When a hierarch runs the Church for a very long time, the cathedra without him becomes almost unimaginable. During a 26-year-long pontificate of Pope John Paul II, until he passed away, several generations of Catholics had been raised who did not remember any previous pope and hence, found any talk about a successor pope to be somewhat embarrassing. To criticize the following top hierarch, Pope Benedict XVI, became easy in the Catholic Church because the possibility emerged to compare his pontificate with the style of Pope John Paul's administration. In the West, this phenomenon is dubbed as being an effect of the "long pontificate." When an institution and a personality become so identified with one other over a period of many years the demise of that person produces a shocking effect.
Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II has run the Georgian Orthodox Church for 35 years now. No one remembers his predecessor, David V Devdariani, any longer. For those born after 1970, the only possible Patriarch is still Ilia II. Over that period, the country experienced many developments. Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze, Saakashvili... these are the leaders of the Soviet Union and the independent Georgia who have been and gone whilst Ilia II remained in the Mtskheta-Tbilisi cathedra. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is the eighth "Caesar" under whose rule the Patriarch continues at the helm of the Church.
There is naturally a certain degree of embarrassment in talking about a successor whilst the top hierarch is still alive; however, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI showed that this topic might not be as embarrassing as one may think. After all, the Catholicos Patriarch also has the right to step down.
In the West, once a new Pope is elected, the media starts compiling a list of his possible successors, or papabiles as the cardinals who have a chance to become popes of the Catholic Church are called. Of course, the media often errs when identifying possible candidates, and did so during the last conclave too, but heightened public interest towards this issue has always nudged it to cover this topic.
In Georgia, the possible successors to the Patriarch, or patriarchabiles, if we may coin a term, are either rarely discussed in public or not discussed at all. Many religious servants have long promulgated prophesies that Ilia II is the Patriarch of the end times, and the Catholicos Patriarch has never opposed this widespread myth. Quite the opposite, Ilia II's statements have further encouraged this eschatological fear. However, as always happens, this foretold apocalypse will eventually be postponed and we will all come to ask who will be elected as the new Catholicos Patriarch and how he will be elected.
According to the charter on the management and administration of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a candidate for the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia must meet the following criteria:
1. He must be of Georgian descent,
2. He must be a hierarch,
3. He must have an academic background in theology and sufficient experience of clerical administration,
4. He must be no less than 40 and no more than 70 years old,
5. He must be a monk.
As of today, four members of the Synod do not fit into the required age category. The Metropolitan of Kutaisi and Gaenati, Kalistrate, and the Metropolitan of Tkibuli and Terjola, Giorgi Shalamberidze, exceeded the upper age limit of 70 several years ago. The Bishop of Khornabuji and Hereti, Melchisedek, and the Bishop of Bolnisi, Ephrem, meanwhile, have not yet turned 40. The latter two will both reach the lower age limit in two years.
It is impossible to discover who, among the Synod members, lacks a theological education because such a requirement has not been established for becoming a bishop and the theological seminary-academy of the Georgian Patriarchate issues diplomas to any anointed hierarch without any problem. Moreover, some bishops undertake distance learning at the higher theological educational institutions of foreign countries. Consequently, this criterion is, in fact, merely a formality.
It is also worth noting that, in contrast to the Catholic Church in which any catholic male who is unmarried can be nominated as a pope, in the Georgian Orthodox Church the patriarch can only be elected from among hierarchs. This chance is not formally given to either deacons or priests.
Nor is it possible to find out whether the Holy Synod includes a "non-Georgian" candidate because a candidate for the top hierarch is required to be of Georgian origin. This criterion was established as the number one requirement by an extended synod in 1995. There is no answer as to how a synod electing the Patriarch is going to establish the ethnicity of a specific person if the need to do so emerges. This requirement represents a significant problem, not only because of a logical contradiction, but also in terms of clerical law, especially now, at a time when the Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia also holds the status of the Metropolitan Bishop of Abkhazia and Bichvinta.
