to-the-Apostles King Mirian and Queen Nana. Then, at King Mirian’s request, St. Constantine the Great sent a certain Bishop John (whom the First Nicaean Ecumenical Council enthroned as patriarch of Antioch in 325), along with two priests and a deacon, to baptize the Georgian people. This event marked the foundation of the Georgian Church and the joining of the Georgian faithful to the Holy See of Antioch.
In the year 472, during the reign of Holy King Vakhtang Gorgasali, a certain Bishop Petre was enthroned as the first Catholicos of Kartli, and a priest Samoel was elevated to the rank of archbishop. King Vakhtang established twelve dioceses during his rule.
It is written that “from this time on the catholicos ruled Kartli.” From the time of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, therefore, the Georgian Church had its own hierarchy to manage internal affairs, ordinations, and the installation of bishops. The Church had become self-sufficient.
At the time of Emperor Constantine V “Copronymus” (743—775) and Patriarch Theophylact ofAntioch, a group of Georgian clergy traveled to Antioch to inform the patriarch about several urgent problems facing the Georgian Church. During that visit the local council of Antioch granted the Georgian Church permission to consecrate its own catholicos, and in return the Georgian Church was asked to pay one thousand drachmae and import its holy chrism from Antioch. In addition, the Georgian Church was asked to commemorate the patriarch of Antioch first during the divine services.
Later, under the leadership of the holy hierarch Eprem of Atsquri, the Georgian Apostolic Church received permission to bless its own chrism: “By a decree of Christ’s servant Eprem, Kartli began to bless its own chrism,” writes St. Giorgi Merchule in The Lifr of Grigol of Kharidzta. (In our own time, Archbishop Anania Japaridze, a historian of the Georgian Church, researched this subject and concluded that by the 4th century the Georgian Church was already preparing and blessing chrism in Mtskheta). From this point on, the Georgians imported only the fragrances for holy chrism from Antioch.
Throughout many centuries the Georgian Church educated, raised, and nurtured its people, despite constant threats from the Muslim world. Beginning in the 6th century, when St. bane and his twelve disciples arrived from Syria, the Georgian lands emerged as a stronghold of Orthodox monasticism.
Then, in the 11th century, Georgia’s own sister church in Antioch began to act harshly in matters pertaining to the Georgian Church, and the holy fathers were challenged to defend the autocephaly and apostolic honor of their church. After a confrontation near the Black Mountains between the monks of the Antiochian and Georgian Churches, one of the monks of the Lavra of St. Simeon the Younger slandered the Georgian monks living there before the patriarch ofAntioch, Theodosius III. “We have no evidence of what they believe,” he avowed.
In response, St. Giorgi of the Holy Mountain affirmed the apostolic roots of the Georgian Church and pointed out that the Georgian Church had remained steadfast in the Faith since its conversion, while Antioch had faltered. “We believe in one God, we have never denied Him, and we have never turned from Him to heresy. Furthermore,” he asserted with some measure of wit, “it is preferable for the younger to obey the older, and since Peter was younger than his brother Andrew, it is more fitting for your Church to follow the example of ours.” (The Antiochian Church was founded by the Apostle Peter.)
The independence of the Georgian Church is clearly stated in the eighth paragraph of the Giorgievsk Treaty (the document that officially brought Georgia under Russian “protection”) of 1783. But in 1801 Tsar Alexander I of Russia signed a manifesto according to which Georgia lost its independence and was joined to Russia in the form of two provinces. The foreign officials sent to rule in Georgia began to interfere considerably in the affairs of the church, and it soon became clear that the Russian government intended to abolish the autocephaly of the Georgian Church and subordinate it to the Russian Synod.
On June 10, 1811, Tsar Alexander summoned Anton II, Patriarch of All Georgia, to his court and from there sent him into exile. For ten years Georgia had neither a king nor a spiritual leader, and the people began to lose their sense of political and spiritual independence.
There ensued a period of great difficulty in the life of the Georgian Church. The Church was subordinated to the Russian Synod through an exarch, or representative, of the synod. From 1811 to 1817 the Georgian nobleman Varlaam served as exarch, but after his term all the subsequent exarchs were Russian by descent. The foreign exarchs’ ignorance of the Georgian language, traditions, local saints, and feasts gave rise to many conflicts between the foreign clergy and the Georgian Orthodox believers. The most contemptible exarchs stole valuable pieces of jewelry and masterpieces of the Georgian enamel arts and sent them to Russia. Many cathedrals were left to fall into ruin, and the number of dioceses in Georgia dropped dramatically from twenty-four to five. Divine services in the Georgian language and ancient polyphonic chants were replaced by services in Slavonic and the music of the post-Petrine Russian Church.
Russian domination of the Church aroused considerable vexation and indignation in the Georgian people, and evidence of the exarchs’ anti-Georgian activities exacerbated their discontent. Despite the wise admonitions of many Russian elders to respect the portion assigned by lot to the Theotokos and converted by the holy Apostles themselves, appalling crimes continued to be committed against the Georgian Church and nation. Frescoes in churches were whitewashed, and the Khakhuli Icon of the Theotokos along with other icons and objects adorned with precious gold and silver were stolen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, leaders of the Georgian nationalist movement and local clergy began to fight for the restoration of the autocephaly of the Georgian Church. Under the leadership of St. Ilia the Righteous, a delegation of Georgian noblemen confronted the tsar’s representative, the viceroy of the Caucasus, Ilarion Vorontsov-Dashkov. They requested that he begin taking measures to restore the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Russian government called a meeting to discuss the issue, but the majority of those present opposed an autocephalous Georgian Church, and the request of the Georgian envoys was denied.
But on March 12, 1917, the Georgian clergy finally succeeded in restoring the autocephaly of the Church. By the grace of God, all the Georgian Orthodox churches were in favor of autocephaly. In the same year they enthroned Kirion II, a leader in the autocephaly movement, as Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. St. Kirion was later martyred at Martqopi Monastery.
In accordance with God’s will and through the valiant efforts of Ilia II, the current Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople officially recognized the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1990. On March 4 of the same year, on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, His Holiness Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople presented Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II with an official declaration of the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The document also proclaimed Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II Chief Shepherd of the Georgian Church.
This event was an enormous joy and a tremendous victory It was the final and triumphal acknowledgment of the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
© 2006 St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.