ROME – In American politics, the “empty chair” is a gimmick used when a candidate refuses an invitation to a campaign debate, so the other tries to capitalize on his or her absence by making the story about who isn’t there.
Pope Francis, of course, isn’t a politician, and he’s not heading to the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan this week for a debate. Still, there’s a sense in which the biggest story still is likely to be about who isn’t on hand as much as who is.
The most obvious empty chair in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, will belong to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who was scheduled to be present and to meet the pope, but who abruptly backed out last month.
Another unoccupied seat is likely to belong to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will actually be in country at the same time as the pope on Wednesday, but a meeting between the two leaders, at least for now, doesn’t seem in the cards.