Professor at School of Theology
Between Tuesday, September 13 and Thursday, September 15, Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Kazakhstan. The main reason was to participate in the VII congress of the leaders of world and traditional religions.
For two decades, the authorities of Kazakhstan have been organizing, every three years, the congress of religious leaders. It is striking that 10 years after its independence, Kazakhstan decided, as Francis said in his assessment of the trip, "to place religions at the center of the commitment to build a world in which we listen to and respect each other in diversity". And he made it clear that "this is not relativism, no: it is listening and respect", while rejecting fundamentalism and extremism (General Audience 21-IX-2022).
In the Pope's opinion, this congress was a step forward on the path begun by Saints John XXIII and Paul VI, together with "great souls of other religions" such as Gandhi, and "so many martyred men and women of every age, language and nation, who have paid with their lives for their fidelity to the God of peace and fraternity" (ibid.). And not only in extraordinary moments, but in the daily effort to contribute to the betterment of the world for all. In fact, Kazakhstan was described by John Paul II as "a land of martyrs and believers, a land of deportees and heroes, a land of thinkers and artists" (speech during the welcoming ceremony, 22-IX-2001).
A symphony of cultural and religious traditions
During the meeting with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, the Pope stressed Kazakhstan's vocation to be a "country of meeting", because of its geography and its history (speech at conference room of Qazaq concerts, in Nursultan, 13-IX-2022). Nearly 150 ethnic groups live there and more than 80 languages are spoken. It is a vocation that deserves to be encouraged and sustained, along with the strengthening of its young democracy. On this path, the country has already taken very positive decisions, such as the rejection of nuclear weapons.
Taking as a symbol the dombra - a subject lute with two strings - the Pope pointed out with words of John Paul II, that the notes of two souls resound in the country, the Asian and the European, which have a permanent "mission statement of connection between two continents" ( speech to the youth, 23-IX-2001); "a bridge between Europe and Asia", a "link of union between East and West" ( speech at the farewell ceremony, 25-IX-2001). Francis also praised the concert of ethnic groups and languages present in Kazakhstan, with its varied cultural and religious traditions, which manages to compose a great symphony, "a unique multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious workshop", a "country of meeting".
Healthy secularism, a condition for free citizenship
In fact, the country's constitution, in defining it as secular, provides for freedom of religion. This is equivalent, says Francis, to a healthy secularity, which recognizes "the valuable and irreplaceable role of religion" and is opposed to the extremism that corrodes it. It thus represents "an essential condition for the equitable attention of every citizen, in addition to favoring the sense of belonging to the country on the part of all its ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious elements". Therefore, "religious freedom constitutes the best channel for civil coexistence".
The Pope also noted the meaning of the name "Kazakh", which evokes a free and independent walk. The protection of freedom implies the recognition of rights, accompanied by duties. Francis took the opportunity to applaud the abolition of the death penalty - in the name of the right of every human being to hope - together with freedom of thought, conscience and expression; as well as the strengthening of democratic mechanisms in institutions and at the service of the people, the fight against corruption and the protection of the weakest.
John Paul II came to the country to sow hope, after the tragic attacks on the twin towers in New York (2001). " I come here while the senseless and tragic war caused by the invasion of Ukraine is in progress, while other confrontations and threats of conflict endanger our time," Francis said. And he added: "I come to amplify the cry of so many who implore peace, the path of development essential for our globalized world". For this," he said, "understanding, patience and dialogue with all are necessary.
Fraternity is based on our being "creatures".
At the opening of the plenary session of the congress of leaders of world and traditional religions, the Pope addressed the leaders and representatives of religions "in the name of that brotherhood which unites us all, as sons and daughters of the same heaven" (speech at the Independence Palace, Nursultan, 14-IX-2022). In his speech he abundantly quoted the most celebrated poet of the country and father of its modern literature, Abay Ibrahim Qunanbayuli (1845-1904), popularly known as Abai. "We need," Francis affirmed, " to find meaning in the ultimate questions, to cultivate spirituality; we need, Abai said, to keep 'the soul awake and the mind clear'.
A message for a more harmonious coexistence
In our times, the Pope pointed out, the time has come for an authentic religiosity, free from fundamentalism. The time has come to reject the "discourses that [...] have instilled suspicion and contempt for religion, as if it were a factor in the destabilization of modern society". Specifically, the discourses coming from State atheism, with its "oppressive and suffocating mentality whereby the mere use of the word 'religion' was uncomfortable". "In reality," Francis observes, "religions are not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious coexistence."
In the last part of speech he pointed out four challenges that religions can help to overcome: post-pandemia (taking special care of the weakest and neediest); peace (committing to it in the name of the Creator); hospitality and fraternal welcome (because every human being is sacred), especially for migrants; and care for the common home, which is a gift from the heavenly father.
And in case it were not clear to anyone how believers can collaborate in all this (by contributing what is positive and purifying themselves of what is negative), the Pope concludes: "Let us not seek false conciliatory syncretisms - they are of no use - but rather let us keep our identities open to the courage of otherness, to the fraternal meeting . Only in this way, in the dark times in which we live, will we be able to radiate the light of our Creator.
