Almost one year after his visit to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis is heading to a nearby neighbor. In response to the invitation of the Mongolian government, which is seeking to present their country as an international hub between Europe and Asia, the pope will be in Ulaanbaatar from August 31 to September 4.
Despite the distance and his declining health, Pope Francis is giving priority to Mongolia. There are three main reasons behind his trip.
The most commented-upon explanation is the geopolitical one. With the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine and the intricate dynamics of the Sino-Vatican dialogue, Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia, located between Russia and China, has undeniable strategic overtones. While acknowledging the limited avenues for the Vatican’s influence, Francis remains unwavering in his commitment to dialogue.
Yet there is no evidence that the papal visit to nearby Mongolia will have an influence on Russia or China, which have both repeatedly refused the outstretched hand of the pope. Last year, during simultaneous visits to Kazakhstan, Chinese leader Xi Jinping declined an audience with the head of the Catholic Church.
Walking With Mongolians
The second reason for this papal trip is the Mongolian people themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia fervently reclaimed its autonomy, resuscitating its economy and governance. Yet three decades later, the mining boom has receded, confidence in democratic ideals has eroded and corruption has gained a foothold. In a milieu where neighboring influences loom large, authoritarian tendencies could resurface.
In harmony with his approach in Kazakhstan, Pope Francis wants to deliver an impactful discourse to Mongolian officials and leaders. His addresses transcend partisanship, delving into the ethical underpinnings of civic virtues, fostering inclusive social policies, advocating for the separation of powers, and endorsing anti-corruption initiatives.
Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Mongolia also encompasses a pastoral mission – to bolster and console the local Catholic community. In a country that presents itself as a Buddhist nation, although most people are not affiliated with Buddhist temples nor practice any religion, the tiny Catholic community – fewer than 1,500 churchgoers – is not always at ease.
Three decades ago, as Mongolia embarked on its independent journey, it sought not just recognition from the Vatican but also assistance in addressing social needs. The Holy See responded by dispatching missionaries from diverse corners of the globe – Belgium, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Korea, and the Philippines – dedicated to non-proselytizing developmental endeavors.
One notable initiative supported by the Church entailed an agricultural program introducing innovative greenhouses into private homes, thus diversifying diets and augmenting incomes. Beyond the technological dimension, the effort encompassed reimagining culinary practices and eating habits, countering health issues linked to imbalanced nutrition.
In search of new opportunities, half of Mongolia’s population has migrated from ancestral homes to burgeoning urban centers. There, alcoholism and domestic violence became ubiquitous. Stepping into this complex social reality, Catholics opened a few kindergartens and launched support programs for women. Later, missionaries also took part in a transnational program designed to support Mongolian migrants who desire to come back to their homeland.
These programs were largely sponsored by the European Union, as well as by Europe-based Catholic organizations, while most beneficiaries were not Christian themselves. Nonetheless, Catholic organizations played a crucial role in translating foreign aid into local actions while keeping discriminatory mechanisms and corruption at bay.
Yet, 30 years later, vestiges of anti-religious feelings of the Soviet Era endure within administrative circles. Despite the commitment of Catholic organizations to social services, missionaries receive short-term visas only. Missionaries – some of whom have worked in Mongolia for 20 years, learned the language, and faced its winters – have to go abroad every three months without knowing whether they will be allowed to come back. Additionally, the government requests that for every single missionary visa, Catholic structures pay significant fees and employ a number of local citizens.
This ambivalent attitude of the administration toward Catholics is one of the key domestic issues that the Vatican hopes to discuss with the government. After decades of faithful support to the Mongolian people, the Church hopes for fairer treatment.
Caring for ‘Our Common Home’
Finally, the third reason for this papal trip to Mongolia relates to the core priority of Pope Francis. Since his accession to the throne of Saint Peter, Francis has constantly drawn attention to the cry of the Earth and to the cry of the poor. And according to him, the two are deeply related.
This nexus is a primary concern of his pontificate, which he translates into papal visits to marginalized people, apostolic documents like Laudato Si, and Church mobilization such as the Pan-Amazon Synod.
In this conversation, Mongolia has a lot to offer. This nation shares a long history with the Catholic Church, a journey marked by political collapse and biological catastrophes, which give them a unique authority to advocate on behalf of the poor and the earth.
Christianity has been present in Central Asia since the 7th century. In the 13th century, the Holy See established formal diplomatic relations with the transcontinental empire of the Mongols. Yet trials such as the Black Death and the spread of communism reshaped their trajectories. Both the Catholic Church and the Mongolian nation emerged resilient, demonstrating that ecological and political catastrophes need not be a definitive endpoint.
Today, Mongolia is not a poor country. No country is poor by nature; poverty results from social mechanisms that need to be addressed. Mongolia has gigantic mineral resources that have been overexploited by Russian, Chinese, and Australian conglomerates. After decades of abuse, the country is facing an environmental crisis that may impact entire ecosystems of Europe and Asia.
As Mongolians like to recall, their ancestral land is the second lung of the planet. While the Amazon rainforest is crucial to absorb the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, Central Asia filters the water that irrigates the rest of Asia. Mongolia specifically occupies six different ecological zones, which stand at the nexus of Europe and Asian life flows.
After a summer that saw extreme weather events generating massive destruction and migration, Pope Francis is not only drafting a second part of Laudato Si, a document advocating for the care of our common home, but visiting Mongolia. At the crossroad of Euro-Asian ecosystems, Pope Francis, who himself lost one part of his lung when he was young, hopes to find allies against environmental degradation and global warming.
There is good reason for Pope Francis to visit Mongolia. Because of its geographical location and its unique history, Mongolia can play a more central role in the geopolitical and environmental challenges of our era. The second lung of our planet needs to be healthy and strong to vivify international conversations on global warming, national sovereignty, and globalized economy. Simultaneously, the Holy See hopes that Mongolian authorities can adjust their approach toward Catholic institutions and personnel in order to foster future collaborations.