Pope Francis on Thursday blessed an icon depicting Mary and the Child Jesus as native Kazakhs, entrusting the Church in Kazakhstan and all of Central Asia to Our Lady.
Pope Francis is wrapping up a three-day trip to the large, landlocked country for the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious summit held roughly every three years.
At a meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians, and pastoral workers in the Cathedral of Our Mother of Perpetual Help on Sept. 15, the pope spoke about the rich Christian history of Central Asia and encouraged Catholics to embrace this legacy, bearing “generous witness” to the joy of the ever-new Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The triptych — or three-part artwork — depicting the Kazakh-faced Mother of God and Child is known as “The Mother of the Great Steppe.” It was created by artist Dosbol Kasymov, who told EWTN News in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Aug. 5 that his inspiration for the image came from his culture’s love and reverence for mothers.
Kasymov said the Child Jesus’ halo is in the form of a shanyrak, the emblem of Kazakhstan and a common cultural symbol based on the shape of a cross. Ethnic Kazakhs are predominantly Sunni Muslims, the most commonly practiced religion in the country.
He explained that Mary is shown looking away because “Kazakhs consider it not quite right or polite for a woman to look directly into the face of her interlocutor.” The Virgin Mary’s gaze can also be interpreted to mean that she is thinking about the future, that “she senses what is going to happen to her son,” he said. The Christ Child, who is looking the other way from his mother, “has a mixture of feelings,” the artist noted. “It is as if on the one hand, he does not want to separate from his mother, but on the other hand … somewhere in his depths, in his young subconsciousness, there is also an understanding that he has a path, as each of us has our own path.”
Kazakhstan is a majority-Muslim country home to an ethnically diverse minority of Catholics — an estimated 250,000 in total. Most of Kazakhstan’s Catholics are Latin-rite, but there is also an Eastern-rite minority of approximately 3,000 people. St. John Paul II visited the country in 2001 to an enthusiastic welcome.
The archbishop of Kazakhstan’s only Catholic archdiocese — which is named for Mary — told CNA Tuesday that the visit of Pope Francis is of unique significance to the country’s tiny but diverse Catholic minority.
“This icon will in the future be installed in the shrine in Oziornoye, where the Mother of God is venerated as the Queen of Peace, the patroness of Central Asia,” Archbishop Tomasz Peta, who commissioned the icon, told CNA. He leads Mary Most Holy Archdiocese in Astana, the capital city that has since been renamed Nur-Sultan.
Peta said the new chapel would be built in the shape of a yurt, the traditional round tent used by nomadic groups in Central Asia. The shrine is also getting a new pilgrim welcome center dedicated to St. John Paul II.
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.
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