About ten years ago I was teaching English to a class of Georgian teenagers eager to know more about me with the standard questions of where I was from and do I like Georgian food and wine. Then one lad asked what religion I belonged to. For simplicity’s sake, I said Catholic.
“Is that a cult?” he asked.
I laughed at his witticism, but quickly realized he wasn’t joking.
“No, man. Roman Catholic. You’ve never heard of them?”
“We are Georgian Orthodox,” he said. All the other students had that same smug look on their faces.
“Yes, I know.”
While I can think of a few people in my hometown that don’t know what Orthodox Christians are, even though they have seen The Deer Hunter, I can’t understand how somebody has no idea who Pope John Paul II was.
Georgia is an ancient kingdom that was practicing Christianity while most European nations were still fighting dragons, yet instead of enriching a spiritual, forbearing society, this deeply devotional history has been highjacked by chauvinism and nationalism. People esteem the institution yet they rarely observe the teachings of Christ. That includes priests.
One day a young woman in jeans with a headscarf stopped in front of a church and crossed herself. A priest in a black Landcruiser called out to her as she started towards the door.
“Excuse me miss, but did Mary Magdalene wear jeans?” he asked.
“Did Jesus drive a big black jeep?” she retorted and entered the church.
I had no problems with the paradoxes and hypocrisy of a church I was not a member of. And then, my daughter was born. Suddenly my wife and I, both recovering Catholics, were faced with the religious question. Our daughter will be growing up and going to school in a country that has more faith in an old priest than in anybody else. This man, His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II, says women should wash their husbands’ feet, homosexuality is a disease and in-vitro fertilization makes unhappy babies.
Playground discrimination will be tough for an American-Pole here no matter how fluent her Georgian is. We know some cool priests and mulled over the idea of getting our daughter baptized to reduce her ignorant peers’s bigoted ammunition. Hell, it would be a fun party too. But then May 17, 2013 happened.
The Church’s acquiescent reaction to that infamous day when scores of priests led tens of thousands of homophobes on a violent attack against a small group of gay rights activists was a travesty and a blasphemy to the name of Christ. I will not have my daughter baptized into a religious institution that preaches hate and condones violence, but if she wants to play religion, I certainly won’t forbid it.
My little girl is 4 years-old and goes to a Georgian preschool. Sometimes she wears a cross around her neck to emulate our nanny, Mari, who is a Georgian Orthodox Christian that has helped teach her such empathetic and compassionate principles that all religions revere. As a lover of symbolism, I have no issues with the cross unless it is worn by somebody who maligns the doctrine it symbolizes. I had also thought it might protect our daughter from the school’s vampires, but I was wrong.
“Why are you wearing a cross?” her teacher asked.
“My godmother wears a cross.”
“Godmother? You can’t be baptized here. You’re Polish!” she snapped.