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Papal visit to Mongolia: Supporting Catholic communities on the margins

Maria Montemayor

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Photo by Lara Jameson on Pexels
As a minority Catholic country, the pope is relatively unknown in Mongolia. Over fifty percent of the people practice Buddhism, while there are less than 1,500 practising Catholics in the country. During a media roundtable, Salesian Father Jaroslav Vracovský, a pastor in Mongolia, said that locals were “shocked” when they found out that the pope would be visiting. Why would the pope visit a country with so few Catholics? And what is the purpose of his visit?       
Mongolia is landlocked between Russia and China and both countries are of interest to the Vatican. When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2022, Pope Francis called for peace. Last year, Pope Francis visited Kazakhstan, which also borders Russia and China, for the 7th Congress of World and Traditional Religions and begged for an end to the war in Ukraine. He even sent an envoy in June 2023 to Moscow as part of a peace mission. In China, there have been long-standing tensions surrounding the appointment of bishops. The latest point of contention was Beijing’s unilateral appointment of Bishop Shen Bin to Shanghai. 
Since Mongolia has a cordial relationship with its neighbours, the pope’s visit could provide an opening for improved dialogue between the Vatican and Russia and China. Many Chinese Catholics may also go to Mongolia to see the pope.  
Pope Francis was invited to Mongolia during last year’s consistory when he made Cardinal Giorgio Marengo the current youngest cardinal in the world. The Holy Father will be the first pontiff to visit Mongolia, but this will not be his first visit to a country with few Catholics. Back in 2016, he visited Azerbaijan, a country with less than 800 Catholics. He also visited Bulgaria and North Macedonia in 2019 and Iraq in 2021, countries with tiny Catholic populations. 
Christianity is often considered to be a foreign religion in Mongolia, yet there are those with a positive regard for the Church due its charitable work. The Catholic community in Mongolia offers social services, like education, and there are activities before Mass for children and adults to participate in and a food program after Mass. Since parishes offer soup after Mass, even those who are not baptized visit and appreciate the food and activities. Unfortunately, there is no seminary in the country, and there is a shortage of priests.  
The Holy Father’s willingness to travel to countries with small Catholic communities like Mongolia promotes the universality of the Church by providing encouragement to those communities and to marginalized or persecuted Christians in other parts of the world. Even though his flock in Mongolia is small, Pope Francis’ visit expresses his care for Catholics, no matter where they are or how few there are. 
The pope’s presence in minority Catholic countries can also sow the seeds of evangelization. People in Mongolia are curious about who the pope is and their curiosity could lead to them learning more about the Catholic Church. They may even attend the Mass at Steppe Arena just to see him. Missionaries and other Catholics in the country also have the opportunity to spread the faith and inform others about the significance of the pope’s visit. Given Mongolia’s nomadic culture that is welcoming and hospitable, Pope Francis will no doubt be warmly received by locals, and perhaps his greetings and faith-filled messages will be accepted as well.  

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