Pope Francis arrived in Mongolia on Friday, September 1, 2023, for a four-day visit that aims to encourage the small and young Catholic community in the country and foster dialogue with its neighbors, Russia and China. The pope is the first pontiff to visit the landlocked Asian nation, which has a population of about three million people, mostly Buddhists.
A Historic Visit for a New Church
The Catholic Church in Mongolia is one of the newest and smallest in the world, with only 1,450 faithful and four parishes. It was established in 1992, after Mongolia adopted a democratic constitution that guaranteed religious freedom following decades of communist rule. The Vatican and Mongolia have had diplomatic relations since then, and several missionary orders have been working to spread the gospel and serve the poor and marginalized.
Pope Francis praised the church in Mongolia as “small in numbers, but lively in faith and great in charity” during his weekly audience on August 30. He said he wanted to express his closeness and support to the Mongolian Catholics, who face many challenges and difficulties in their mission. He also said he hoped to learn from their culture and spirituality, which are deeply rooted in the respect for nature and harmony with others.
The pope’s visit is a historic occasion for the Mongolian Catholics, who have been preparing for it with prayers and enthusiasm. They hope that his presence will inspire more people to join the church and strengthen their faith. The pope will meet with the local clergy, religious and laypeople, celebrate Mass at the National Sports Stadium, and inaugurate a new charity house run by the church.
A Strategic Visit for a Neutral Country
The pope’s visit to Mongolia also has geopolitical implications, as the country is located between two powerful neighbors, Russia and China, with whom the Vatican has complex and strained relations. The pope may see Mongolia as a potential mediator and partner in his efforts to promote dialogue and peace in the region and beyond.
The Vatican has not had official diplomatic ties with China since 1951, when the communist regime expelled its representatives and established its own state-controlled church. The two sides have been engaged in a delicate dialogue since 2018, when they signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops. However, the agreement has not been renewed yet, and tensions have risen over issues such as human rights, religious freedom and the creation of new dioceses.
The Vatican also has a tense relationship with Russia, especially over the ongoing war in Ukraine, which began in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The pope has repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and expressed his solidarity with the Ukrainian people. He has also tried to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met twice at the Vatican, but without much success.
Mongolia, on the other hand, has maintained good relations with both China and Russia, despite its history of domination by them. It has pursued a balanced foreign policy that seeks to diversify its economic and political ties with other countries, especially in Asia and Europe. It has also positioned itself as a neutral and peaceful actor in regional affairs, hosting several multilateral meetings and initiatives.
The pope may hope that his visit to Mongolia will help improve the Vatican’s relations with China and Russia, or at least open new channels of communication. He may also seek to enlist Mongolia’s support for his global agenda of promoting human dignity, social justice and environmental protection.
A Cultural Visit for a Diverse Society
The pope’s visit to Mongolia will also be an opportunity to celebrate the cultural diversity and richness of the country, which has a long and proud history of nomadic civilization. The pope will encounter various aspects of Mongolian culture, such as music, art, literature and cuisine. He will also engage in interreligious dialogue with representatives of other faiths, especially Buddhism, which is the dominant religion in Mongolia.
The pope has shown a great interest and respect for other cultures and religions throughout his pontificate. He has visited several countries where Christians are a minority or face persecution. He has also initiated several interfaith events, such as the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 2016 and the Human Fraternity Meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2019.
The pope’s visit to Mongolia will be an occasion to highlight the values of tolerance, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures and religions. It will also be a chance to appreciate the beauty and wisdom of Mongolian culture, which can offer insights and inspiration for addressing some of the challenges facing humanity today.