Pope Francis hosts interreligious gathering as he concludes memorable visit to Mongolia
Pope Francis soared high in three different ways on the penultimate day of his four-day visit to Mongolia. He did so, first of all, by celebrating the first public Mass in the history of this majority Buddhist country of 3.4 million people on Sept. 3. For the tiny Catholic community of some 1,500 faithful, that moved them, for a short time, from the periphery of the Catholic world to its center.
He soared high in a second way by participating in a historic ecumenical and interreligious meeting that morning that brought together, perhaps for the first time ever, representatives of all the religions present in this land of clear blue skies. Pope Francis encouraged these faith leaders “to cultivate hope” by working together for harmony, justice and peace in their homeland and in the wider world.
He soared high finally by setting aside the offense given to him by authorities in Beijing, who had prevented China’s Catholic bishops, priests and faithful from coming to Mongolia for the papal visit. In true Gospel fashion, he turned the other cheek and sent a message of friendship to the Chinese people and to the Catholics in mainland China, a message that has been widely understood as a message to China’s leaders.
Pope Francis: “If the leaders of nations were to choose the path of encounter and dialogue, it would be a decisive contribution to ending the conflicts continuing to afflict so many of the world’s peoples.”
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has constantly looked to the peripheries both in the choice of countries to visit and men to make cardinals. And he has consistently looked to the East where he detects the first signs of a new springtime for the Catholic Church. All three elements came into play in the decision to visit Mongolia.
He gave the red hat to Giorgio Marengo, the Apostolic Prefect of Mongolia, and then came to this country in central Asia where the Catholic Church is living the experience of the early church described in the Acts of the Apostles, as the Argentine Sister Sandra, a Consolata Missionary, told me yesterday when I spoke to her in the city’s cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
At today’s Mass in the Steppe Arena, 10 miles outside Ulaanbaatar, I met another sister, Sister Meryl from Kerala in India, a member of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa who has been working in Mongolia for 17 years. She told me that she believes that through Francis’ visit and his celebration of Mass “God has visited his people.”
“All this is a sign that God is supporting us in our work here,” Sister Meryl said. “We are not alone in this country. God is with us.”
She revealed that she and 12 other Missionaries of Charity who have worked in Mongolia over the past 27 years “among the poorest of the poor” have been praying hard to St. Joseph for the pope to come. She said she was deeply moved and overjoyed when she met Francis in the cathedral yesterday, and he blessed her. She now returns to her work with the poor with renewed hope and trust in God.
Francis’ face reflected the joy he felt in his heart as as he was driven around the stadium; he waved and blessed people and kissed many babies, drawing loud cheers from the crowd.
When Pope Francis arrived at the Steppe Arena in a golf car on Sunday afternoon, the congregation of 2,000 faithful—including not only Catholics from Mongolia but also from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries—erupted with applause and chants of “Viva il Papa.” Francis’ face reflected the joy he felt in his heart as as he was driven around the stadium; he waved and blessed people and kissed many babies, drawing loud cheers from the crowd.
In his homily, at the Mass which he celebrated in English with prayers in Mongolian, Chinese and other languages, he told them, “At the heart of Christianity is an amazing and extraordinary message. 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.”
He said, “This is the truth that Jesus wants us to discover, the truth he wants to reveal to all of you and to this land of Mongolia. You need not be famous, rich or powerful to be happy. No! Only love satisfies our hearts’ thirst, only love heals our wounds, only love brings us true joy. This is the way that Jesus taught us; this is the path that he opened up before us.”
At the end of the celebration, he thanked all those who had made it possible and then, departing from his script, he called to his side two Chinese bishops from Hong Kong who had concelebrated with him: Cardinal John Tong Hon, the emeritus bishop of that diocese, and Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow, S.J., the current bishop of the diocese.
As he held up their hands, he said: “I would like to take this opportunity, in the presence of these two brother bishops, to send a heartfelt greeting to the noble Chinese people. I send my good wishes to them all: always move forward, always advance! And to Chinese Catholics: I ask you to be good Christians and good citizens. To all of you, thank you!”
Pope Francis: “You need not be famous, rich or powerful to be happy. No! Only love satisfies our hearts’ thirst, only love heals our wounds, only love brings us true joy.”
