Papal Visit to Mongolia: August 31 to September 4, 2023
Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting in Ulaanbaatar
On November 30, 2022, the Pontifical Yearbook counted 1,394 Catholics in Mongolia, representing around .04% of the Mongolian population. In this country of 3.4 million inhabitants, there are 6 diocesan priests including 2 indiginous priests, one of whom was ordained in 2022. The 19 other priests are religious missionaries.
The Catholic Church operates the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Ulaanbaatar. This capital of 1.4 million inhabitants (43% of the country’s population) includes 5 other parishes. There are also 2 parishes in the cities of Darkhan and Erdenet in the north, one in Arvaikheer in the middle of the country, and one at Zuunmod on the outskirts of the capital.
The Mongolian population is 53% Buddhist, 39% atheist or agnostic, 3% Sunni Muslim, and 3% traditional religions, with Christians representing 2.1% of the population. The majority of Christians are Protestants (36,100) and Evangelicals or associated groups (23,000). The Russian Orthodox Church claims 2,650 faithful. In 1992, the country’s official records did not include a single Catholic.
The first missionaries, members of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) or Scheutists, arrived in Mongolia in 1992; the first religious sisters in 1995. The 6 present seminarians were trained in part in South Korea. In 2022, Pope Francis elevated Mgr. Giorgio Marengo to the rank of cardinal. A young Consolata missionary, Mgr. Marengo was then only 48 years old and the only bishop of the Catholic Church in Mongolia.
At present, it is forbidden for missionaries to teach catechism to children under 16 without the agreement of their parents. Catechism must be taught in the church and official buildings of the Church—and not in schools or charitable institutions. Priests do not have the right to be identifiable outside of churches.
The government took advantage of the post-COVID period to tighten its control over non-Mongolian religions. Nevertheless, as Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, announced, negotiations are underway between the Holy See and the Mongolian government to facilitate the admittance of Catholic missionaries.
To Spend One’s life for the Gospel
In the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Ulaanbaatar on September 2, Pope Francis addressed the consecrated men and women and pastoral workers of the country. The Pope went over the “very ancient roots” of evangelization in Mongolia, evoking the missions of Syriac tradition along the Silk Road in the first millennium, the Vatican’s diplomatic missions of the thirteenth century, and the work begun by missionary congregations in 1992.
Pope Francis said that “Jesus is the good news, meant for all peoples.” Thanking the missionaries whose charitable initiatives “reflect the merciful face of Christ the Good Samaritan,” the Pope encouraged them to “to continue along this path, which has proved so fruitful and beneficial for the beloved Mongolian people,” but also to turn toward Jesus, “our treasure (cf. Mt. 13:44), the pearl of great price for which it is worth spending everything (cf. Mt. 13:45-46).”
“Our Mongolian brothers and sisters, who have a keen sense of the sacred and – as is typical here in Asia – an ancient and complex religious history, look for your witness and can recognize if it is genuine,” the Supreme Pontiff said.
The Church is “sustained only by genuine faith and by the unarmed and disarming power of the Risen Lord, and capable of alleviating the sufferings of wounded humanity,” and poses no risk for the secular authorities, he stated. Catholics were not sent by Jesus to “spread political theories,” he insisted—with regard to a government which limits access to visas for members of non-Mongolian religions.
“The fact, then, that your Bishop is a Cardinal is an even greater sign of closeness: all of you though physically distant, are very close to the heart of Peter,” Pope Francis emphasized. Inviting the missionaries and pastoral workers to “simplicity” and to “closeness,” the Pope confided them to Mary, to whom Mongolia has been consecrated since 2022, recalling that “God loves littleness, and through it he loves to accomplish great things.”
An ecumenical and interreligious meeting at the Hun Theatre in Ulaanbaatar on September 3 gathered together representatives of 11 religions present in Mongolia, in a conference room in the form of a traditional “ger” (yurt).
Pope Francis was able to listen to Kamba Nomun Khan of the Buddhist monastery of Gandan; a representative of shamanism; Fr. Antoine Gusev, rector of the Russian Orthodox parish of Mongolia; and representatives of Jewish, Bahaist, Muslim, Hindu, Evangelical, Adventist, and Jehovah’s Witness communities.
Last to express himself, Pope Francis presented himself “as a brother in faith to those who believe in Christ, and as a brother to all of you in the name of our shared religious quest and our membership in the one human family.”
In the spirit of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, co-signed in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in 2019, Pope Francis asserted: “the social significance of our religious traditions can be gauged by the extent to which we are capable of living in harmony with other pilgrims on this earth and can foster that harmony in the places where we live.”
He concluded: “May the prayers we raise to heaven and the fraternity we experience here on earth spread seeds of hope. May they be a simple and credible testimony to our religiosity, our walking together with eyes lifted to heaven, our living in this world in harmony – let us never forget the word ‘harmony’ – as pilgrims called to preserve the atmosphere of a home that is open to all people.”
The Thirst Within Us
During the Mass celebrated at the Steppe Arena in Ulaanbaatar on the same day, the Pope addressed the 2,500 people present. “For all of us are ‘God’s nomads’, pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers thirsting for love” he exclaimed.
