Kazakhs, suffering and Francis’s love
In the soon-to-be re-renamed Astana, people from across Asia welcomed the pope of Rome like a brother who understands the weariness and burdens of life, in body and spirit.
Nur Sultan (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis’s trip to Kazakhstan is extraordinary for a number of reasons. Of course, it was a great meeting of religions in a country with an important geopolitical role, but it was also striking for another aspect, namely the pontiff’s own physical pain.
It is well known that Francis has had mobility problems for months due to severe pain to the joints; yet, it is amazing that he chose to travel so far, not only in terms of geography – Canada was even farther – but above all in terms of history and culture.
Indeed, nowadays his physical suffering is compounded by the inner aches caused by today’s wars and hardships, which he never stops from confronting in his speeches, at every opportunity, calling for a common commitment to build peace.
He is doing this drawing more and more from one of his predecessors, Saint John Paul II, who visited Kazakhstan in the aftermath of 9/11 and the attack against Twin Towers in New York, at which time, he called on everyone to unite so as not to give in to the temptation of permanent war.
Back then, the Polish pope was already hunched over and in pain, just a few years before his death; yet, like Francis, he showed incredible resilience.
The Argentinian pope’s weakness highlighted a Kazakh trait, one also found among other Asians, but characterised here by a special ability to smile and welcome with warmth and sincerity.
Kazakhs are cheerful and kind, proud of their ability to engage in dialogue with everyone, taught by their ancient and modern history, full of uncertainties and sufferings, yet also of friendships and hospitality.
The capital, Nur-Sultan will soon return to its old name, Astana. Embodying an Asian spirit, its residents welcomed the pope of Rome as a brother, as someone who understands the weariness and burdens of life, in body and spirit.
Metropolitan Antony of Volokolamsk led a delegation representing the Russian Orthodox Church, since its patriarch, Kirill, did not want to hear voices not in keeping with his own proclamations of holy war. But he kept a low profile, adding its voice after Francis expressed hope for peace.
While the local top Orthodox cleric, Metropolitan Alexander also kept his distance from the Congress of Religions, blessing instead the relics of warrior monks in Almaty, other Orthodox clerics at least tried not to show themselves as more threatening than the many muftis and imams, who on the contrary fervently support the pope's intentions.
On the last day of the visit, in more informal settings, the pontiff met with Catholics and many other smiling faces. After an early morning Mass with a small group of priests and nuns, Francis met his Jesuit confreres at the nunciature.
The apostolic administrator, US-born Fr Anthony Corcoran, led all eleven members of the Jesuit mission in Kirghizstan – from the youngest to the oldest. Some have been in these lands for many years, even before the end of the USSR, when the small group of Jesuits had to play hide-and-seek with Soviet authorities.
The reception at the Cathedral of the Mother of God of Perpetual Help, where Francis listened to and spoke with the members of the local Church, was even more joyful.
Kazakhstan’s three dioceses are very different from one another. Astana is under the leadership of Polish-born Bishop Tomasz Peta, a pious clergyman who arrived in this land before the dissolution of the Soviet empire. His right-hand man is Auxiliary Bishop, Athanasius Schneider, a very highly cultured ethnic German born in the Kirghiz SSR (USSR), now the independent country of Kirghizstan, known for his theological and liturgical rigour.
Almaty, by contrast, is blessed by the great benevolence and magnanimity of Spanish-born Archbishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra, who has attracted some priests and laity from Astana, where they feel marginalised.
Last but not least, the pastorally demanding Italian-born Bishop Adelio dell'Oro of Karaganda is somewhere in between the other two. He arrived in 1997 with a group of missionaries trained Fr Luigi Giussani for Russian lands, and has tried to keep a balance between the austere north and the charming south of the local Catholic community.
Although the small local Catholic Church in this great Eurasian middle ground is not free from contradictions, its veneration goes especially to the Queen of Peace. Indeed, “May Our Lady similarly melt cold hearts,” Pope Francis said today. Someone high up evidently heard him in advance, for the bitter cold that had already descended upon the country before his arrival gave way to a brightly shining sun during his visit.