ROME – Pope Francis returned last night from a three-day trip to Kazakhstan to attend a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which, at the big-picture level, produced few real surprises.
The pope traveled to a country located cheek by jowl with both Ukraine and Russia and, while he firmly denounced war and urged religious leaders to avoid the rhetoric that justifies it, he didn’t specifically call out either Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian Orthodox power structure supporting the invasion. (He did, however, acknowledge Ukraine’s right to self-defense, calling it an expression of “love for the homeland,” in his inflight news conference on the way back to Rome.)
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping was in the Kazakh capital at the same time as the pope Wednesday, but the two men never met despite a Vatican request. Francis artfully dodged a question from Crux about whether he sees the upcoming sedition trial in Hong Kong of Cardinal Joseph Zen as a violation of religious freedom, saying only that with China one must be patient.
In general, the pope buttressed his profile this week as what one might call the “chairman of the board” of religious moderates everywhere, and in every tradition, by insisting that true religious faith is incompatible with terror, violence, and injustice.
All this is entirely consistent with Francis’s general approach, and none of it was unexpected.
Once we increase the focus to granular detail, however, there are a few interesting elements of the Kazakhstan outing which merit at least a moment’s thought.
Although Francis was in Kazakhstan only three days, he managed to draw fire from two prominent clerics while he was in town: Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Sevryuk of Volokolamsk, basically the number two figure in the Russian Orthodox power structure, who was attending in place of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, Athanasius Schneider, a longtime skeptic about many of the progressive policies of the Francis papacy.
In essence, Sevryuk rebuked Pope Francis for having criticized his boss. Back in March, when Francis took part in a zoom call with Kirill, he warned him about the risk of coming off as an “altar boy” of Putin through his full-throated support for the war in Ukraine, in a comment the pope later revealed in a media interview.
Floating such language publicly, Sevryuk told reporters, was “very unexpected,” and said it was clearly “not useful for Christian unity.”
Nonetheless, Sevryuk said that it’s important that both sides “must go forward” in the quest for common ground.
For Schneider’s part, he wondered aloud about the symbolism of inter-faith summits such as this week’s event in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, formerly known as Astana.
“There is only one true religion, and that is the Catholic Church, founded by God himself, and God commanded all men, all religions, to believe and accept his son Jesus Christ. There is no other way to salvation, and in these meetings the Catholic Church is visually and exteriorly such one of the many religions, and this is, in my opinion, a negative point and a dangerous point,” Schneider said.
There’s little surprising about the reaction, especially since it’s the sort of thing critics have said about papally-sponsored inter-faith summits since St. John Paul II’s in Assisi in 1986.
What’s more interesting, however, is to ponder which of these two critiques likely bothered Francis more, and why. The correct answer almost certainly is the Orthodox prelate Sevryuk, not his fellow Catholic bishop Schneider.
That’s not because Francis necessarily takes Sevryuk’s objection more seriously – in truth, it was every bit as formulaic as Schneider’s – but simply because Francis doesn’t really appear to be trying to win over Catholic traditionalists anyway, while, within reason, he does seem to want to make ecumenical headway with the Russian Orthodox.
Plus, to be honest, a pope has more tools to deal with internal criticism than he does when it comes from the outside. Under this pope, at any rate, Schneider has about the same chance of ever being more than an auxiliary bishop as a fencepost, but Sevryuk could very well end up being the Patriarch of Moscow one day, so the pope can’t just write him off.
That’s the thing about the decision popes made long ago to embrace the ecumenical movement: It’s strengthened their moral authority considerably, but also made them more vulnerable to pressures they can’t directly control. But as a riff off the old saying goes, I suppose, even a pope has to take the bitter with the sweet.
Language and comprehension
Over and over again in Kazakhstan, as he does routinely in virtually every setting, Pope Francis stressed the importance of working to understand one another, with mutual comprehension being critical, he insisted, to the cause of peace.
Ironically, he delivered that message in Italian, a language virtually no one at the inter-faith event, outside the small Vatican retinue flanking the pope, actually understood. Of course there was translation available, but everyone knows it’s not quite the same.
One small measure of the language gap was that early in his closing talk, Francis tossed off a quick “thank you very much” in English before plunging back into his prepared text. That’s not exactly rousing stuff, but it drew a small ripple of applause anyway, presumably because people actually understood it.
Granted, Francis isn’t comfortable enough in either French, the language of global diplomacy, or English, the language of media and commerce, to use either language in public. But one might wonder why he doesn’t employ Spanish, which, according to Babbel, is the fourth most-spoken language in the world behind English, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.
However, I’m told that because Francis employs a dialect of Spanish native to Buenos Aires called porteño, he’s often difficult to understand even for mother-tongue Spanish speakers from anywhere else.
In reality, therefore, Italian is probably his best choice. He employs standard Italian and is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who knows the language, and he’s also comfortable enough to be able to go off the cuff with ease.
Frankly, Pope Francis is probably the greatest ambassador for the Italian language on the global stage right now. I have no idea how many American schools offer courses in Italian, but if my income were dependent on how many people want to learn the language, I’d be rooting for Francis to stick around as long as possible.
The Argentine pontiff, whose family hails from the northern Italian region of Piedmont, does have a tendency once in a while to invent new Italian words on the fly — but even that could be seen as a boon, by keeping the language alive.
“On the same level”
As we saw with Schneider, a standard criticism of inter-religious gatherings in which any pope participates is that they project the idea that all religions are on the same level, meaning in effect, that one’s as good as another.
Superficially, anyway, one can maybe understand the reaction, since an inter-faith meeting is one of the few times you do actually get to see a pope physically standing, or sitting, on the same level as everyone else, not just for brief meet-and-greets but the main event, too.
There Francis was on Thursday in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, sitting at a large conference table between Rabbi David Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, a Muslim, with assorted muftis, sheikhs, sages and shamans also arrayed around the table, along with a smattering of other Christian clergy, with no one obviously dominating the others.
Most of the time when the pope appears in public he’s on a stage or elevated platform, for the very good reason that people want to see him. Even during a session of the Synod of Bishops, where you might think the spirit of collegiality would dictate seating arrangements, the pope always sits on an elevated dais at the front of the room – because, let’s face it, the bishops want to see him too.
So, in that limited sense, yes, an inter-faith summit does put a pope on the same level with other religions. Of course, that’s by design, as a visual demonstration of solidarity among the gathered leaders – even if it’s a little bit artificial, since a pope is easily the most recognized religious figure on the planet, and simply isn’t on the same level with everyone else in terms of star power no matter where he sits or stands.
Anyway, there’s a serious leap involved in arguing that physically being on the same level necessarily implies theological equivalence. After all, John Paul II sat on the same level with Mehmet Ali Ağca when he visited him in prison after the 1981 assassination attempt, but I don’t think anyone felt John Paul was implying that Ali Ağca’s belief system – whatever it might have been at the time, because it seems to change like the weather – was just as good as the Nicene Creed.
The sensitivity to such matters is, however, a good reminder that popes speak all the time, but only part of the time do they actually use words. Thursday was proof that sometimes, the most important statement they’ll make all day is simply taking a place at the table.