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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 02, 2023
People hold pictures of Pope Francis with the national flags of the People's Republic of China and of the Vatican as they wait for Mongolian President Ukhnaagin Khurelsukh, and Pope Francis to meet, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in front of a gigantic statue of former Khagan of the Mongol Empire Genghis Khan in Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)People hold pictures of Pope Francis with the national flags of the People's Republic of China and of the Vatican as they wait for Mongolian President Ukhnaagin Khurelsukh, and Pope Francis to meet, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in front of a gigantic statue of former Khagan of the Mongol Empire Genghis Khan in Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Sept. 2 will go down in history as a day to remember not only in the centuries-old relationship between the Holy See and Mongolia but also in the history of the tiny Catholic community in this majority Buddhist country. It was a day when Pope Francis, arriving as “a pilgrim of friendship,” brought “hope” not only to the nation’s more than 1,400 Catholics but also to many others in this country of 3.4 million people.

Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh honored the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics with a magnificent, colorful and warm state welcome in Sukhbaatar Square, the place where Mongolia’s revolutionary hero, Damdin Sukhbaatar, declared independence from China in 1921. The official state welcome unfolded with the playing of the Mongolian and the Holy See’s national anthems and the parade of a military guard of honor that included a unit of Mongolian soldiers mounted on horses wearing ancient armor.

Among the hundreds of onlookers from several countries at the back of the square were many Catholics from mainland China; more than 100, an informed Chinese source (who cannot be named for security reasons) told me. They were present in defiance of an order from the authorities in Beijing prohibiting not only the bishops of mainland China but also the country’s Catholics from traveling to Mongolia to participate in events linked to the first ever visit of the Successor of St. Peter and leader of the Catholic church to this land.

Among onlookers from several countries were many Catholics from mainland China, present in defiance of an order from the authorities in Beijing prohibiting China’s country’s Catholics from traveling to Mongolia.

Most of the Chinese Catholics present wore medical face masks and many also wore sun-glasses and scarves, apparently in an effort to prevent from being identified. But several of the Chinese present at the ceremony displayed small red national flags of the People's Republic China and rosaries. Some turned their backs and covered their heads when reporters with cameras or TV crews sought to capture their images.

Most refused to talk to the press, but one who agreed to speak with me said, “We have come to show our love for the pope.” He said the Chinese Catholics at the event know Pope Francis wants to go to China, but since he cannot come to them, he said, these Chinese Catholics decided to come to him. Several others, listening to our conversation, nodded their heads in assent.

Mongolian police allowed journalists to approach the Chinese audience members, but after about an hour became nervous and prohibited further contact. Some interpreted this restriction as a result of sensitivity to China, Mongolia’s main trading partner and foreign investor.

When I described the scene and conversation to a senior Asian church leader, he said, “Please ask the journalists to respect their privacy. They are courageous!”

The Chinese Catholics, and other onlookers from Mongolia as well as from the Philippines and Vietnam, watched as the welcome ceremony unfolded. It ended with Pope Francis and President Khurelsukh standing together before an enormous statue of Genghis Khan in front of the state palace. Onlookers cheered and shouted, “Viva il Papa.”

Chinese Catholics at the event know Pope Francis wants to go to China, but since he cannot come to them, these Chinese Catholics decided to come to him.

Mr. Khurelsukh then accompanied Pope Francis to the Ikh Mongol Hall of the state palace where both leaders addressed a gathering of some 700 representatives of the country’s civil and religious authorities and its diplomatic corps. Both recalled the nearly eight century relationship between Mongolia and the Catholic Church and looked to the development of future relations.

The president, dressed in traditional fashion, highlighted “the historical prominence” of the pope’s visit, noting that it comes on the 860th anniversary of the birth of Genghis Khan and the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the Holy See. He recalled how under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors in the Mongol Empire established the “Pax Mongolica” by uniting all the Mongol tribes and “ending century long wars and conflicts in the East and West,” enabling the “coexistence of various civilizations.”

Following those footsteps, he said, Mongolia today “is pursuing a peace-loving, open, independent and multi-pillared foreign policy” and “working towards strengthening global and regional peace and security” also by “actively engaging with our two eternal neighbors”—Russia and China—and with third countries. Moreover, he said, Mongolia is also following the ancestral tradition “to respect spiritual freedom and pluralism.”

Mr. Khurelsukh said that “Pope Francis’ words, position and policies on world climate change, food scarcity, food security and supply” are “entirely in line” with Mongolia’s own policies. He said Mongolia “stands ready” to cooperate with the Holy See “in all areas to protect the environment, food and security” and in other areas, too, including humanitarian deeds, culture, science, education, history and the arts. He concluded by wishing Pope Francis “good health, happiness and well-being.”

Pope Francis praised Mongolia’s respect “of the delicate balances of the ecosystem” and its “precious marriage of tradition and modernity.” He said it has “preserved its roots while opening, especially in recent decades, to the great challenges of development and democracy.”

