NUR-SULTAN — The famous Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who lived in the early 19th century, never saw Asia. He did not have the strength of the explorers of faraway lands. His weak health, however, gave him a sharp gaze into reality and life.
Even if a very few Kazakhs knew him, the fact that Pope Francis quoted one of his poems, speaking at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan on September 14, is truly remarkable. It was the most challenging speech of the entire visit to Kazakhstan (September 13-15), delivered to the leaders of quite different religions, sometimes even in conflict with each other.
The poem was the 'Nightly song of a nomad Asian shepherd', where in a place looking like Kazakhstan, amid the darkness of the night and the boundless steppes where his flock grazes, a shepherd asks to the moon: what do you and the stars do in the sky? And why? And what's my life purpose? And where will it end?
Leopardi never found answers to these questions. He died young and sad. There is no reference in his poems to doctrines or worship of any religion. But despite of being often misunderstood, that “Nightly song” is famous because those shepherd's questions burn in every man's and every religion's soul. Therefore, reminding – as the Pope did – that “authentic religion” is first and foremost about wonder, doubt, fear of man in front of the mystery of the infinite, today is anything but obvious or useless.
Listening to that speech, it was unavoidable to think of wars where religion is still a battleground and not a bridge, petrol on the fire of conflicts where the stakes have very little to do with spirituality. This is also the accusation that Pope Francis, a few months earlier, hurled at the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, who never criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to not displease President Putin.
In Kazakhstan the Pontiff didn't do any direct reference to Russian Orthodox Church. But when he asked to “not allow the sacred to be exploited by the profane, to be a prop for power”, there was no need to add anything else. According to Francis, instead, the world just emerged from the pandemic needs a “collaboration”, between world religions, that "overcomes the fences of their own community, ethnic, national and religious affiliations".
Such a kind of statements had already drawn strong criticism (also from inside the catholic world) on Francis' predecessors, first of all on John Paul II of Poland, when he promoted the interreligious prayer meetings in Assisi, in 1986 and 2002, which the congresses in Kazakhstan are inspired by.
However, as Francis explained in Kazakhstan, the Vatican already took part in the first congress, in 2003, because "the path of interreligious dialogue to peace and for peace is necessary and irrevocable. Interreligious dialogue is no longer merely something expedient: it is an urgent-needed and incomparable service to humanity”.
But it must be recalled too that "harsh and repressive forms of religion belong not to the future but to the past", as the Pope warned. In other words, religious freedom is a right still too often denied. According to a Vatican foundation, Aid to the Church in Need, billions of people live in countries where religious freedom is limited or denied, especially in Asia, often to the detriment of Christians. Here no one ignores that it is anything but 'authentically religious' the mundane logic that leads believers of one religion to persecute those of another.
That's why it was not even obvious to ask, as Francis did again, that “if God limited his absolute freedom in order to enable us, his creatures, to be free, how can we then presume to coerce our brothers and sisters in his name?”. And religious freedom, he added, can't be “restricted merely to freedom of worship”.
The next congress in Nur-Sultan will be held in three years. It is difficult to say now whether Francis will attend again. His reflections, however, will remain topical for a long time to come.
* Paolo Fucili is an Italian journalist based in Rome, where he works for the Italian TV channel TV2000. He is specialized in covering news for the Vatican. He is a contributor for many newspapers and reviews. He is also the author of several books and essays on various religious information topics