It turns out that if the God of Christians, for whom "there is neither Jew nor Greek" decides to entrust His church to a non-ethnic Georgian in this part of the world, the charter on the management and administration of the Georgian Church, adopted in the 1990s, will prevent Him from doing so.
Before a new Catholicos Patriarch can be elected in Georgia, in the event of the Catholicos Patriarch passing away, stepping down or being unable to perform his duties for some other reason, the Church is run by a locum tenens, i.e. an acting Patriarch, who is nominated by the Catholicos Patriarch himself. If such an individual is not nominated, then the superior hierarch according to ordination, i.e. the one who was ordained as a bishop the earliest, automatically takes this position. Currently, that person is the Metropolitan of Tianeti and Pshav-Khevsureti, Tadeos, who broke his vow of celibacy and, consequently, is regarded to be an odious figure, even within the Church.
After the death of the Catholicos Patriarch, the superior hierarch by ordination is obliged to read, in the presence of the majority of the Synod's members, the will of the Catholicos Patriarch and announce the identity of the locum tenens. If no such will has been left, or the will does not name the locum tenens, the superior by ordination undertakes the administration of the Church until a new Catholicos Patriarch has been elected. This is unlikely to happen because of the age of those bishops who are superior by ordination and the controversial attitude towards them inside the Church.
Canonic obedience to the locum tenens of the Patriarchate is the duty of every member of the Georgian Church. Nevertheless, neither the locum tenens nor the Synod can take any important decision until the top hierarch has been elected.
According to the established procedure, after a passage of 40 days, but no later than two months from the death of the Catholicos Patriarch, the locum tenens shall convene an extended synod of the Georgian Church which will elect the Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia. However, before convening the extended meeting, the locum tenens must convene the Synod for selecting three candidates to be submitted to the extended meeting. Each member of the Synod is allowed to nominate one candidate, including themselves, for the position of patriarch.
The three candidates for the position of the patriarch, whom the Synod elects by the majority of votes, then run for election in the extended synod. The extended meeting includes all members of the Holy Synod; two clergymen and one civilian from each eparchy; two delegates from each monastery as well as the theological seminaries and academies. The extended meeting is also attended by four delegates from the Academy of Gelati and as many delegates from the Mtskheta-Tbilisi eparchy as from the other eparchies.
Every participant in the extended meeting can express their opinions about the candidates but only the hierarchs have the right to participate in the vote. Consequently, the Catholicos Patriarch is elected by the hierarchs alone. The candidate that receives more than half of the votes from the hierarchs participating in the meeting will be elected as the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia.
If none of the three candidates selected by the Holy Synod receives more than half of the votes, a run-off ballot will be held in which the two candidates mustering the most votes in the first round will participate.
At present, it is almost impossible to predict who might vote for whom. The Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which now comprises 36 bishops, has long been divided into monolithic clerical groups, of which religious servants at every step of the clerical hierarchy are more or less aware.
In contrast to the Western clerical experience, where groups of cardinals unite around common ideas, Georgian clerical groupings are often amorphous and cannot be considered to be coalitions created to pursue concrete aims. A group, as a rule, has a leader and it is formed according to personal relations, common religious beliefs, and perceptions of daily life or religious sub-cultures. Moreover, a bishop may join a group as a token of gratefulness to the leader of the group who helped him to become a bishop by submitting his candidacy to the Synod and voting for him. A member of one group can simultaneously be seen as a member of another group and thus the division sometimes becomes nominal. However, based on multiple inquiries of high hierarchs and priests, we can claim that the number of such groups in the Georgian Church that rally around the central figure of the Patriarch is currently only five in total.
