Pope Francis will set off tomorrow on an almost 3,000-mile journey to a country with an estimated 250,000 Catholics.
Why is the 85-year-old pope, whose mobility is limited by leg pain, making a three-day trip to Kazakhstan?
The Pillar takes a look.
Where’s Kazakhstan, again?
Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, is in Central Asia, the meeting point between Europe and Asia. It borders the geographical giants of Russia and China, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Despite its considerable size, Kazakhstan has a population of just 19 million people.
Around 70% of the population is Muslim. But the Republic of Kazakhstan, as the country is officially known, is a secular state. Roughly a quarter of the population is Christian, mainly Russian Orthodox.
Pope Francis seems to have chosen to visit Kazakhstan for two principal reasons. The first is so he can attend an event known as the seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The congress, which aims to strengthen inter-religious ties, has been held in Kazakhstan at three-year intervals since 2003. Francis will be the first pope to attend the gathering, which this year has around 100 participants from 50 countries.
The second reason for the papal trip was a meeting with the Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill. But in late August, the Moscow Patriarchate signaled that the summit was off. Observers suggested that the cancellation was a tit-for-tat move after Pope Francis pulled out of a meeting with Patriarch Kirill scheduled for June in Jerusalem.
(China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to be in Kazakhstan at the same time as Francis, but the chances of a meeting appear slim.)
There are other, lesser reasons for the trip. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan — a significant milestone — and 21 years since John Paul II became the first pope to visit the country.
After reciting the Angelus on Sunday, Pope Francis asked for prayers ahead of his journey, which will be his 38th outside Italy since his election in 2013.
“It will be an opportunity to meet many religious representatives and to engage in dialogue as brothers, inspired by the mutual desire for peace, the peace our world thirsts for,” he said, adding: “I ask you all to accompany me with prayer on this pilgrimage of dialogue and peace.”
The ‘eighth sacrament’
The Catholic presence in Kazakhstan dates back centuries, but today’s community was forged in the furnace of 20th-century persecution.
As L’Osservatore Romano wrote in 2001, the year of the first papal visit, “it can be said that the history of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan resumed in the 20th century when Stalin ordered the deportation to Central Asia of whole peoples of the Catholic tradition. Providence turned a diabolical plan into a missionary event beyond the boldest dreams of even Propaganda Fide or any missionary strategist.”
A list of priests, religious, and lay people imprisoned and exiled in Kazakhstan from the 1920s to the 1940s runs to 32 pages.
Archbishop Tomasz Peta, who is based in the capital Nur-Sultan, told AsiaNews in 2019 that, under Soviet rule, Catholics passed on the faith without priests or churches.
“Catholics created a sort of eighth sacrament: that of the prayer of the rosary,” he said. “The reason is that the only thing they could do during the persecutions was to baptize their children and pray the rosary. In some ways, the rosary has replaced the lack of the shepherds.”
A new chapter
The only previous papal visit to Kazakhstan took place in 2001, just 11 days after the terror attack on the Twin Towers. The intensive four-day visit by a frail, elderly John Paul II left a deep impression on local Catholics.
At a time when 300,000 people lived in the capital city, an estimated 40,000 people gathered in a main square on Sept. 23, 2001, for a papal Mass.
“Without exaggerating, I can say that the papal visit opened a new chapter in the history of our Church,” Archbishop Peta commented in 2019.
The first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held in 2003 and attended by Vatican officials. According to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the event was modeled on John Paul II’s day of prayer for peace in Assisi in 2002.
The Catholic community has changed significantly since the first papal visit, according to Archbishop Peta.
“In general, the number of Catholics has decreased in the past 20 years since the last visit of the pope,” Peta told the Astana Times last month. “But the Catholic Church has become more international.”
“Thirty-twenty years ago, many had the idea that Catholics in Kazakhstan were mostly Germans, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians — nationalities that traditionally belong to the Catholic Church,” explained the archbishop, who was born in Poland. “Today in Kazakhstan there are dozens of different nationalities in the Catholic Church.”
The Kazakh Church has also emerged in recent years as what the New York Times writer Ross Douthat calls “the strange core of traditionalist Catholicism.”
On Dec. 31, 2017, three local bishops signed a “Profession of the Immutable Truths about Sacramental Marriage” in response to the “opening” toward Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia.
One of them was Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a descendant of Black Sea Germans from Odessa, in present-day Ukraine, who has emerged as a leading figure in the traditionalist movement.
The Catholic writer Dan Hitchens noted at the time of the letter that “Kazakhstan is not a capital-T Traditionalist country: the Extraordinary Form is not especially widely celebrated. But many practices associated with pre-Vatican II liturgy are common. Reception of the Eucharist on the tongue and kneeling is the norm.”
He quoted a priest in Kazakhstan who described the nation’s Catholics as “rather traditional and conservative.”
“For us,” the priest said, “it means being faithful to Holy Church, to Catholic teaching, to God.” He underlined that the community had suffered for the faith within living memory.
Kazakhstan has also seen notable political changes since 2001. Back then, it was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for three decades before standing down as president in 2019.
The first official act of his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was to rename the capital city Nur-Sultan in his predecessor’s honor. (It was previously known as Astana.)
Tokayev’s reign has been turbulent. He declared a state of emergency in parts of the country at the start of 2022, following protests against a rise in fuel prices. More than 200 people are believed to have died in the unrest and resulting crackdown, dubbed “Bloody January.” At the start of September, Tokayev announced a snap presidential election in the fall.
The Ukraine war has presented a dilemma for the president, given Kazakhstan’s close economic ties to neighboring Russia. Tokayev has declined to recognize separatist republics established in Ukraine with Moscow’s backing. But he hailed the “strategic partnership” between Kazakhstan and Russia during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in August.
The papal visit’s motto is “Messengers of Peace and Unity,” a sign of Francis’ desire that the trip will promote peacemaking and strengthen interfaith ties.
The pope’s presence should also offer encouragement to Catholic minorities — not only in Kazakhstan but also in surrounding countries. Thousands of pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and even Mongolia are reportedly planning to attend the papal Mass in Nur-Sultan on Sept. 14.