The Pope is visiting predominantly Buddhist Mongolia from 31 August–4 September. Five days might seem like a serious commitment to a country that has only 1.3 per cent of its population self-describing as Christian (USCCB), and a miniscule 1,500 Catholics. But the commitment is well-deserved.
This is the first visit in Roman Catholic history by a pontiff to the landlocked country, which has been at the epicenter of Eurasian history since at least the Xiongnu. The very first cardinal based in Mongolia, Italian Bishop Giorgio Marengo, was named apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar just last year—although he has been based in Mongolia since 2003. Being the youngest among the College of Cardinals, his relative youth at 49 seems symbolic of the fact that the Holy See is on largely uncharted territory on the steppes, far from the familiar Catholic territories of the Global South or Europe.
Pope Francis, accordingly, deployed an almost coy language in describing his intentions on landing at Chinggis Khaan International Airport on 31 August. He has called Mongolian Catholics “small in numbers but lively in faith and great in charity.” He has praised them as “noble” and “wise,” indicating that he is approaching them with respect. Mindful of being in the minority, and the fact that Mongolians themselves are sandwiched between the large countries of China and Russia, the Pope has addressed Mongolians as “brothers and sisters,” adding that “I am happy to travel to be among you as a brother of all.” (ABC News) He therefore comes in a spirit of humility and openness to learn.
The visit’s significance has not been lost on former Mongolian president Nambaryn Enkhbayar, himself a Buddhist. In comments to the National Catholic Register, he said:
Pope Francis told the Mongolian delegation, which brought him the official invitation of Mr. U. Khurelsukh, the incumbent president of Mongolia, to visit Mongolia, that he would go to Mongolia not on the way to or on the way back from another country, but as a destination of its own importance. . . . Pope Francis is well-known for his special attention to the lives of the peoples of small countries.(National Catholic Register)
When Mongolia was an imperium in the Middle Ages, there would have probably been less-than-peaceful contact between Catholic knights and the shock troops of Subutai (1175–1248) during the Mongol invasions of Europe from the 1220s until the 1240s, particularly when Subutai hit Central Europe. Enkhbayar highlighted several exchanges between Catholics and Mongols, including a visit by Pope Innocent III’s envoy, John of Plano Carpini’s (1180–1252) visit to Kharakhorum to make contact with Genghis Khan’s grandson, then the ruler of the Mongol Empire. (National Catholic Register) There was also the famous journey by Marco Polo (1254–1324) to the court of Kublai Khan (1215–94), which perhaps represented the most well-known encounter between a khan holding court with a European Catholic emissary.
Fast forward to the modern period, and it could be safely said that there was very little contact between the Catholic Church and Mongolia, the latter of which had been reduced to a protectorate of the Qing Empire (1644–1911) until its nominal emergence as a socialist republic in the 1920s.
Perhaps the greatest commonality that the Pope, and the Catholic Church as a whole, shares with Mongolian devotees is a shared love of freedom of religious practice and a suspicion of totalitarian ideologies that have no love for faith traditions. For the Vatican, it was the shadow of Mussolini and fascism in Europe, and then Soviet Communism under John Paul II. On a personal level, Pope Francis has indicated at various points in his career, including very recently in March, his disdain for the far-right in his home country of Argentina: “The extreme right always reconstructs itself, it is the triumph of selfishness over communitarianism,” he observed in polite but pointed response to a question concerning the potential election of hard right provocateur Javier Milei. (The Guardian)
For Mongolian Catholics and other believers, it was the trauma of suffering a prolonged period of Communist persecutions that lasted until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the introduction of democracy in 1991. Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Mongolia were established a year later. Furthermore, Mongolia is economically and diplomatically entwined with nominally atheist China, but the sharpening of Sino-American enmity under the Trump and Biden administrations cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the Holy See’s own relationship with China has been strained in recent years, largely over disagreements between who can appoint bishops. There have been apparent violations by China of an agreement that outlines this procedure. (Catholic News Agency)
It is certainly true that this visit by the Pope will be “strategic.” But just how far will anything “strategic” be accomplished, especially since things are far from clear-cut? Take, for example, Ukraine and the Pope’s wish to end the war there. For years, the Pope has been working hard to build ecumenical relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. This culminated in 2016’s Havana Declaration, or the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. The latter, for the most part, has been supportive of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s 2022 decision to invade Ukraine. As the Catholic News Agency has observed, perhaps Mongolia might be uniquely placed to be an arbiter of negotiations as the only “Eurasian democracy.”