The group led by the Metropolitan of Batumi and Lazeti, Dimitri Shiolashvili, a nephew of Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II, is believed to include the Archbishop of Bodbe, Jacob Iakobishvili. According to a leading member of the Holy Synod, the ordination of Iakobashvili as a bishop was the prerogative of Dimitri Shiolashvili and that ordinance was not carried out in full observance of Synodal procedure. Society learned about Archbishop Iakob in relation to the events of 17 May when an aggressive mob led by religious servants assaulted a small group of people intending to stage a peaceful rally to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. He is an active opponent of the United National Movement and an open supporter of the current government. This group also includes the Bishop of Skhalta, Spiridon Abuladze, who is notorious for making xenophobic and homophobic statements. Yet another hierarch in this group, less well known to society and the congregation, is the Archbishop of Stepantsminda and Khevi, Iegudiel Tabatadze, who has close ties to the influential Union of Orthodox Parents and other similar religious-fundamentalist groups. The leader of this clerical group, Dimitri Shiolashvili, himself has close ties with such fundamentalist groups. The Shiolashvili group is one of the strongest among the clerical groupings, with close ties to the new authorities and clerical positions. The Metropolitan of Chkondidi and Martvili, Petre Tsaava, who sometimes stands separately, is also assumed to belong to this group. The eparchy of Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili is also the richest of the eparchies. According to several sources, quite a large sum of the millions of lari paid from the state budget to the Patriarchate goes to him.
The group of the Metropolitan of Chiatura and Sachkhere, Daniel Datuashvili, is considered to be the most numerous, though it is unstable. The Metropolitan of Akhalkalaki, Nikoloz Pachuashvili; the Metropolitan of Nikozi and Tskhinvali, Isaiah Chanturia; the Metropolitan of Borjomi and Bakuriani, Seraphim Jojua; the Metropolitan of Shemokmedi, Joseph Kikvadze; and the Metropolitan of Samtavisi and Gori, Andria Gvazava, are all believed to fall under this group. It is assumed that the Metropolitan of Alaverdi, David Makharadze, will also side with them. The entire Church is well aware of Metropolitan Daniel's ambition to become the Catholicos Patriarch. His most ardent supporter was the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, but it is believed that after Zhvania's tragic death, the chances of Metropolitan Daniel becoming the Catholicos Patriarch are slim. This group will probably nominate Metropolitan Daniel Datuashvili, currently occupying one of the highest steps by church orders, for the position of Catholicos Patriarch.
The group of the Metropolitan of Nekresi, Sergios Chekurishvili, includes Archbishop Theodore Chuadze; the Metropolitan of Khoni and Samtredia, Saba Gigiberia; and the Archbishop of Tsageri and Lentekhi, Stepan Kalaijishvili. Talking with Tabula, several sources noted that this group is weak. The central figure of the group, who is known to users of social networks because of his comments about "the 400 husbands of a Hollywood actress," may not want to be nominated as a candidate for the Catholicos Patriarch. Consequently, there is talk about nominating Archbishop Theodore Chuadze.
The group of the Metropolitan of Urbnisi and Ruisi, Job Akiashvili, is thought to include the young Bishop of Bolnisi, Ephrem Gamrekelidze, and the Bishop of Mestia and Upper Svaneti, Ilarion Kitiashvili. The eparchy of Metropolitan Job is among the strongest ones, with monks having been ordained and promoted at a rapid pace in recent years. The eparchy of Urbnisi and Ruisi is full of hermitages and monasteries. Metropolitan Job is known for his asceticism and mysticism-inclined religiosity, as well as for his activism in condemning the former government. This group also included the former Archbishop of Bodbe, David, who is now in retirement. Thus far it has not been excluded that Archbishop Iegudiel Tabatadze, who is thought to be in the group of Metropolitan David Shiolashvili, may vote in favor of Metropolitan Job. It is worth noting that the 38-year old Bishop of Bolnisi, Ephrem Gamrekelidze, is one of the most respected hierarchs by almost all of the above listed groups and, upon reaching the age required for a candidate, he may well become a competitive rival for the position of patriarch.
