In April we received an unexpected and joyful announcement: the Pope would be coming to visit us. Immediately my heart was filled with gratitude and a question: what does this mean for us? My memory took me back to 2001, when we experienced a grand event in connection with John Paul II's visit to Kazakhstan. Even then the situation in the world was turbulent; there were many doubts that the Pope would come because of the terrorist attacks that had just taken place in the United States. In these days too our planet is going through tragic events, and that is why it was so important for all of us to meet the Pope, a messenger of peace, of trust, of hope, of God's mercy.
Because of the war in Ukraine and the impossibility of going to Rome for the CL audience with the Pope scheduled for October 15, our Russian friends also decided to come to Nur-sultan. Thus our joint pilgrimage was further filled with meaning and anticipation. This joy then doubled thanks to the "yes" of the mothers of "The Lighthouse," the center for special needs children in Karaganda. Not even knowing who the Pope was, they accepted the invitation without hesitation, and came with some of their wonderful children, moved, open, curious about everything.
On the morning of September 14, before the Mass with the Pope, about 100 friends from Almaty, Karaganda, Astana, and Georgia, Russia, and Italy gathered at the Ibis hotel. In preparation for the pilgrimage, a passage was proposed from the encyclical Fratelli Tutti about friendship allowing us to transcend ourselves: "Even our gesture is ‘a movement beyond ourselves.’ With what expectation, he asks, do we live this experience?"
Getting the meeting going was difficult. After the songs, there was a deep silence. I looked at the faces of my friends with emotion, challenging them to stop and take this step. Then, gradually, Christ appeared through the testimonies, full of honesty before the presence of the Mystery, full of thirst and need. "I am not a wanderer, but a pilgrim," Kostya from Moscow realized as he helped his friends organize the trip. Silvia recounted that "deciding to come here was a decision I took, leaving my job and so many issues that need to be resolved. But I feel that I am always lacking the answer to my heart's need: it was important for me to listen to the Pope now, at this moment of my life. I am constantly looking and I know where to look."
Arman said that his skepticism blocked him at first, "But friends are always there. Monsignor Adelio (Dell'Oro, bishop of Karaganda) told me: I would be happy to see you in Nur-Sultan. Then a friend simply said to me, ‘For me, this is a pilgrimage.’ I understand the importance of being with friends. Their presence in my life has changed the way I see things."
Jean François, who arrived from Moscow, recalled "the path of the Spiritual Exercises, the personality of Martha, the risk of losing one's life by living. Then, all of a sudden, someone says, ‘Look, the Master is here and he is calling you....’ And the adventure begins." Joseph and Fr. Edo Lucia also spoke, who confessed how "the beginning of the year at university has been difficult. I was exhausted. But here you can come as you are. I need this gaze, I am just like a beggar. Just a question and a wish."
Nina, one of the "Lighthouse Moms," said that "a miracle happened in my life. Here I find a different perspective on children, on life. I can no longer live without it. I want to know what the source of it all is. I do not want to lose it in everyday life." Larisa, also a mother of a special needs child, said that "at first I wondered, why me? Like it was a misfortune. Now the question is, ‘Why was my child born?’ And I answer to myself, 'For my own growth.'" Dima, who would later have the opportunity to meet the Pope personally with Ramzia, his wife (see letter below) recounted that he has in his heart "the desire to preserve the openness of John and Andrew, to stand before the Mystery as they did."
We concluded the assembly by singing the Hail Mary. With this prayer we went to Mass with the Pope. Before he arrived, a video was shown about Christianity in Kazakhstan: us Catholics are only 1 percent of the population, but our little Church is a people who encounters everyone along the way. And this was evident at the Mass because all sorts of people were there to greet the Pope, not just Catholics. Every word of the homily was addressed to us. We often live "in our deserts, with tiredness and dryness in our hearts.... The poison of disappointment extinguishes enthusiasm. And how important it is to ‘learn from His crucified love.’” This is the way of salvation: the outstretched arms of Jesus are an embrace of tenderness. This is the way of humble love without ifs and buts.
Blessed by the Pope, we all went to the bus stop with shining faces and changed hearts, reconciled with ourselves and our lives, forgiven and eager to live as human beings.
