Pope Francis will visit Mongolia in a few days. This will be an opportunity for the head of the Church to support the approximately 1,500 faithful in the country, but also to make a strategic trip to a landlocked state between Russia and China, two destinations that Vatican diplomacy intends to put on the apostolic-journey program.
“The trip to Mongolia that John Paul II could not make, Pope Francis is preparing to do. And it will certainly be a very beautiful thing. A very strong sign for all Christianity.” These words of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop Emeritus of Naples and former Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (2001-2006), are part of the latest series of films prepared by the Vatican to properly publicize the apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Mongolia, from August 31 to September 4, 2023.
Mongolia is a land of the Buddhist religion where the first traces of a Christian presence date back to the 7th century, even if the real evangelization of the country is recent and took place in two phases.
In 1921-1922, missionaries from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary settled in Outer Mongolia. However, they had to leave the territory two years later, in 1924, with the rise of the Soviet Union. It was only after the Cold War ended that other priests from the same congregation returned to the country in 1992.
As of now, the Catholic Church has just under 1,500 faithful and continues to grow, especially among young people, despite the restrictions in force in the country and the mistrust of those who take a dim view of conversions to Christianity.
On the Mongolian side, for several years, there has been an openness to deepening diplomatic relations, as evidenced by the upcoming visit of the Pope to the country: by gradually relaxing certain restrictions on the Catholic Church, without granting total freedom to the missionaries on site, the authorities seem to show that they prefer to deal with a structured religion that is easier to control than the so-called “evangelical” Protestant groups.
On the side of the Holy See, the Argentine pontiff’s interest in the visit appears as soon as one considers the geography of Mongolia, a landlocked country between Russia and China. The pope has been enjoying renewed affection in Mongolia for some time: an asset for the Vatican in discussions with Moscow. It should also be remembered that, during his visit to Kazakhstan in 2022, Pope Francis confided that closing the door to dialogue with Russia was tantamount to closing “the only reasonable door that leads to peace.”
Mongolia also appears, in the eyes of the Holy See, as an obligatory stage on the road to Beijing, a path strewn with pitfalls at a time when the provisional agreement signed between the Vatican and China has been recently undermined by repeated snags on the part of the red mandarins.
One last detail. The apostolic journey of the Sovereign Pontiff was prepared beforehand by Archbishop Alfredo Xuereb. A former secretary of Benedict XVI and author of a book of recollections on his former mentor, the prelate was appointed nuncio for Korea and Mongolia in 2018, before being abruptly relieved of his duties at the beginning of this summer.
This transfer will prevent this former member of the first circle of the previous pontificate from having his share in a visit which promises to be a diplomatic event of the first importance.