Among the Popes, Francis is the first one to visit Mongolia, home to one of the smallest Catholic communities in the world. This historic pilgrimage titled ‘Hoping Together’ began on 31st August and concluded on 4th September 2023. During the visit, Pope Francis met the nation’s leaders and officials as well as the Catholic community. Earlier, looking forward to the visit, the Pope said on 27th August, that in Mongolia he sincerely desired to ‘be a brother to all.’ With these profoundly-plain but relationally-rich words, the Pope made a powerful statement -- about who he is, what he intends to be!
The message Pope Francis wrote in the Book Honour in Ulaanbaatar, in other words, describes the purpose of the visit: “As a pilgrim of peace in this country young and ancient, modern and rich in tradition, I am honoured to walk the paths of encounter and friendship, which generate hope. May the great clear sky, which embraces the Mongolian land, illuminate new paths of fraternity.”
International Papal visits began with Pope Paul VI (recall that he visited India in 1964) and they were multiplied during the papacy of John Paul II (visited India in 1986 and in 1999). The saintly Polish pope made pilgrimages to 129 countries. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been visiting several counties and they include our immediate neighbours Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
It is crucial to recognize that till date Pope Francis visited not only some large Catholic nations but also some of the marginalized and lesser-known countries -- a feature that is equally noted when he named Cardinals. Notably, Pope Francis visited several places in Asia, Africa, and even in Europe that have never seen a pope in the past.
By such visits and also by appointing Cardinals from these existential peripheries, Francis makes a prophetic statement that the Catholic Church belongs to all and that in the Church everyone matters. His visits reinforce that the Euro-centric Catholic Church has definitively and irreversibly blossomed into a global Church. Demographic shifts attest to this: some of the largest Catholic nations such as Mexico, Brazil, Philippines, Nigeria etc., are in the global South. Having himself come from the ‘far away’ Argentina, Francis consciously brings the global concerns -- those of the poor, the migrants, the refugees, of victims of war and violence, of those whose dignity and rights are violated -- to the table.
So, first of all, the Pope's visit to Mongolia should be seen in this background. In Francis, Mongolia got its first Cardinal as well as a ‘first’ visit from the pope. Cardinal Giorgio Marengo is the head of the Catholic Church in Mongolia. The 49-year-old Italian belongs to the Institute of Consolata Missionaries and is the youngest among the college of Cardinals.
Mongolia is a land-locked nation, historically known as the epicentre of a mighty empire (the largest that ever existed?) that covered large swaths of Europe and Asia. The ruthless expansionist Genghis Khan (1162-1227) is considered principally to be responsible for it. Today’s Mongolia has as its neighbours Russia to its north and China to its south, both nations that ruthlessly display power and might in order to expand geopolitical influence. Among the nation’s 3.5 million, a majority practice Buddhism.
With regard to the Church in numbers, according to the 2020 census, Mongolia’s 1354 Catholics are spread in 9 parishes: they are served by 5 Diocesan and 18 Religious Priests. Some Religious also serve in other areas. After being under the Communist regime for long, in early 1990s Mongolia transitioned into a democracy with a Constitution to animate the people on this journey. Eventually Christian missionaries were allowed to enter and serve. Fascinatingly, Mongolia may be one of the few countries in the world where, if they were to assemble, there is a real chance of all Catholics getting to know one another!
It is important to know why the Pope has chosen to visit Mongolia. As mentioned above, doubtlessly, the first reason is to strengthen the faith of the Catholic community, and foster the bilateral relations between Mongolia and the Vatican. Prayers and Masses, held in public or in private during the visit, have amply reflected and reinforced this fact. Arguably, there is another reason for the papal visit to Mongolia: it is the Pope's heartfelt desire to be very close, literally, to China and Russia.
In the past, several attempts have been made by the Vatican but both Russia and China declined Papal visits to their countries. No Pope has ever visited China or Russia. Russia’s Putin met Pope Francis but not in Russia. Similarly, Chinese leaders have been evasive, and remained indifferent to the Vatican’s initiatives even though the Vatican has walked the extra mile to strengthen the Sino-Vatican relationships. Complex cultural, religious and political reasons have made these encounters difficult -- almost impossible.
Like the other popes, from his side also, Pope Francis has been trying to reach out to China and Russia, all the time. He sent Cardinals with appeals to avoid conflicts and promote peace. Figuratively, now it may be said that the Pope's long cherished dream to visit China and Russia is realized, at least partially, by the visit to Mongolia! Can one hope that Pope’s messages to China and Russia, to strive for peace and the well-being of all, from the close-by Mongolia will be heard more attentively?
Possibly, three things stand out in the formal and informal meetings Pope Francis had in Mongolia: 1) Church cares for the little flocks, and, certainly for those who live on the peripheries; 2) Church follows the path of peace and invites all to be artisans of peace and 3) Church fosters inter-religious dialogue.
Pope’s Masses and prayers, celebrated with a little flock in Mongolia, attest to the fact that the Church pays attention to all. Faith, joy, generosity and selfless service are some of the quintessential characteristics of Christian life and mission, he reminded. Opening and blessing the ‘House of Joy,’ a shelter for the poor and victims of domestic violence, the Pope exhorted that in mandating us to feed the poor, Jesus “gives us the criterion for recognizing His presence in our world and the condition for entering into the supreme joy of His kingdom at the Last Judgement." For Pope Francis, mercy is not one among many virtues but an indispensable virtue that makes us, the baptized, true Christians.
Speaking to the secular authorities in Ulaanbaatar, Pope Francis said: “May the dark clouds of war be dispelled, swept away by the firm desire for a universal fraternity wherein tensions are resolved through encounter and dialogue, and the fundamental rights of all people are guaranteed!” Mongolia is able to work for global peace, Pope appreciated, because the people there draw upon the shared spiritual patrimony and wisdom. In a prayerful way, the Pope appealed: “Here, in this country so rich in history and open to the sky, let us implore this gift from on High, and together let us strive to build a future of peace.” Pope Francis’ invocation for peace, and his invitation to all to become artisans of peace makes the journey remarkable.
Few Popes have worked as intensely and passionately as Pope Francis to promote the Church’s ministry of inter-religious dialogue. In his pilgrimages to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Dubai, Egypt and several other countries, Francis repeatedly spoke of its significance, being aware of the fact that religions, in one way or the other, have caused and continue to cause distrust and violence. The Pope strongly believes that religions and their spirituality have immense potential to do good and to make people work for peace and the well-being of all.
In Mongolia Pope Francis met with the leaders of different religions such as Buddhism, Shamanism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism etc., and reminded all that “Religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole.” Those who have responsibilities in religious and spiritual domains, the Pope stated, “are called to testify to the teachings we profess by the way we act; we must not contradict them and thus become a cause of scandal."
The pope was clear and forthright: "There can be no mixing, of religious beliefs and violence, of holiness and oppression, of religious traditions and sectarianism." To this end, we have to bring inter-religious dialogue into the academy and public square and pulpit. Let us share Pope Francis’ firm belief the world would benefit immensely if it begins to draw more from the wells of spiritualities.