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Traditional banquet welcomes Pope to Mongolia

children greeting Pope Francis upon his arrival at the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar

Photo by Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP

Camille Dalmas - published on 09/02/23

Francis landed in Ulan Bator on Friday, September 1. To celebrate the first pope to set foot on Mongolian soil, his hosts gave him a historic welcome.

“Pope Francis has just landed in Mongolia. The Roman pontiff is visiting Mongolia for the first time in our history. Let’s welcome him with our nomadic hospitality, and enjoy this precious moment together.” This was the message sent to many cell phones by the government on September 1, the day the Argentine Pope arrived at Genghis Khan airport. 

And in the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of a country that doesn’t even have 2,000 Catholics, Francis was greeted with glee by numerous small groups of citizens — a first glimpse of the sacredness of hospitality in Mongolia. In this land of nomads, where winter is brutal, hospitality is of great cultural importance and welcoming strangers can be a lifesaving tradition.

After taking his first steps on Mongolian soil, the Pope was taken to the Apostolic Prefecture, where he will stay until Monday. The 86-year-old Pontiff was due to rest after his long nine-and-a-half-hour flight before attending the official meetings scheduled for Saturday. 

A traditional Nadaam banquet

Therefore, on the afternoon of September 1, as agreed, he did not attend a surprising manifestation of the great sense of hospitality that the Mongolian people revere: a traditional banquet in his honor. The event was organized by the government at a Mongolian cultural center located some 25 miles east of Ulaanbaatar. It took place on the banks of a meandering river, in a tranquil green valley where a few yaks and wooly camels grazed peacefully.

For several hours, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, representing the Pope, witnessed a breathtaking series of demonstrations of Mongolian wrestling, archery, and frenetic horse races that seemed to lose themselves in the horizon, all interspersed with guttural or piercing musical pieces and fascinating multicolored choreography.

Disappearing behind a mountain of “sole cakes” (ul boov), pieces of dry yogurt, and fruit that his hosts had laid out on a table in front of him, Cardinal Parolin was the guest of honor at much more than a simple banquet with live entertainment. This skillful combination of dance, sports, and music was a Nadaam, the greatest Mongolian national festival, created by Genghis Khan.

This celebration, which also commemorates the country’s independence, is normally held on July 11 and 12. So, even though the Pope didn’t attend, the Mongolian government decided to organize an extra national holiday just to mark his historic visit.

MongoliaPope Francis
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