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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when almost all Georgian Catholics were of the Latin Rite, some wished to use the Byzantine rite used by the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. The Russian Tsarist government, which had controlled Georgia since the beginning of that century, made use of that rite exclusive to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Accordingly, some of these Georgians, clergy as well as laity, adopted the Armenian Rite and joined the Armenian Catholic diocese of Artvin, which had been set up in Russian Transcaucasia in 1850.
Only after the granting of religious freedom in Russia in 1905 did some Catholics in Georgia adopt the Byzantine rite.
In 1861, outside of Georgia, indeed outside of the whole of the Russian Empire, Father Peter Karishiaranti (Pétre Kharistshirashvili) founded in Constantinople two religious congregations of the Immaculate Conception, one for men, the other for women. These served Georgian Catholics living in the then capital of the Ottoman Empire. They also served in Montaubon, France. These congregations are long extinct, although some of their members were still alive in the late 1950s. The building that housed the male congregation, in Feriköy district, still stands in Istanbul, now in private ownership. Their clergy served a small parish in Constantinople, giving Georgian Catholics in the city the possibility to worship in accordance with the Georgian Byzantine rite. This church (Notre-Dame de Lourdes) is still in service, although in the hands of Italian Catholic priests, gravestones in Georgian can still be seen in its courtyard.
In the brief period of Georgian independence between 1918 and 1921, some influential Georgian Orthodox expressed an interest in union with the Church of Rome, and an envoy was sent from Rome in 1919 to examine the situation. As a result of the onset of civil war and Soviet occupation, this came to nothing.
A Georgian Church of Byzantine Rite?
Some have treated Catholics within the Georgian Catholic Church who follow the Byzantine Rite as a separate particular Church with either 1861 or 1917 as the date of reunion with Rome. One Web site says that, in the 1930s, they had an Exarch, whom it misnames as Fr. Shio Batmanishviii, thus implicitly claiming that an apostolic exarchate specifically for Georgians of Byzantine Rite had been established.
The book, The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Union Empire from Lenin through Stalin, by Father Christopher Zugger (Syracuse University Press 2001) also states: "By 1936, the Byzantine Catholic Church of Georgia had two communities, served by a bishop and four priests, with 8,000 believers", and identifies the bishop as Shio Batmalashvili (pages 224 and following).
These sources thus claim that a Church of Byzantine Rite existed in Georgia, even if only as a local particular Church. However, since the establishment of a new hierarchical jurisdiction must be published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and no mention of the erection of such a jurisdiction for Byzantine Georgian Catholics exists in that official gazette of the Holy See, the claim appears to be unfounded.
Until 1994, the annual publication Catholic Almanac used to go further, listing "Georgian" among the Byzantine Rites or autonomous particular Churches. This was corrected in 1995.
If Shio Batmalashvili was sent as a bishop to Georgia, the fact that the Annuario Pontificio of the 1930s does not mention him may mean he was one of the priests secretly ordained bishops of titular sees for the service of the Church in the Soviet Union by French Jesuit Bishop Michel d'Herbigny, who was head of the Pontifical Commission "Pro Russia" from 1925 to 1934. Such a bishop would have been sent not to serve the few Byzantine-Rite Catholics in Georgia, but as apostolic administrator of the whole of the Latin diocese of Tiraspol, to which Georgian Catholics even of Byzantine rite belonged (cf. Oriente Cattolico (1974), page 194), and it would have been indeed astounding if the Holy See had chosen the 1930s, when the Soviet government was forcing into union with the Russian Orthodox Church all Catholics of Byzantine Rite who were in its power, to draw attention to the few Georgians of that rite by establishing for the first time a separate jurisdiction for them.
Accordingly, Georgian Catholics of Byzantine Rite do not in fact constitute an autonomous ("sui iuris") Church, since canon 27 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines these Churches as under a hierarchy of their own and recognized as autonomous by the supreme authority of the Church.
- Oriente Cattolico (Vatican City: The Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Churches, 1974)
- Annuario Pontificio
- Eastern Catholic Communities without Hierarchies
- History of Georgian Byzantine Catholic Church
- History of Catholicism Among the Georgians