The Holy Father's visit to the East Asian country fulfills the dream of the tiny local Catholic population in a majority Buddhist nation.
“Accepting the invitation of the President of Mongolia and the country’s ecclesiastical authorities, Pope Francis will make an apostolic journey to Mongolia from August 31 to September 4 this year,” announced Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni this week.
This will be the Argentine Pontiff’s 43rd apostolic journey and the first trip by a pope to the country. In 2022, it celebrated only the 30th anniversary of the Catholic presence there.
The country with the youngest cardinal
On August 27, 2022, Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, became the youngest member of the Sacred College, being elevated to the purple at just 48 years of age. The Consolata missionary was sent to Mongolia shortly after his ordination to the priesthood in 2001 and became a bishop in 2020.
At the time, he told I.Media that he hoped Pope Francis would one day visit Mongolia. “We’re dreaming about it and we’re waiting with great anticipation for him, when he wants to do it,” he said.
The young Italian cardinal leads a small Catholic community of around 1,400 baptized souls in a country of Buddhist culture. Mongolia has around three million inhabitants in an area of more than 600,000 square miles, more than twice the size of Texas.
Catholicism in Mongolia
Marengo explained in 2022 that his cardinalate shone a light on “an experience marked by the fact of being a minority, but in a society that has developed a great capacity for dialogue.” Cardinal Marengo had been received a few days earlier by the Pope with an interreligious delegation. He emphasized that “Mongolia is a country which, throughout its history, has known how to promote peace and harmony between populations of different origins.”
Nestorian Christianity had spread throughout Central Asia in the first millennium, but eventually went extinct. It was only in 1992, at the start of the country’s democratic opening, that the first Catholic missionaries arrived in a religious context dominated by Tibetan Buddhism.
The emergence of this Church was of great interest to John Paul II. He wanted to visit the country for the consecration of Ulaanbaatar Cathedral in 2003. Unfortunately, the Polish Pontiff’s state of health prevented him from making the trip.
A country where Russia and China meet
This trip by Pope Francis is also part of a wider geopolitical context. It follows his September 2022 visit to Kazakhstan, as well as his numerous visits to other countries close to China (South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Burma, Thailand…).
Mongolia is a buffer country between Russia and China. It is also one of the few countries in the world to maintain regular relations with both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. Indeed, the Republic of China recognized Mongolia’s independence in 1945 during Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. Mao — who came to power in Beijing in 1949 — did not call this achievement into question.
Mongolia could therefore provide an opportunity for contact on the Taiwan issue and inter-Korean tensions. In 2022, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh reissued an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to pay an official visit to Ulaanbaatar, after welcoming the South Korean Foreign Minister.
Growing international interest
In a sign of growing international interest in this once isolated country, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Mongolia on May 21. His stopover in Ulaanbaatar, on the way back from the G7 summit in Japan, was the first visit by a French president to this Central Asian country.
This 43rd apostolic journey of Pope Francis will take place just over three weeks after his return from WYD in Lisbon. That latter occasion will be his second apostolic trip to Portugal, six years after his 2017 visit dedicated to the centenary of the Fatima apparitions.
Mongolia will be the seventh country to receive the first papal visit under the current pontificate, following Myanmar in 2017, the United Arab Emirates and North Macedonia in 2019, Iraq in 2021, Bahrain in 2022, and South Sudan in 2023.
The program and further details will be announced in the coming weeks.