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A cross that bears fruit

· The saint of the month ·

Here we are in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on the threshold of autumn, with Pope Francis who decided to go to the boundaries of Europe, where about 100,000 Catholics live in a land with an Orthodox majority. I confess that, after having learned to breathe better in order to succeed in pronouncing the local names in the manner they deserve, I also had to consult an atlas in order to find the precise location of the Caucasus, which is no longer Europe but is not yet Asia, or indeed the Middle East. To put it briefly, it is an enclave which extends from the Black Sea to the Caucasus Mountains: one of those bridges which this Pontiff with his provocative touch likes to cross with style. For my own part, I wanted to understand who St Nino, the religious emblem of Georgia, actually is. 

As chance had it, being a Vatican journalist of the only weekly which covers the Pope, once on the spot I found that I had more time than my colleagues of dailies to do some research into this saint who had intrigued me for some time, for she nears the name of the Parisian parish of the Georgians in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. This district is close to the one in which I live and, by pure chance, shortly before Pope Francis’ visit, I had become curious when in that peaceful neighbourhood, one Sunday morning, I noticed hundreds of people waiting in front of a small, hidden and anonymous door. 

Wishing to know more about it, I followed that silent crowd which was going down into a basement. It was in fact the parish church of St Nino. It consisted of a modern room with walls covered in icons of all sizes, the most beautiful ones hanging near the altar, where two popewere celebrating the Eucharist. I was struck by the atmosphere of recollection and fervour which prevailed in that church, almost secret since no sign indicated this Sunday meeting place where the members of the diaspora would gather to rediscover their roots. I now had to find out too how the destiny of their heroine, St Nino or Ninon, was forged, who is celebrated in the West on 15 December.

However, this was no easy undertaking, even though Nino has the honour of having an entry in the calendar of saints and to be commemorated 10 days before Christmas. In fact, this fortunate chosen woman risks being neglected, because in those particular days Christians are concentrating above all on the Feast of the Nativity. Yet this mischance takes nothing from the spirituality and holiness of the young prisoner, encircled by a halo of great beauty. We have no precise information about her place of birth. However, it is clear that having become a slave at the royal court of Mtskheta in the Tbilisi region, Nino continued to preserve her ardent faith, praying day and night, despite the painful and humiliating conditions of her life with King Mirvan iii of Iberia. What was her secret? Grace, the inner strength which imbued her with deep serenity, made her feel sure of herself and aspire to something else.... She wanted to be loved and respected and not merely admired for the gift of God which was her body. In a certain sense she was a feminist ante litteram, who certainly did not know that she was one but decided that charity could exalt her and enable her to change both moral and social conditions; that it would let her enter the circle of the important figures of that country which is a quarter of the size of Italy. She did not need to force herself because her visceral need to do charitable deeds was in a certain sense second nature to her. Thus she obeyed first and foremost her inclination alone, guided by her profound faith and her search for the absolute which, by imploring the Lord, enabled her to obtain the healing of a child who seemed condemned to die. 

The cross of St Nino in the mountains of Southern Georgia

After this feat people began to talk about the extraordinary woman who worked miracles. For this reason the entourage of the authoritarian sovereign summoned her to the bedside of the dying Queen Nana. The beautiful and devout young woman immersed herself in prayer and suddenly one morning the Queen opened her eyes and got up. She was saved! Everyone at court was fascinated by this mysterious figure who had healed their sovereign. His Majesty wanted to reward her, but the future saint answered him that only his conversion would compensate her. She dreamed of spreading the faith. Hesitating to consign his soul to God, the king let his wife be converted first. Then struck by the joy and light which emanated from the woman with whom he had shared his heart until that moment, the king asked the Archbishop of Constantinople to send him a bishop to convert his kingdom. And so it was a woman who evangelized the first Christian country in history. Nino then withdrew to the region of Bobde where, beginning in the fourth century, a cathedral was to be built in Mtskhera.

Pope Francis during his visit to Georgia

We followed the Pope precisely to this place; he had come to pray to this saint. He was making a fraternal visit in the presence of the severe-looking Georgian Orthodox metropolitans, archbishops and bishops. They were as bearded as they were resplendent, their crosses adorned with precious stones and their panaghia on their breasts. But what impressed the Pope was a particular sign. He, who had refused to wear the heavy gold cross traditionally reserved for Bishops of Rome, was fascinated by St Nino when he learned that she always wore a simple cross decorated with vine leaves. A bare object, whose horizontal arms curved downwards but whose symbolic meaning suggests that the branches of the vine bear fruit. And this Argentinian Pope who loves strong images more than glorious accounts had this handmade cross reproduced on the commemorative medal for his 16th international journey.

Let us return to Mtskheta where the little oratory commemorates the Baptism of Georgia, the cradle of Christianity and a country which is proud to be home to the oldest Orthodox Churches where, today as in the past, this woman is venerated whose name is borne by many little girls today. It is an easy name to pronounce in all languages! This is the true privilege of the Patron Saint of Georgia: to have providentially entered the universe of globalization.

Caroline Pigozzi

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