Francis did not mention Chinese authorities in his greeting, but observers and Chinese who were present and with whom I have spoken understood this message as being addressed to the authorities in Beijing. He is appealing to their better spirits, they told me, and reminding them that Chinese Catholics are called to be both good Christians and good citizens and therefore China’s rulers have nothing to fear from them.
On the return flight to Rome on Monday, Sept. 4, the pope will also send a telegram of good wishes to President Xi Jinping when he flies through China’s airspace. The ball will then be in China’s court.
Besides these greetings to the Chinese people and Chinese Catholics, Pope Francis also thanked many other people, including Cardinal Marengo, who had been at his side throughout this visit.
Thanking the cardinal, he said, “You mentioned that in these days you could feel how dear the people of God in Mongolia are to my heart. That is true: I embarked on this pilgrimage with great anticipation, with the desire to meet all of you and to get to know you.
“Now I thank God for you, since, through you, he loves to use what is little to achieve great things. Thank you, because you are good Christians and honest citizens. Go forward, gently and without fear, conscious of the closeness and the encouragement of the entire church, and above all the tender gaze of the Lord, who forgets no one and looks with love upon each of his children.”
The pope’s remarks were greeted with cheers, applause and chants. As Francis left the arena, the joy in his heart was evident for all to see.
Earlier that day, Francis was driven into the hill country to a ski-resort in the mountains, 10 miles from the capital city, where in the Hun Theatre, that is formed in the shape of a ger—the traditional nomadic tent dwelling of Mongolia, he joined 10 representatives of all the religions in Mongolia starting with Buddhism (which more than 50 percent of the population belong to), and extending to Islam, Shamanism, Judaism and the various Christian denominations, including the Russian Orthodox Church.
Each representative of the other religions spoke for five minutes, but Francis was granted 15 minutes. He began by presenting himself to the 200 persons present 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.”
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has constantly looked to the peripheries both in the choice of countries to visit and men to make cardinals.
He said the fact that they were all meeting together in one place “shows that the religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole.” And he remarked: “If the leaders of nations were to choose the path of encounter and dialogue with others, it would be a decisive contribution to ending the conflicts continuing to afflict so many of the world’s peoples.”
Francis told the other religious leaders: “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. Every human individual, and even more every religion, must be measured by the standard of altruism. Not altruism in the abstract, but in the concrete: an altruism that translates into concern for others and generous cooperation with them.”
He said this “altruism builds harmony and wherever there is harmony, we find understanding, prosperity and beauty.” He emphasized that “the religions are called to offer the world this harmony, which technological progress alone cannot bestow, since, in its concern with the earthly, horizontal dimension of humanity, it risks forgetting heaven, for which we were made.”
He told them, “We share a great responsibility, especially in this period of history, for we are called to testify to the teachings we profess by the way we act; we must not contradict them and thus become a cause of scandal. There can be no mixing, then, of religious beliefs and violence, of holiness and oppression, of religious traditions and sectarianism.”
Pope Francis told the religious leaders sitting on either side of him: “Our coming together here today is a sign that hope is possible. In a world rent by conflict and discord, this may seem utopian, yet the greatest undertakings are hidden and almost imperceptible at the outset.”
He quoted the Buddha, who said, “the fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind, the fragrance of those who live according to virtue spreads in all directions.”
He concluded with these words: “Let us make this conviction flourish, so that our common efforts to promote dialogue and the building of a better world will not be in vain. Let us cultivate hope.” He reinforced his call with the words of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher: “Everyone was great in proportion to the object of his hope. One was great by hoping for the possible; another by hoping for the eternal; but he who hoped for the impossible was the greatest of all.”
He then shook hands with each of the religious leaders and stood with them for a photo before returning to Mongolia’s capital to rest before celebrating Mass in the Steppe Arena.
Pope Francis ends his inspiring visit to Mongolia on Sept. 4. Before driving to the airport to take the plane to Rome, he will open a House of Mercy in the Mongolian capital that will provide assistance to the poor and needy in the years ahead. On the nearly 12-hour flight to Rome, he will hold a press conference and America will report on his comments then on Monday evening.