Pope Francis arrived in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, September 13, for his apostolic journey to the country and to participate in the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The Holy Father, who has been seen throughout the trip in his wheelchair, just as he was as in Canada, said that he embarked on his visit “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking dialogue and unity.” The cause of peace and an end to the ongoing war in Ukraine has been on Francis’s mind throughout the trip. This concern has been reflected in his public remarks.
Upon his arrival, Francis met with the diplomatic corps and civil authorities of Kazakhstan in Nur-Sultan. Emphasizing the path forward after recounting Kazakhstan’s “glorious history of culture, humanity and suffering,” Francis pointed to Kazakhstan’s own secular constitution as a balanced way of achieving “harmony”:
Fittingly, the Constitution of Kazakhstan, in defining it as a secular state, provides for freedom of religion and belief. A healthy secularity, one that acknowledges the important and indispensable role of religion and resists the forms of extremism that disfigure it, represents an essential condition for the equal treatment of each citizen, while fostering a sense of loyalty to the country on the part of all its ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious groups. Religions, while carrying out their irreplaceable role of seeking and witnessing to the Absolute, require freedom of self-expression. Religious freedom represents the best channel for civil coexistence.
Emphasizing the importance of human dignity and its value in Kazakh society, Pope Francis defended religious freedom, personal rights, and also reiterated his call for the abolition of the death penalty:
The defence of freedom, an aspiration inscribed in the heart of each person, the sole condition for an authentic encounter between individuals and groups, is expressed in civil society chiefly by the recognition of rights, accompanied by duties. In this regard, I wish to express appreciation for the affirmation of the value of human life embodied by the abolition of the death penalty in the name of each human being’s right to hope. Together with this, it is important to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and speech, in order to enable each individual to play his or her unique and equal role in service to society as a whole.
Finally, he emphasized the task of building a “good politics” and the need to overcome the risks of polarization, fundamentalism, and extremism with dialogue and encounter–themes he would repeat later that day at the Congress:
Democracy and modernization everywhere must be more than fine words; they must be embodied in concrete service to people: a “good politics”, born of listening to people and responding to their legitimate needs, constant engagement with civil society and nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations, and particular concern for workers, young people and the more vulnerable sectors of society. Every country in the world likewise needs measures to combat corruption. This truly democratic political “style” is the most effective response to possible cases of extremism, personalism and populism that threaten the stability and welfare of peoples.
At the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions also on Tuesday, Francis brought the spirit of Fratelli Tutti in addressing his “brothers and sisters” gathered “as children of the same Heaven.” His message was rooted in this fraternity, and the need to encounter one another based “on respect, sincere dialogue, respect for the inviolable dignity of each human being and mutual cooperation,” thereby building a “route” for peace.:
Before the mystery of the infinite that transcends and attracts us, the religions remind us that we are creatures; we are not omnipotent, but men and women journeying towards the same heavenly goal. Our shared nature as creatures thus gives rise to a common bond, an authentic fraternity. It makes us realize that the meaning of life cannot be reduced to our own individual interests, but is deeply linked to the fraternity that is part of our identity. We mature only with others and thanks to others.
Francis’s message turned towards religious leaders to provide a firm purpose for religion and religious leaders in the world as a response to “the thirst for world peace and the thirst for the infinite that dwells in the heart of each man and woman.” “Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society.” At the same time, he decried forms of religious fundamentalism that have brought more pain and suffering into the world, rather than eased the burdens of other human beings:
Mindful of the wrongs and errors of the past, let us unite our efforts to ensure that the Almighty will never again be held hostage to the human thirst for power. […] So, brothers and sisters, let us purify ourselves of the presumption of feeling self-righteous, with no need to learn anything from anyone. Let us free ourselves of those reductive and destructive notions that offend the name of God by harshness, extremism and forms of fundamentalism, and profane it through hatred, fanaticism, and terrorism, disfiguring the image of man as well.
His reflections turned towards four specific global challenges in the post-pandemic world to which Francis believes religious leaders are called to respond: the pandemic, the challenge of peace, fraternal acceptance, and care for our common home. Speaking of the task of building peace, he denied that God ever guides us to war, widely understood to be an implicit rebuke of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill:
God is peace. He guides us always in the way of peace, never that of war. Let us commit ourselves, then, even more to insisting on the need for resolving conflicts not by the inconclusive means of power, with arms and threats, but by the only means blessed by heaven and worthy of man: encounter, dialogue and patient negotiations.
He closed the interfaith encounter with a plea for all to move forward in a spirit of true, rather than false, friendship. This requires avoiding syncretism and false unity, and instead relies on sincere dialogue:
May we never aim at artificial and conciliatory forms of syncretism, for these are useless, but instead firmly maintain our own identities, open to the courage of otherness and to fraternal encounter. Only in this way, along this path, in these dark times in which we live, will we be able to radiate the light of our Creator.