For all the talk of the unresolved issues between Mongolia and China, relations have remained fairly stable, with The Diplomat noting that China is not only Mongolia’s highest export destination and trade partner, but that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has built, since 2012, “stable, progressive economic relations with Mongolia’s three different presidential administrations and even more prime ministers.” (The Diplomat) Meanwhile, while Pope Francis might not enjoy watching the Holy See being bypassed by China, he has continued to favor engagement over condemnation, mindful that the CPC’s mindset, especially at present, is that religion should work in tandem with the government rather than destabilize it.
The Catholic News Agency has advocated that Pope Francis, in his first speech to Mongolian leaders and diplomatic corps—as well as Chinese, Russian, and North Korean representatives—at the State Palace on 1 September, could send a message to Moscow and Beijing. Presumably, the message is that democracy, and therefore freedom of religion, should be preserved. But China, true to its stated foreign policy, has respected Mongolia’s politics through an approach of non-interference, just as it has respected the politics of non-democratic states.
The papacy of Francis is not exactly a repeat of John Paul II against the faithless Soviet juggernaut. And as shown above, the Vatican’s relationship with China and Russia cannot be framed as being unambiguously on one side or the other. It would be more productive to keep a closer eye on Pope Francis’ relationship with Cardinal Marengo, which could drastically shape the Catholic approach to Mongolia. Cardinal Marengo’s own steps should also be observed as the Vatican moves to build a ground-up relationship with the “Eurasian democracy.”
Vajrayana Buddhism has long been the dominant faith tradition of the land of Tengri, even though its institutions suffered just as much as Christian ones until 1991. It is quite possible to imagine an interfaith-ecumenical dialogue blossoming between the Buddhist leadership in Ulaanbaatar, Orthodox patriarch Kirill, and the Vatican. Could this be a springboard to further negotiations with Ukraine to end the conflict, which the Pope has decried as senseless? Careful negotiations, relationship-building, and mutual understanding of complex and interlocking concerns will be critical to any strategic benefits from Pope Francis’ trip.
Every pontiff of Rome’s tenure is shadowed by politics. This is not necessarily a bad thing—every Vicar of Christ is a human being that grew up in a socio-political-cultural context. The contrast between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI was fascinating to the media and the public precisely because their backgrounds were so different, with Pope Benedict XVI hailing from the deep wells of traditionalism represented by Bavaria’s ancient castles and forests. Furthermore, it would be dishonest to pretend that the Vatican, a sovereign state with a UN seat, has no political interests, or, even ignoring that, that Catholics do not have political views or convictions that they hope their leaders will support and defend.
But for the Church that has stood in Rome for over a millennium and a half, it is faith and the interests of Catholics, not the modern secular expression of democracy (as conducive as democracy might be to Catholic freedom), that it prioritizes above all. Rome might always find itself mired in politics, just as it was in the days of Constantine the Great, but it is unlike a political institution just as the Kingdom of God is unlike a nation state.
The Church has also always seen its mission as one that stretches for centuries or at least decades, rather than a single presidential cycle or administration. This means, from its perspective, patiently discerning the Holy Spirit’s movements in the politics of fallen humanity. Careful discernment in a general sense will be what Francis needs to do in this first papal visit to Mongolia, and that above all means listening—to all parties.
Vatican publishes schedule for papal trip to Mongolia (USCCB)
Pope Francis says he’ll meet with Mongolia’s ‘noble, wise’ people in first visit there by a pontiff (ABC News)
Former Mongolian President: Pope Francis’ August Visit Will Be ‘Testimony to His Vision’ for World Peace (National Catholic Register)
The ‘false prophet’ v the pope: Argentina faces clash of ideologies in election (The Guardian)
Pope Francis arrives in Mongolia (Vatican News)
What Does Xi Jinping’s Third Term Mean for China-Mongolia Relations? (The Diplomat)
What Pope Francis’ trip to Mongolia could mean for Vatican relations with Russia and China (Catholic News Agency)