This is revealed in the messages of friends. "Today, after meeting with friends, their embrace, their testimonies, after the historic Mass with the Pope, I am not afraid to go back to my school, to that reality, to those people who were given to me to see Him. I return with such fullness that I want to share it with all those who do not have it. Nila." And then, "I give thanks for this companionship together with the Pope, who reminds me every day of the most important thing in life: not to lose it. Aliona." And again, "It was really amazing to see the big tent in which the Mass was held for all the people. After all, this house and this frail person embody the House and the Father for every person, no one excluded, a loving Father who brings mercy and peace. To the world this frailty seems to be weakness, something illusory, naive, utopian. An old, sick man. But thanks to this ‘weakness,’ each person is reborn, perceiving the recognition of their own value, joy and zest for life. This Event is a great sign for our Kazakhstan. Julia."
Then, again Nina, one of the Lighthouse moms: "It continues the chain of happy events, which began with our first "Lighthouse" meeting. It was wonderful! The beauty of everything that is happening, the divine music and singing, the shining faces of friends, the prayer and the thought, penetrating deep inside, ‘You are not alone!’.... This gives strength to live, to see the light through the cracks of the heart, for our humanity to grow. Even our ‘special’ children perceived the significance of everything that was happening. Their hearts are full of love and gratitude." And contributions followed from many, many others, including Asset: "My pilgrimage to the Pope was the trip where I discovered my wife Maira again. We went together, with some friends of ours from Almaty. Coming back, she told me how she was moved by Francis, by his humility and simplicity. She cried. At the end, she said, ‘Now I understand one thing, where this gaze comes from: it comes from within our companionship that allows us to look this way.’ She told me about one of his colleagues, Anat. He had said, "I am struck by Christians because they have a unity that we Muslims do not have." For me, Maira's testimony was a shock, because it strikes me how she is not afraid of her humanity with her Muslim colleagues."
What about me? After the meeting with the Pope, and after this pilgrimage with friends, I realized acutely that what I have encountered is invincible, steady as a beacon in the raging waves of life. I do not need words. I only need His tender smile. I want to live in His merciful hands and run to wherever He happens, following my heart.
The letter from Ramzia who, together with her husband Dima, was able to meet Pope Francis in person during the visit.
I ran to the Pope as I might to a friend. And I found myself in a dimension of absolute openness, of a human and divine presence at the same time. There was an all-encompassing embrace in his gaze, in his clear, deep eyes that penetrate you to the depths of your being. Eyes grateful to be, to exist and to welcome. Eyes reflecting cosmic maturity and, at the same time, pure childlike eyes... I was seized by a superabundant Presence. No one can remove it from my eyes, out of my memory. It is forever.
We had less than a minute to be with him, so we were forced to be essential in talking about us. The only thing I could communicate to him was this, "Thank you Holy Father! We are children of the charism of Fr. Giussani." And he immediately replied, "How nice, you are from that gang there!" "Yes! I come from a Muslim tradition and I met a great faith within the companionship of Fr. Giussani. And thanks to you who witness to us a living faith with your life." He said, "Great Fr. Giussani!" Dima thanked him from the bottom of his heart for coming to visit us in our country, in our land. The Pope replied that it is an honor for him. When Sofia, their oldest daughter, said to him, "Thank you for your great faith," he replied with childlike eyes, "Thank you, dear." It was as if we had ended up in an eternity that nourished us, fed us with true gladness, in total surrender to Him, with the certainty that He is everything, and everything is in Him.
I came out of that meeting with a jumping and trembling heart... I was moved to tears, tears of purification. All the fullness I received embraced me from within... The presence of God is indeed a great mystery. It is mysterious how He enters us, how He allows us to experience Him. And I am realizing more and more that the mystery of God is human, carnal: it can be touched and embraced.
Just as He entered my life in 1998 through the faces of friends shining with light and hope, He continues to enter my life today, allowing me to open my heart and eyes wide even when I am unable to do so. And so these eyes and heart become more and more His. What a great story! What a great companionship! How great is He who in the simplicity of His heart gave everything to Christ so that we can meet Him every day.