ROME – On his final day in Kazakhstan, Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, and religious in the country, offering words of encouragement and urging that greater space be made for the participation of laity in the life of the church.

After hearing several testimonies, Pope Francis in his Sept. 15 address noted that participants in the gathering come from various countries and traditions, saying, “The strength of this priestly and holy people lies precisely in its ability to draw richness from this diversity, by sharing with one another who we are and what we have.”

“The past we have inherited is our memory, and the promise of the Gospel is the future of God,” he said, and recalled the ancient history of Christianity in Kazakhstan and its spread throughout Central Asia.

Faithful must “honor and preserve” this heritage, he said, cautioning that to look back does not mean “getting stuck in the past and letting ourselves be paralyzed and immobile.” Rather, this act of remembering means Christians “marvel all the more at the mystery of God, their hearts filled with praise and gratitude for what the Lord has accomplished.”

The Eucharist is the prime place where Christians gather to remember, he said, insisting, “Without memory, we lack wonder.”

“When we lose that living memory, our faith, our devotions and our pastoral activities risk dying slowly, disappearing like a flash in the pan, which burns bright but then quickly fades. When we lose our memory, joy disappears,” he said.

Pope Francis, who is closing out a three-day Sept. 13-15 visit to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan for the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, spoke of the importance of bearing witness, saying the faith “was not passed down from generation to generation as a set of ideas to be understood and followed, as a fixed and timeless code.”

“Faith is not a lovely exhibition of artefacts from a distant past, but an ever-present event, an encounter with Christ that takes place in the here and now of our lives,” and leads to the future, he said.

Speaking of the future, Pope Francis said that remembering one’s roots does not keep the community anchored in the past, but rather “opens us up to the promise of the Gospel.”

Francis spoke of current challenges the church faces, such as the lack of participation from youth and the fact that Catholics in Kazakhstan are a small minority, amounting to just 1-2 percent of a population that is 70 percent Muslim.

Faced with these challenges, it is natural to feel small and inadequate, he said, “Yet, if we see things with the hope-filled gaze of Jesus, we make a surprising discovery: the Gospel says that being ‘little,’ poor in spirit, is a blessing, a beatitude, and indeed the first of the beatitudes.”

“There is a hidden grace in being a small church, a little flock, for instead of showing off our strengths, our numbers, our structures and other things that are humanly important, we can let ourselves be guided by the Lord and humbly draw close to others,” he said.

Being small is also a reminder that “we are not self-sufficient,” but are in need of God and others, he said, praying that faithful would realize “in a spirit of humility, that only together, in dialogue and mutual acceptance, can we truly achieve something good for the benefit of all.”

Each person has a role to play in the work of spreading the Gospel, Francis said, insisting that “we are all disciples: Each of us is essential, and all of equal dignity. Not just bishops, priests and consecrated persons, but each of the baptized.”

“We must make room for the laity, then, and this is a good thing, lest our communities become rigid or clerical,” the pope said, saying a synodal church that walks toward the future together “is a church that embraces participation and shared responsibility. A church that, formed in communion, can go forth to encounter the world.”

Pope Francis offered a special word to bishops and priests, saying their mission “is not to be administrators of the sacred or enforcers of religious rules, but pastors close to our people, living icons of the compassionate heart of Christ,” and invoked the example of several Greek Catholic martyrs.

Closing his speech, the pope assured attendees of his closeness, and urged the church’s pastors “to embrace your spiritual inheritance with joy and to bear generous witness to it, so that all whom you meet may realize that there is a promise of hope meant for them as well.”

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