NUR SULTAN – On Pope Francis’s last day in Kazakhstan, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a longtime public critic of the pontiff, said he sees it as both his duty and an act of fraternal love to speak out when he believes the faithful are in “danger” of confusion.
Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Astana, also cast doubt on the high-profile Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that the pope is in town to attend, calling it a “supermarket” of religions that risks relegating the importance of the Catholic Church as the one true religion.
Speaking to journalists at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Nur Sultan ahead of Pope Francis’s meeting with bishops, clergy, and religious in the country, Schneider said it is “normal” to have difference with the pope, because “we’re not employees of the pope — the bishops, we are brothers.”
Schneider, who has criticized the pope’s decision to restrict the Traditional Latin Mass and his apparent decision to open communion to some divorced and remarried couples, among other things, said, “When I in conscience see that something is not correct or ambiguous, I have to say (it) to him with respect, fraternally, and this is church.”
“If we cannot do this, what will be the Catholic Church? And no bishop is there to say something to the pope? This is collegiality, this is fraternity,” he argued, saying he personally has always tried to raise concerns “with respect.”
“This for me is through love, true brotherly love, not to make adulations and incense, and behave yourself like an employee to a boss. No, we are brothers, we have to say with respect when we recognize something is a danger for the entire church, and I consider this a true help for the pope — it should be,” he said.
Schneider also raised concerns over the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that is on its final day, drawing participation from nearly 100 faith leaders from 50 countries.
Pope Francis attended the congress’s opening session Wednesday, where he gave a lengthy speech on the role of religious leaders in promoting peace, and he is set to deliver another address to the closing session and reading of the final declaration.
Schneider, who welcomed Pope Francis into the Cathedral for his meeting with bishops, clergy, and religious and accompanied him to the altar, said the aim of the congress to promote mutual respect and understanding throughout the world is good, “but it also has a danger, because it can give the impression of a supermarket of religions.”
“This is not correct, because there is only one true religion, and that is the Catholic Church, founded by God himself, and God commanded all man, 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 one of the many religions, and this is, in my opinion, a negative point and a dangerous point,” Schneider said.
He insisted that he does not believe the pope is undermining the faith by attending the congress, but suggested that the congresses be organized differently, at a more local level, in the future.
“I appeal for the Vatican in the future to think again about how to do this better, not internationally,” and not as “a supermarket of religions, a show,” which he said could be used by political elites for their own private agendas.
“Peace starts in the house, in the family. A big congress of peace will not help if it doesn’t start in the house, in the neighborhood,” he said.
On a general level, Schneider said the pope’s visit to Kazakhstan is significant for the country’s tiny Catholic minority, who number around 1-2 percent of a population that is 70 percent Muslim.
“Our Catholics are aware that we are part of a real universal, worldwide church, which is the Catholicity. So, this is very important for our faithful to experience the Catholicity of the church, with the presence of the pope,” he said, saying the pope’s message has been well received.
The people, he said, “consider the pope as a sacred figure, even non-Christians, so when the pope speaks about mutual love and respect, “these are very important words for people here in our country to foster.”
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