As Pope Francis’ trip to Kazakhstan finishes on Thursday, he has come under fire from his most outspoken critic who overtly challenged the value of mega faith meetings such as the one the pontiff attended, dubbing them “a supermarket of religions” that undermined the status of the Catholic Church.
Crowning his three-day visit, a great meeting of bishops, priests and nuns took place in the cathedral of the Kazakh capital, presided over by Pope Francis. But among the congregation also was local bishop Athanasius Schneider – an arch-conservative and fervent critic of the progressive pope.
What had brought Francis to Kazakhstan and its capital of Nur Sultan was the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that started on Wednesday. It brought together Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and many other, mostly smaller, faiths. The head of the Catholic Church gave an address during the event at the Independence Palace presided over by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
A total of 100 people from 50 countries took part, including apart from Pope Francis, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb, and Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.
But to the mind of Bishop Schneider, who comes across as a man dedicated to speaking the truth as ugly as it may be, events such as the congress, whose ability to “promote mutual respect in the world” he recognised but at the same time felt it would put Catholicism at risk of being perceived on a level parallel to that of other religions.
“It could give the impression of a supermarket of religions, and that is not correct, because there is only one true religion, which is the Catholic Church founded by God himself,” a vituperative Schneider told reporters at the cathedral on Wednesday.
Bishop Schneider and his conservative fellows have blasted parts of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which urged dialogue with other religions. In their eyes, Catholics should actively proselytise to convert others to Catholicism and challenge Francis’ line that potential converts should be attracted to the faith by nothing more than the example of Christians.
Re-thinking its presence at congresses such as the one held in Nur Sultan is Bishop Schneider’s piece of advice for the Vatican. His message, if not reckoned with within the Holy See, could fall on fertile soil among the readership of Catholic media, where he has made frequent appearances, with an impeccable command over the English language helping him to put his ideas across globally.
For the bishop, dialogue was better left on the local level.
The clergyman has no qualms about criticising the Pope in public, seeing it as a fraternal duty that is helpful for the entire 1.3 billion-member Church.
“We are not employees of the pope, the bishops, we are brothers. When in good conscience I feel that something is not correct or ambiguous I have to say it to him, with respect, fraternally,” Bishop Schneider said, adding that those bishops who did not see eye to eye with the pontiff had to be forthright about it and not be caught in “adulations and incense” or “behave like an employee to a boss”.
Apart from his Wednesday address, the Pope is scheduled to give another speech to the delegates on Thursday afternoon before returning to Rome.
While about 70 percent of Kazakhs are Muslim and around 26 percent Orthodox Christians, there are only some 125,000 Catholics among the 19 million population of the vast Central Asian country.
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