Finally, there is the group of the Metropolitan of Western Europe, Abraham Garmelia, which was believed to be supporting the United National Movement and, in the past, had repeatedly issued protest statements against the Russian Federation and the Russian Church. This group includes the Bishop of Khornabuji and Hereti, Melchisedek Khachidze; the Metropolitan of Vani and Baghdati, Anton Bulukhia; and is still thought to include the Metropolitan of Poti and Khobi, Grigol Berbichashvili. Some sources think that after the change of power, Metropolitan Grigol Berbichashvili will support the group of Dimitri Shiolashvili, which can also be supported by the Metropolitan of Tsilkani and Dusheti, Zosimas, who, in due course, consecrated Metropolitan Abraham as a monk.
Some 24 bishops, that is more than half of the total number of bishops in the Church, fall under the various groups existing in the Synod. The remaining 12 bishops are viewed as standing separately. Among them are the Bishop of Sagarejo, Luka, and the Bishop of Gurjaani, Euthymos, who will probably take a similar decision.
The hierarchs superior by ordination, such as the Metropolitan of Tianeti and Pshav-Khevsureti, Tadeos Ioramashvili; the Metropolitan of Manglisi and Tsalka, Anania Japaridze; the Metropolitan of Margveti and Ubisa, Vakhtang Akhvledani; the Metropolitan of Kutaisi and Gelati, Calistratos Margalitashvili; and the Metropolitan of Tkibuli and Terjola, Giorgi Shalamberidze, comprise a separate group. Along with Metropolitan Zosimas, who is seen as belonging to the group of Metropolitan Abraham, they were ordained during the Soviet Union and have almost reached retirement age.
This group represents a less ascetic wing of the Church; they are not known for openly supporting any of the groups, but sharply react to the excessive religious requirements of relatively younger hierarchs who advocate for tougher asceticism. Metropolitan Calistratos of this group was an active supporter of the UNM; Metropolitan Vakhtang is viewed as pro-Catholic and therefore the congregation also voices protest against him. Metropolitan Vakhtang is married, which means he has broken the monk's vow of celibacy. Metropolitan Anania openly makes anti-Russian statements. Metropolitan Giorgi Shalamberidze has not been seen in public for quite a long time now.
In the view of Church commentators, it is unlikely for this group to support a candidate of the ascetic direction, such as Metropolitan Job. Two members of this group, Tadeos and Vakhtang, might well fear that they will be defrocked or forced to retire. As a supporter of the previous government, Metropolitan Calistratos, might not be fond of Metropolitan Job – an open supporter of the Georgian Dream. Metropolitan Anania might opt to support Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili. It is assumed that if these hierarchs do not retire before the election of a future Catholicos Patriarch, they will remain passive during the election and will vote for the candidate who is in the lead.
It is also not clear what the Archbishop of Dmanisi and Agarak-Tashiri, Zenon Iarajuli, who also leads a Georgian eparchy in Great Britain and Ireland, will do. Until now he was thought to belong to Father Abraham's group, however some of Tabula's sources say that Archbishop Zenon probably has good relations with bishops from other groups too. Archbishop Zenon has been considered a candidate for the Patriarchate for quite a long time now.
As regards the Archbishop of Rustavi and Marneuli, Ioane Gamrekeli, he may be nominated for the position of Catholicos Patriarch as a candidate to counterbalance the fundamentalist groups in the Church. Father Ioane Gamrekeli does not share the fears of the likes of Metropolitan Job regarding electronic ID cards and is engaged in open opposition of this fundamentalist wing of the Church.