“God the Father has sent his Son to give us the living water of the Holy Spirit to satisfy our souls (cf. Jn 4:10).” And Jesus “shows us the way to quench our thirst,” he continued. Citing St. Augustine, the Supreme Pontiff expounded: “lest we grow faint in this desert, God refreshes us with the dew of his word.”
He also pointed out that “This, dear brothers and sisters, is surely the best way: to embrace the cross of Christ [...] If you lose your life, if you make it a generous offering in service, if you risk it by choosing to love, if you make it a free gift for others, then it will return to you in abundance, and you will be overwhelmed by endless joy, peace of heart, and inner strength and support; and we need inner peace.”
Surprisingly, at the close of the Mass, the Pope took the hands of the bishop of Hong Kong, Mgr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan, and his predecessor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, saying: “I would like to take this opportunity, in the presence of these two brother bishops – the Emeritus of Hong Kong and the current Bishop of Hong Kong – to send a heartfelt greeting to the noble Chinese people.”
And he said, without batting an eye: “And to Chinese Catholics: I ask you to be good Christians and good citizens.” The predecessor of Cardinal Ton Hon, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, was not part of the pontifical party.
This unexpected appeal of the Pope enters into the peculiar context of the agreement of 2018—kept secret—established between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the subject of episcopal nominations, renewed in 2020 and 2022. This is a context upon which the silence of the Pope weighs heavily—in the face of the repression of prodemocratic movements in Hong Kong, and where numerous dioceses remain vacant or in an uncertain canonical situation.
The act of making the present bishop of Hong Kong, Mgr. Chow Sau-yan, a cardinal on September 30 appeared to signify a wish to make the new cardinal a mediator between Rome and Beijing.
For the Love of God
Lastly, on September 4, the Pope visited the House of Mercy “that today I have the joy of blessing and inaugurating,” he announced. Pope Francis said that “where we find welcome, hospitality and openness to others, we breathe in ‘the fragrance of Christ’ (cf. 2 Cor. 2:15).”
“From the time of their arrival in Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s, the first missionaries immediately sensed a summons to works of charity, which led them to care for abandoned children, our homeless brothers and sisters, the sick, the disabled, prisoners and all those who, amid suffering, sought their care.” The Catholic Church, although a minority, plays an important role in Mongolia, where 27% of the population lives below the poverty line.
And Pope Francis cautioned once again: “Another myth needing to be dispelled is that the Catholic Church, distinguished throughout the world for its great commitment to works of social promotion, does all this to proselytize, as if caring for others were a way of enticing people to ‘join up.’ No! The Church does not go forward by proselytism, it goes forward by attraction. Christians do whatever they can to alleviate the suffering of the needy, because in the person of the poor they acknowledge Jesus, the Son of God, and, in him, the dignity of each person, called to be a son or daughter of God.”
Dialogue and Mysticism
On his return trip from Mongolia, the Pope responded to questions from journalists on the plane bringing him to Rome. He particularly clarified what he intended as the “main objective with this visit.” We reproduce here his complete response to this question, as published by Vatican News on September 4:
“The idea to visit Mongolia came to me whilst thinking about the small Catholic community. I make these trips to visit Catholic communities and also to enter into dialogue with the history and culture of the people, and with the mysticism of a people. It is important that evangelisation is not conceived as proselytism.
Proselytism always restricts. Pope Benedict said that faith does not grow by proselytism but by attraction. The proclamation of the Gospel enters into dialogue with culture. There is an evangelisation of culture and also an inculturation of the Gospel, because Christians also express their Christian values with the culture of their own people. This is the opposite of what religious colonisation would be.
For me, the journey was to get to know the people of Mongolia, to enter into dialogue with them, to receive their culture, and to accompany the Church on its journey with much respect for them and their culture. I am satisfied with the result.”
Reminder: The Duty to “Teach all Nations”
In his encyclical Aeterni Patris (August 4, 1879), Pope Leo XIII delivers in his introduction a fraternal correction to his successor who seems to equate the apostolate with proselytism and the attempt to impose the Faith, reducing it to a work of propaganda:
“The only-begotten Son of the Eternal Father, who came on earth to bring salvation and the light of divine wisdom to men, conferred a great and wonderful blessing on the world when, about to ascend again into heaven, He commanded the Apostles to go and teach all nations [Mt. 28: 19], and left the Church which He had founded to be the common and supreme teacher of the peoples.
For men whom the truth had set free were to be preserved by the truth; nor would the fruits of heavenly doctrines by which salvation comes to men have long remained had not the Lord Christ appointed an unfailing teaching authority to train the minds to faith. And the Church built upon the promises of its own divine Author, whose charity it imitated, so faithfully followed out His commands that its constant aim and chief wish was this: to teach religion and contend forever against errors.
To this end assuredly have tended the incessant labors of individual bishops; to this end also the published laws and decrees of councils, and especially the constant watchfulness of the Roman Pontiffs, to whom, as successors of the blessed Peter in the primacy of the Apostles, belongs the right and office of teaching and confirming their brethren in the faith.”
Fuentes: cath.ch/imedia/Vatican news/DICI n°436 – FSSPX.Actualités
Imagen: Banque d’images Alamy