Pope urged to avoid ‘religion supermarket’ in Kazakhstan

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NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — Pope Francis on Thursday warned the bishops of Kazakhstan against stoking nostalgia for the past, as one of his traditionalist critics here did by suggesting that Francis’ attendance at an interreligious conference could involve the Papal Approval of a “Religion Supermarket”.

The warning from Archbishop Athenasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, was perhaps predictable, given that he is one of Francis’ most outspoken critics, regularly denouncing what he sees as Francis’ doctrinal ambiguities. and an overly progressive bent on issues such as homosexuality. and interfaith outreach.

Francis began his third and final day in Kazakhstan by meeting with bishops, priests and nuns in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the capital Nur-Sultan. Later Thursday, he was due to deliver a closing speech at a government-sponsored interfaith rally which was to insist that religion should never be used to justify war – a call that came in the context of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Catholics in Kazakhstan number around 125,000 in the country of 19 million people, the majority of whom are Muslims or Orthodox Christians. On Thursday, Francis urged his priests and bishops to find grace in the small size of the church and not obsess over rigid rules and regulations or nostalgia for past church tradition.

“Faith was not passed down from generation to generation as a set of ideas to be understood and followed, like a fixed and timeless code,” Francis said. Due to the church’s small size, it needs people of other faiths, he said.

“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. This is the particular task of the church in this country: not to be a group mired in the same old way of doing things, or withdrawn into its shell because it feels small, but a community open to the future of God.

In the audience was Schneider, who joined other traditionalist and conservative cardinals and bishops in criticizing several of Francis’ signature gestures and what they say are his doctrinal ambiguities on issues such as divorce and marriage. remarriage, homosexuality and interreligious relations.

In particular, Schneider joined U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke in criticizing a 2019 document that Francis signed with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo which, among other things, said that all religions are “wanted by God”. Some Catholic critics say the idea could lead to a relativism that accepts all religions as equally valid paths to God, while the Vatican argues that Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.

The so-called “human brotherhood” document was presented as an example of “great historical significance” by the President of Kazakhstan at the start of the interreligious conference.

Speaking to reporters ahead of Francis’ visit to the cathedral, Schneider defended his criticism as respectful and “fraternal” advice to Francis, carried by love and providing “genuine help to the church”.

“It’s normal because we are not employees of the pope,” he said. “We are brothers. We must say with respect when we recognize that something is a danger for the whole church. It is a help.”

He welcomed Francis’ visit to Kazakhstan, which is hosting an interreligious conference bringing together Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist and other faith leaders to promote dialogue as a force for peace. But Schneider warned that Francis’ participation in such a big international event could call into question what he said was the unique role of the Catholic Church in providing the only path to salvation.

“The congress as such has a good purpose of promoting mutual respect and understanding in today’s world. But this also has a danger because it could give the impression of a “supermarket of religions” and this is not correct because there is only one true religion, which is the Catholic Church, founded by God himself,” Schneider said.

Schneider urged the Vatican to reconsider participating in such international events in the future and instead focus on building relationships on a more local level.

Despite his criticism, Schneider had an important role to play at Thursday’s event at the capital’s cathedral: he helped push Francis’ wheelchair down the aisle of the cathedral at the start of the meeting and introduced a line of dignitaries who then met the pontiff, serving as a translator, and bid farewell to Francis as his little white Fiat 500 drove away.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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