As regards the Metropolitan of Senaki and Chkhorotsku, Shio Mujiri, who is rarely seen in public and seldom gives interviews to the clerical press, he may, according to Tabula's sources, also turn into a candidate. There is not much negative information about Metropolitan Shio, because, as sources say, his opinions are unknown and no one has had a conflict with him. Father Shio is a childhood friend of the Georgian Dream coalition's presidential candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili. He also has close ties with businessman Levan Vasadze, who amassed his fortune in Russia. Margvelashvili started his campaign from the very eparchy of Father Shio. Some sources say that Metropolitan Shio may emerge as an unexpected candidate who will be supported by one of the strongest patriarchabiles – Dimitri Shiolashvli.
Analyzing the current situation in the Synod, we can assume that the three candidates revealed by the first vote in the Synod as the nominees for the position of Catholicos Patriarch will most likely be Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvli, Metropolitan Abraham Garmelia and Metropolitan Daniel Datuashvili, and perhaps Metropolitan Theodore Chuadze or Metropolitan Sergios Chekurishvili. Given that Metropolitan Job Akiashvili is viewed as the candidate of Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvli, it is less likely to see him among such candidates. However, his candidacy could be nominated if Metropolitan Dimitri comes to face problems from voters because of his kinship with his uncle the, by that point former, Catholicos Patriarch. After all, John Chrysostom compared the patriarchs of Alexandria with the pharaohs because of the tradition in the Patriarchate of Alexandria of transferring the throne of a patriarch from uncle to nephew.
The existing antagonism in the Synod would be easily diffused with the involvement of the Catholicos Patriarch, just as has always happened throughout history. Caesaropapism in Eastern Christendom has a long tradition, which also continued during the Soviet Union. The clerical hierarchy considers it normal, not only for it to interfere in state affairs, but also for the state to interfere in the affairs of the Church; thus it does not react to that occurring as sharply as happens in the West. Consequently, the will of the state will also play an important role in the process of electing a new Catholicos Patriarch. According to some sources, the nomination of Metropolitan Shio Mujiri would provide illustration of the will of the state.
The threat of a schism developing in the Synod in the event of a relatively fundamentalist candidate winning is less likely. For example, the group of Metropolitan Abraham would find it difficult to create a schism and would not venture to do that. The most this group might do would be to officially distance itself and go home. But if Metropolitan Abraham Garmelia is elected as the Catholicos Patriarch, then his number one objective would probably be tackling the problem of Metropolitan Job. Compared to other candidates, Metropolitan Abraham Garmelia has a formal advantage – he is 65 years old and the young bishops will have a chance to run in the election once again after his death. However, it is believed that the chance of Abraham gaining candidacy has significantly weakened after the change of the government.
As an example of the conflict that can occur in the election of the patriarch is the process that took place at the time of election of Ilia II himself. After the death of David V, the Synod comprised of only seven bishops:
1. The Metropolitan of Abkhazia and Bichvinta, Ilia,
2. The Metropolitan of Tetritskaro, Zinobi,
3. The Metropolitan of Tsilkani, Gaioz,
4. The Metropolitan of Alaverdi, Grigol,
5. The Metropolitan of Manglisi, Giorgi,
6. The Metropolitan of Bodbe, Ilarion,
7. The Metropolitan of Batumi-Shemokmedi and Chkondidi, Romanoz.
When the Holy Synod assembled to read the will of David V, they could not find it in the late Patriarch's safe and, consequently, the meeting declared Ilia Shiolashvili, the bishop superior by ordination, as the locum tenens. At that meeting, Metropolitan Gaioz supported Metropolitan Romanoz, who was not in attendance, being appointed as the locum tenens. However, the charter on the management and administration of the Church was explicit about the superior by ordination, and not by age, becoming the locum tenens. Indeed, despite his younger age, Ilia II was ordained as a bishop much earlier than any other in the Synod. Before the meeting at which the patriarch was to be elected, bishops Romanoz, Ilarion and Gaioz, all deemed Ilia Shiolashvili's holding of the position of locum tenens as illegal. There were rumors that Ilia II had burnt the will of Davit V and thus misappropriated the position of locum tenens. Those bishops even broke into the Patriarchate to send letters to the world churches seeking the abolition of the decision to appoint Ilia as the locum tenens. Three out of seven bishops refused to recognize the meeting as legitimate. Hence they did not even nominate their candidates.