Pope encourages Christian "little flock" open to all
In his assessment of the trip, the Successor of Peter noted: "As far as the Church is concerned, I was very happy to find a community of happy, joyful and enthusiastic people. Catholics are few in this vast country. But this condition, if lived with faith, can bear evangelical fruits: above all the beatitude of littleness, of being leaven, salt and light, counting only on the Lord and no form of human relevance. Moreover, the scarcity of numbers invites us to develop relationships with Christians of other confessions, and also fraternity with all.
Therefore, a small flock, yes, but open, not closed, not defensive, open and entrusted to the action of the Holy Spirit, who blows freely where and how he wills". He also recalled the martyrs: "The martyrs of that holy People of God - because it has suffered decades of atheistic oppression, until the liberation 30 years ago - men and women who have suffered so much for the faith during the period of persecution: killed, tortured, imprisoned for the faith" (General Audience, 21-IX-2022).
In fact, at meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, seminarians and pastoral workers (cf. speech in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Nursultan, 14-IX-2022), the Bishop of Rome reminded them that the faith is transmitted by life and witness. And neither our weaknesses nor our littleness are an obstacle to this, because we have the strength of Christ. What we need is not the illusory display of our strengths, but the humility to allow ourselves to be led by God's grace. The lay faithful must be, within society, men and women of communion and peace, rejecting fears and complaints, with the financial aid of close and compassionate shepherds.
Being Christian means "living without poisons".
"With that small but joyful flock we celebrated the Eucharist, in Nursultan, at the place of Expo 2017, surrounded by very modern architectures. It was the feast of the Holy Cross. And that makes us reflect. In a world where progress and regression intersect, the Cross of Christ remains the anchor of salvation: a sign of hope that does not disappoint because it is founded on the love of God, merciful and faithful" (General Audience, 21-IX-2022).
In fact, the homily of the Mass on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14, 2022) was a lesson in pastoral theology on the meaning of the Cross. Francis recalled the story of the serpents that bit the Israelites on their journey through the desert, and how God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent so that whoever looked at it would be cured (cf. chapter 21 of Num).
From there, Francis distinguished two types of serpents: first, "the serpents that bite" (murmuring, discouragement, distrust of God, violence and atheistic persecution and, as the root of all this, sin). Secondly, "the serpent that saves", which prefigured Jesus, nailed to the cross; so that "looking at him, we can resist the poisonous bites of the evil serpents that attack us". The arms of Jesus, stretched out on the cross, show us the fraternity that we must live among ourselves and with everyone: "the way of humble, gratuitous and universal love, without conditions and without ifs and buts".
In Kazakhstan, religions are at the service of peace
Finally, on the occasion of the closing of congress, Francis recalled the motto of his visit, alluding to believers of all religions: "Messengers of peace and unity". And he recalled that, after the events of September 11, 2001, John Paul II considered that "it was necessary [...] to react together to the incendiary climate that terrorist violence wanted to provoke and that threatened to make religions a factor of conflict" (speech in the Palace of Independence, Nursultan, 15-IX-2022). That is why in 2002 he summoned the faithful to Assisi to pray for peace (January 24, 2002).
Pope Bergoglio added: "Terrorism with a pseudo-religious matrix, extremism, radicalism, nationalism fed on sacredness, still today foment fears and concerns about religion". "For this reason, in these days it has been providential to meet again and reaffirm the true and inalienable essence of religion".
And what has congress concluded in this regard? In the words of Francis: "The Declaration of our congress affirms that extremism, radicalism, terrorism and any other incitement to hatred, hostility, violence and war, whatever their motivation or goal , have no connection with the authentic religious spirit and must be rejected with the most resolute determination (cfr.n. 5); they must be condemned, without conditions and without ifs and buts".
Politics and religion
Kazakhstan, located in the heart of Asia, has been the place to clarify the relationship between politics and religion (with its appeal to transcendence), between earthly authorities and divine authority. Between them there is distinction, not confusion or separation. Let there be no confusion, because the human being needs freedom to fly towards transcendence without being limited by earthly power; neither should transcendence be translated into partisan human power. At the same time, there is no separation between politics and transcendence, since, the Pope pointed out, "the highest human aspirations cannot be excluded from public life and relegated to the mere private sphere"; and that is why States must protect religious freedom, also in the face of the violence of extremists and terrorists.
He recalled that the Catholic Church believes in the dignity of every person, created in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:26). She also believes in the unity of the human family on the basis of the same origin in God the Creator (cf. Second Vatican Council, Decl. Nostra Aetate, on relations with non-Christian religions, n. 1). And it considers interreligious dialogue to be a path of peace, not only possible but indispensable, in the footsteps of the path of man, which is the path of the Church (cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptor hominis, 14).
Francis concluded by pointing out that "man is the way of all religions. We believers are called, even in the post-pandemic period, to bear witness to transcendence (that going "beyond", towards adoration), to fraternity and to the care of creation. And to this end, it is especially important to make room for women and young people.