Pope Francis praised Mongolia’s respect “of the delicate balances of the ecosystem” and its “precious marriage of tradition and modernity.”

The pope applauded the country for its “broad network of diplomatic relations and active membership of the United Nations” and its efforts “to promote human rights and peace…to halt nuclear proliferation,” for eliminating the death penalty from its constitution and for playing an important role in Asia and in the international field.

He hailed Mongolia for being “a democratic nation that pursues a peaceful foreign policy, but also proposes to play an important role on behalf of world peace” and for being “a symbol of religious freedom” and for enshrining “freedom of thought and of religion” in its constitution. He said that “having left behind, without bloodshed, the atheist ideology that thought it could eliminate religion, deeming it a hindrance to development, you have come to acknowledge and respect the fundamental importance of harmonious cooperation between believers of different faiths, each of whom, from his or her own particular point of view, contributes to the moral and spiritual advancement of peoples.”

Pope Francis said that the Mongolian Catholic community “is happy to continue making its proper contribution” in this whole field and expressed a hope for the stipulation of a bilateral agreement between Mongolia and the Holy See that will enable the Catholic community to continue that contribution.

Pope Francis asked Mongolians to join him in praying and working together “to build a future of peace.” At the same time, he warned them against “the insidious threat of corruption,” which is a significant problem in this land.

The audience listened to the pope in silence and with great respect and applauded warmly in appreciation when he concluded his address. The cheering and chanting of “Viva il Papa” that was heard in the square in the morning resounded yet again in the afternoon when Pope Francis, the first pope ever to visit this land, entered the cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been built in 1996 in the shape of the ger—the traditional tent home of the nomadic Mongolian people.

The official state welcome unfolded with the playing of national anthems and a parade of a military honor guard that included Mongolian soldiers mounted on horses wearing ancient armor.

This time the cheering and chanting came not from Chinese visitors and other onlookers, but from the Catholic priests and nuns—most of them missionaries from many lands who have helped the Catholic community to be reborn in this land. Referring to the rebirth of the church in Mongolia, an Argentine sister, Sandra Garay of the Consolata Missionaries, told me before the pope arrived that in her 19 years in Mongolia. “we are living in the time of the Acts of the Apostles.”

She welcomed the pope’s visit as “a blessing, a grace” and was delighted when, at the end of his visit, he not only greeted individually all the bishops from Asia who were present but also each one of the missionary sisters and priests, as well as the lay workers, before posing for a photo outside the church with the Mongolian Catholic laity who were present.

After listening to testimonies from three members of the Catholic community here, Pope Francis praised these missionaries and pastoral workers for their service “to the Gospel and to others” and recalled by name some of those who had “spent their lives for the Gospel,” helping revive the church over the past three decades.

As in his speech to the authorities, he emphasized how the Catholic Church is not something foreign or new in this land, that it has ancient roots. He encouraged their way of evangelizing through “a wide variety of charitable initiatives” and said they will gain the strength to continue doing this by deepening their spiritual life through seeking Jesus in prayer, in the scriptures and in Eucharist Adoration. He urged them to live simple and frugal lives, be morally upright and always stay close to the people, to “be a voice of solidarity to all who are poor and needy” and “not to remain silent in the face of injustice,” but always “work quietly to promote the dignity of every human being.”

He entrusted them to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who, he said, “wished to give you a tangible sign of her gentle and caring presence by allowing a likeness of herself to be found in a rubbish dump.” He was referring to an image of Mary found in a zone where there were no Christians some 15 years ago.

Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, the youngest cardinal in the church and Apostolic Prefect of Mongolia, had the statue brought to the cathedral for the event. The woman who discovered it, though not a Christian, had preserved it in a place of honor in her home. This evening she presented it to the pope as the choir sang the Salve Regina in a deeply moving moment of devotion.

Although he must have been tired at the end of the day—as his entourage and the journalists traveling with him admitted to being—Pope Francis nevertheless had a broad smile on his face as he bade farewell to the Mongolian Catholics before being driven to the Apostolic Prefecture where he is staying. That smile appeared to reflect his awareness that the two main meetings of the day—with the authorities and with the Catholic bishops, priest and missionary sisters, and pastoral workers—had gone really well.

He had come to encourage the hope of people in this land—indeed the motto for his visit was “Strengthening Hope”—and from the response of both audiences, he appears to have succeeded. Tomorrow morning, Sunday Sept. 3, he will participate in an important ecumenical and interreligious meeting, including with representatives of the Buddhists, the majority religion of the Mongolians, and representatives of the other religions in this land, including Islam and Hinduism, as well as the other Christian denominations. Later, in the afternoon, he will celebrate Mass in Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena for the small Catholic community of Mongolia, and those who have come from other lands, including the Philippines, Vietnam and China.

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