Patriarch Pimen I of Moscow arrived to attend the election of the Catholicos Patriarch. Finally, at the 12th meeting of the Georgian Church, Ilia II was unanimously elected. Even though sources from those times are sometimes ambiguous, it is clear that the arrival of the Patriarch of Moscow significantly sped up the process of reconciliation from those three bishops. Metropolitan Romanoz passed away soon thereafter. The remaining two that had been against Ilia II were later defrocked. The Soviet government arrested Metropolitan Gaioz and sent him to exile. He returned to Georgia some time later. Metropolitan Ilarion to date has been silent about these events and has been seen against a backdrop of icons of Stalin a couple of times on social networks.
Keeping in mind the events occurring during the election of the current Catholicos Patriarch, it would not come as a surprise to see something like that happen again in the Church after his death or retirement, especially given that the patriarch is now elected not by seven, but by 36 bishops.
Moreover, one should take into account that one territory falling under the jurisdiction of the Georgian Church has already fallen victim to the conflict between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople in the world arena of the Orthodox Christian Church. Moscow's ambitions have been well known for a long time now, however, a recent meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch and Abkhaz bishops, some of whom remember the former in their prayers, has convinced us that Constantinople will not stand aside from the process either. With vast financial resources, the Patriarchate of Moscow is already trying to secure loyalty from a large number of autocephalous churches, including the oldest Greek patriarchates that have been traditional allies of the Constantinople Church. The Patriarchate of Moscow may support the nomination of several bishops in Georgia, including Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili, Metropolitan Gerasime Sharashenidze, Metropolitan Seraphim Jojua or Metropolitan Job Akiashvili, as candidates for the position of patriarch. For his part, Metropolitan Abraham Garmelia, who has good relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, may have hopes for support from the Archbishop of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I.
One thing is crystal clear, regardless of which of the 36 bishops becomes a new patriarch, all have been ordained in the period of the patriarchy of Ilia II. There is no candidate that was ordained by the previous patriarch. However, the preference of Ilia II will be disclosed only after we have learned about his will and the identity of locum tenens contained within. In the event of the Patriarch's continued longevity, however, the balance of power existing in the Synod today may significantly change; with bishops ordained in the period of the Soviet Union retiring and the Synodal groups pushing their candidates through to the synod to increase the number of votes. Two years ago, information was leaked from the Patriarchate that Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili was trying to increase votes by splitting up eparchies. Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II personally reacted to a TV talk-show dedicated to this information and condemned the participants in this talk show for their statements. Never before had Ilia II personally commented on such statements, which made many think that the leaked information was true.
And finally, who can be the "patriarch of civil society?" The pro-Western segment of society with liberal values does not have any such candidate in the Synod and will probably not have one in future either. Now, at the end of this article, I express hope that the longevity of the current Catholicos Patriarch will continue and provide us with the possibility of revising this article by adding some changes to it.
The autocephaly and jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church exists not on ethnic but on territorial grounds. In contrast to, for example, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church does not view itself as a unity based on the grounds of ethnicity. Consequently, it is not a Georgian Church but a church with the right to preach on the territory of Georgia. In 1872 a synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople named ethnic discrimination in the church as ethnophyletism and condemned it as heresy for the Orthodox Church. At that meeting, the Synod issued a resolution which reads:
"[I]n the Christian Church, a society which is spiritual and charged by its Head and Founder to include all nations in one Christian brotherhood, phyletism is foreign and completely unthinkable. And, indeed, phyletism, i.e. the formation of special national Churches in the same place, which accept all those of the same race, but exclude all those of other races and which are administered solely by those of the same race, are unheard of and unprecedented, though they are what the adherents of phyletism aspire to."