On Monday 4 September, Pope Francis concluded his unprecedented apostolic journey to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where he encouraged the country’s small Catholic population in their faith. Pope Francis has often been referred to as the ‘pope of the peripheries’, and this visit reaffirms this. The Catholic Church in Mongolia is one of the Church’s smallest flocks: out of a mostly Buddhist population of 3.3 million, Mongolia has roughly 1,450 Catholics.
This trip is Pope Francis’ 43rd international journey, and Mongolia is the 61st country he has visited in the 10 years since his election as the successor of St Peter.
A highlight of the journey was Mass on Sunday 3 September, an occasion on which almost the entire Catholic Church in Mongolia was in the same room as Pope Francis. Participating in the Mass were also pilgrims from Russia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and other neighbouring countries. Some came to be with the pope at great risk to themselves.
During the inflight press conference on the return journey to Rome, Pope Francis reflected briefly on the origins of this trip. ‘The idea to visit Mongolia came to me whilst thinking about the small Catholic community,’ he said. ‘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.’
‘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.’
Mongolia is a country with an extraordinary history, geography and people. The Mongol Empire was originally founded in AD 1206 by Genghis Khan, who united the disparate nomadic tribes. In fact, Mongolia is home to the world’s largest statue of a horse, one that has Genghis Khan astride it. The landscape is vast, rugged and dry, known for especially for its steppes and arid deserts. It is estimated that Mongolia only receives 4 inches of rainfall every year, and up to 40 per cent of the population remain nomadic.
It was to this nomadic way of life that Pope Francis spoke in his homily on 3 September. ‘All of us are “God’s nomads,” pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers searching for love,’ he said. Drawing on the words of Psalm 62, he invited them to ‘acknowledge’ the deep thirst we have for love.
‘Dear brothers and sisters, the Christian faith is the answer to this thirst … For in this thirst lies the great mystery of our humanity: it opens our hearts to the living God, the God of love, who comes to meet us and make us his children, brothers and sisters to one another.’
You need not be famous, rich, or powerful to be happy. Only love satisfies our hearts’ thirst, only love heals our wounds, only love brings us true joy.
The pope’s time in Mongolia included a welcoming festival, referred to as a Besreg Naadam, which consisted of traditional music and dance, Bok wrestling, acrobatics, arts and sports competitions, and an introduction to Mongolian food. He also met with Mongolian dignitaries, including meeting President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh in a ger, a traditional round, nomadic tent that is common in Mongolia.
A central theme of Pope Francis’ messages was the attractiveness of Christian love and how, even though a community might be small, this love can be a powerful witness.
On 2 September, he said to pastors in Ulaanbaatar that ‘God loves littleness, and through it he loves to accomplish great things.
‘Brothers and sisters do not be concerned about small numbers, limited success, or apparent irrelevance. That is not how God works …’
On his final day in Mongolia, Pope Francis also inaugurated the House of Mercy, a Catholic-run shelter for those in need in Ulaanbaatar. He noted how for Christians, these works of mercy should be driven by love without ulterior motives.
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 or God.
This love, however, does act as a ‘calling card’, a sign of something unique in the Christian community.
This apostolic journey was also an opportunity to encourage peace in Mongolia, urging people to ‘walk the paths of encounter and friendship’.
The relationship between Christianity and Mongolia has historically been a tense one, and sometimes violent. Although the Catholic faith was introduced in the 13th century with the beginning of the Mongol Empire, the introduction of a one-party, pro-Soviet socialist state in 1924 led to the complete elimination of Christians in the country.
In the early 1990s, however, Mongolia experienced the ‘democratic revolution’, a peaceful transition to a multi-party system, religious freedom and the return of Catholic missionaries. Now, in general, missionaries are said to have ‘a good relationship’ with the government as they seek to rebuild Christianity in the region.
The pope encouraged missionaries to keep ‘spending’ their lives for the Gospel. It is Jesus himself who ‘is the Good News meant for all peoples, the message that the Church must constantly proclaim, embody in her life, and “whisper” to the heart of every individual and all cultures.’
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023