Today (Thursday, September 15), Francis concluded his trip with an address to clergy, religious, and pastoral workers of Kazakhstan at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Nur Sultan. He reflected on what it means to be a small Church with few members in a large country:
We may well feel “little” and inadequate. Yet, if we see things with the hope-filled gaze of Jesus, we make a surprising discovery: the Gospel says that being “little”, poor in spirit, is a blessing, a beatitude, and indeed the first of the beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3). For once we acknowledge our littleness, we can humbly hand ourselves over to the power of God, who teaches us not to base our ecclesial activity on our own abilities. This is a grace! I repeat: there is a hidden grace in being a small Church, a little flock, for instead of showing off our strengths, our numbers, our structures and other things that are humanly important, we can let ourselves be guided by the Lord and humbly draw close to others. Rich in nothing and poor in everything, let us walk with simplicity alongside our sisters and brothers, bringing the joy of the Gospel into the situations of everyday life. Like the leaven in the dough and like the smallest of seeds sown in the earth (cf. Mt 13:31-33), may we immerse ourselves in the joyful and sorrowful events of the society in which we live, in order to serve it from within.
Being little also reminds us that we are not self-sufficient: we need God. We also need others, all others: our Christian sisters and brothers of other confessions, those who hold other religious beliefs than our own, all men and women of good will. May we realize, in a spirit of humility, that only together, in dialogue and mutual acceptance, can we truly achieve something good for the benefit of all. That is the special task of the Church in this country: not to be a group bogged down in the same old way of doing things, or withdrawn into its shell since it feels small, but a community open to God’s future, afire with his Spirit. A community that is alive, filled with hope, open to the newness of the Spirit and to the signs of the times, inspired by the Gospel’s example of the little seed that grows and bears fruit in humble and creative love. For in this way, the promise of life and blessing that God the Father pours out on us through Jesus not only grows in our lives, but also comes to fulfilment in the lives of others.
He concluded by asking those gathered to commend themselves to the Blessed Mother:
And now, let us commend ourselves in a particular way to the Heart of Mary Most Holy, whom you greatly venerate as Queen of Peace. I have learned of a beautiful sign of her maternal love that took place at a time of hardship when many people were deported and others forced to starve and to freeze. As a tender and caring Mother, she listened to the prayers that her children offered to her. In the midst of a bitterly cold winter, the snow quickly melted to reveal a lake full of fish, which fed many famished people. May Our Lady similarly melt cold hearts, fill our communities with a renewed fraternal warmth, and grant us new hope and enthusiasm for the Gospel!
In the past few years, the most noteworthy figure in the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan has been Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Astana. Schneider has been an outspoken critic of Pope Francis, and has thus been a highly-touted figure among Catholics who oppose the authority and teaching of Pope Francis. Elise Ann Allen of Crux reported on comments he made to reporters prior to the pope’s address at the Cathedral. Allen wrote that Schneider called the religious congress “a ‘supermarket’ of religions that risks relegating the importance of the Catholic Church as the one true religion.”
According to Allen, Schneider also “said it is ‘normal’ to have difference[s] with the pope, because ‘we’re not employees of the pope — the bishops, we are brothers. …When I in conscience see that something is not correct or ambiguous, I have to say (it) to him with respect, fraternally, and this is church.’”
She quotes Schneider as saying, “We have to say with respect when we recognize something is a danger for the entire church, and I consider this a true help for the pope — it should be.”
Also noteworthy is that Philip Pullella of Reuters reported that the Vatican approached Chinese President Xi Jinping about a meeting with Pope Francis while both were in Kazakhstan, but China declined. According to his source, “the Vatican made ‘an expression of availability’. The Chinese side said they ‘appreciated the gesture’ but that there was no free time on Xi’s schedule.”
Finally, the transcript of the pope’s in-flight press conference during his return trip to Rome included many statements regarding peace and the culture. He commented on the cultural decline in the Europe:
It is true that the West, in general, is not at the highest level of exemplarity right now. It is not a child at their first communion, at all. The West has taken wrong paths; we think for example of the social injustice that is among us. There are some countries that have developed a little further on social justice, but I think of my continent, Latin America, which is West. We also think of the Mediterranean, which is West: today it is the biggest graveyard, not of Europe, but of humanity.
He spoke about the dangers of populism:
What happens in such a socio-political state? Messiahs are born: the messiahs of populisms. We are seeing how populisms are born, I think a few times I mentioned that book by Ginzberg, Sindrome 1933: he says just how a populism is born in Germany after the fall of the Weimar government. That’s how populisms are born: when there is a half level without strength, and one promises a messiah.
When asked about euthanasia, he gave a direct answer:
Killing is not human, period. If you kill with motivation, eventually you will kill more and more. Let’s leave killing to the beasts.
Elise Ann Allen brought up China in her question, and he gave a complicated answer, mentioning Cardinal Zen:
Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it’s such a complex country … yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true. Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there. More than qualifying, because it is difficult, and I do wish to qualify, they are impressions, and I try to support the path of dialogue.
Hopefully this overview was helpful. There is so much more at the links, so please check them out.
Still forthcoming is the transcript of the pope’s dialogue with local Jesuits, which should be published within a week or two at La Civilta Cattolica.
Image: Pope Francis in his wheelchair immediately following his arrival in Kazakhstan. Rome Reports screengrab.