Archbishop Tomasz Peta of Astana spoke ahead of Pope Francis’ upcoming Apostolic Journey to Kazakhstan, which takes place on 13-15 September. In a wide-ranging interview, Archbishop Peta reflected on the Pope’s visit and the reality for practicing Catholics in Kazakhstan. Pope Francis makes his 38th Apostolic Visit abroad to Kazakhstan’s capital of Nur-Sultan to participate in the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, and to express his closeness to the Central Asian nation’s small Catholic community. Catholics make up around 1 percent of the country’s population of 19 million, which is about 70 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian, primarily Russian Orthodox. In addition, Polish-born Archbishop Peta, who was ordained a priest by the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and then Bishop by Pope Saint John Paul II, also shares a personal anecdote.
What is the importance of Pope Francis’ visit to Kazakhstan from your point of view?
A visit of Pope Francis is always a historical event, even more in a country where the Catholics are a “small flock”. This fact confirmed the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2001, which indicated the presence of the Catholic Church in the country of the “Great Steppe”, strengthening her in the faith.
I am, therefore, convinced that the visit of Pope Francis is a great blessing for us Catholics and for the entire Kazakhstan. Taking into consideration the dramatic international situation, the current visit bears the hope for peace and reconciliation on a global scale.
We are very grateful that the Holy Father will bless in the Cathedral of Nur-Sultan the new icon — the triptych of the “Mother of the Great Steppe”. This icon is destined for our National Shrine of the Queen of Peace in Ozyornoye. It will remind us of the Papal visit. In this manner we will pray in Ozyornoye in the spiritual union with the Pope for peace and in the intentions of the Pope.
How would you describe the importance of the Congress and the Pope’s participation within it?
The Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (already the seventh in the capital of Kazakhstan) is not a platform of theological discussions. In my opinion, it can be a sign which points to God as to the source of peace.
Although the efforts of the politicians are necessary, they are insufficient. An intense prayer of the believers for peace is required. The participation of the Holy Father Francis in the Congress raises the level of this event and points to the care of the Church for peace and the welfare of all humankind.
How is Pope Francis seen in Kazakhstan?
For the Catholics of Kazakhstan, Pope Francis is the Head of the Church — the Successor of Peter. With joy and hope we expect the Pope.
It is notable that for the Kazakh authorities the Holy Father represents an authority. This is shown in the assiduous manner with which the Government is preparing the visit of the Pope.
From when you arrived in Kazakhstan, what has struck you most? Can you share with us what you have seen?
I arrived in Kazakhstan in 1990, still in the time of the Soviet Union. At that time there were no ecclesiastical structures. On the territory of five Republics of the Soviet Union there ministered around 15 local priests, citizens of the Soviet Union. In many cities and villages there existed communities of the faithful.
Where in the time of the Communism people prayed in a special manner the Rosary, the faith and the feeling of belonging to the Church were preserved. This bore then its fruits in the conditions of the freedom of religion and conscience after Kazakhstan gained independence (in the year 1991). Quickly were established parishes and built churches and chapels.
What is it like to be a practicing Catholic in Kazakhstan?
In Kazakhstan, we enjoy religious freedom. Nevertheless, it is not easy to be a Catholic in our country. Why? Catholics are less than one percent. The 19 million citizens of Kazakhstan are a mosaic of 130 nationalities / 70% are native population — Kazakhs / and belonging to 18 officially registered religions.
To be a Catholic signifies to make a mature choice. During the years of the independence of our country several millions of its citizens went to their historical homelands. Among them were several thousand Catholics. In this time the Catholic Community became more international. The Catholics of Kazakhstan belong to ten different nationalities, including also representatives of the Kazakh nation. One can no longer call us, as before, “German” or “Polish” Church.
In Central Asia, how have you seen the Pope’s appeals for peace regarding the war in Ukraine?
The war in Ukraine is a great tragedy. One can say that it is a wound on the body of all humankind. We believe that the visit of the Holy Father Francis will strongly contribute to an end of the war in Ukraine and to the obtainment of the long-awaited peace.
You are Polish and were ordained by the famous-Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, a dear friend of Pope St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla... Please tell us more about this and his impact on your vocation and work.
I am happy that I was ordained by holy bishops: as priest by Cardinal Wyszynski [in the year 1976] and as bishop by Pope John Paul II [in the year 2001]. It is a great grace to have had the possibility of communicating in one’s life, with good — holy persons.
I am thinking in that moment for instance of my grandmother Viktoria and of my mother Helena. Cardinal Wyszynski was always a profound, but at the same time, a simple and joyful person. He was able to listen. He was very attentive and respectful towards other persons. One small example. The seminarians who served at the Mass of the Cardinal in his residence, afterwards took part in the common breakfast. Often there participated bishops and invited guests. The conversations were very serious and important and we seminarians were allowed to be present.
This was for us a sign of a great respect towards us on the part of the Cardinal.
Once, after Holy Mass, the Cardinal came personally to us, two seminarians, as if “apologizing” that today we will not take breakfast together. There arrived Archbishop Luigi Poggi, and we have to prepare ourselves for the meeting with the authorities. But you will eat in another room. The Cardinal didn’t send us after Holy Mass to the Seminary, but personally took care, about the breakfast for us, and additionally assigned another person to join us.
By Deborah Castellano Lubov