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Pope's first day in Mongolia as "Pilgrim of Friendship

The Holy Father has begun his visit to Mongolia. Although he arrived on the afternoon of September 1, the time difference meant that the official events began on September 2. A visit to the authorities and a meeting with religious and consecrated priests marked today's agenda.

Maria José Atienza-September 2, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

Pope Francis with the President of Mongolia at a ceremonial ger at the State Palace in Ulaanbaatar ©CNS photo/Lola Gomez

The journey of the Pope in Mongolia began, in an active way, this morning in the "Ikh Mongol" Hall of the Government Palace. There, in front of the authorities of the country, he defined himself as a "pilgrim of friendship, arriving on tiptoe and with a joyful heart, eager to enrich myself humanly with your presence".

The Pope wished to recall, first of all, the ancient relationship between Mongolia and Christianity, which dates back to 1246, when Friar John of Plano Carpini, papal envoy, visited Guyuk, the third Mongol emperor, and presented the Great Khan with the official letter of Pope Innocent IV. That letter, "is preserved in the Vatican Library and today I have the honor to give you an authentic copy, made with the most advanced techniques to ensure the best possible quality. May this be a sign of ancient friendship that grows and renews itself," the Pope stressed.

The figure of the ger, the traditional nomadic, round, Mongolian houses, served the Pope as a line of his speech. First of all, he emphasized their respect for the environment, as well as the unity between tradition and modernity. The Pope also referred to the plurality of peoples that make up Mongolia: "For centuries, the embrace of distant and very different lands highlighted the exceptional capacity of your ancestors to recognize the best of the peoples that made up the immense imperial territory and to place them at the service of common development," the Pope said,

Looking up

"When entering a traditional ger, one's gaze is raised to the center, to the highest part, where there is a window open to heaven. I would like to emphasize this fundamental attitude that your tradition helps us to discover: knowing how to direct our gaze upwards," continued the Pope, who praised the fact that "Mongolia is a symbol of religious freedom".

In this regard, the Pope stressed that religions "when they are inspired by their original spiritual heritage and are not corrupted by sectarian deviations, are to all intents and purposes reliable supports for the construction of healthy and prosperous societies, in which believers spare no effort to ensure that civil coexistence and political projects are always at the service of the common good, also representing a brake on the dangerous decay of corruption". 

The Pope wanted to remember the small Catholic community in Mongolia, which "although small and discreet, participates with enthusiasm and commitment in the growth of the country, spreading the culture of solidarity, the culture of respect for all and the culture of interreligious dialogue, and dedicating itself to the cause of justice, peace and social harmony". 

The Pope's day continued in the afternoon in Mongolia with a particularly significant meeting that Pope Francis held with bishops, priests and consecrated men and women in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.

"Welcome to our ger"

The president of the Bishops' Conference of Central Asia, Msgr. José Luis Mumbiela was in charge of welcoming the Holy Father to a land that "has been waiting for more than two decades for the visit of the Bishop of Rome" as Mumbiela pointed out.

A visit that, as the president of the bishops of the area wanted to emphasize, "is a living and joyful testimony that justifies the hope of so many centuries; it is like a theophany that accompanies and stimulates us in our pilgrimage as a missionary Church. In Asia we know what it means to live by hope. And now we are also convinced that 'hope does not disappoint us.

The Bishop of Almaty also wanted to emphasize that, although most of the missionaries and consecrated people gathered there come from different parts of the world, "no one is a foreigner, because within the Catholic Church, no one is a foreigner. The Church creates fraternity, because the Church is fraternity".

Missionaries, living books of faith

Salvia Mary Vandanakara, M.C., Peter Sanjaajav, a Mongolian priest and Rufina Chamingerel, one of the pastoral agents working there to offer their testimonies to the Pope.

In the first of these, Mother Teresa's Missionary of Charity has detailed to the Pope how her work focuses on "caring for physically and mentally disabled children, caring for the sick and elderly abandoned by their families, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and reaching out to poor and neglected families." Not an easy task in a nation whose poverty rate is around 20%.

"Through all these works of charity, we try to make people realize how precious they are in the eyes of God," said the nun, who recalled how she arrived in the country in 1998, when the Church had just restarted its work there.

"At that time, many children did not have adequate facilities to do their homework, so we organized an after-school program with the help of some Mongolian teachers, and later we were able to admit them to regular schools so that they could complete their studies," recounted the religious, who added with emotion how "among the young people we served, there was also a boy who is now a priest, our dear Fr. Sanjaajav Peter."

This young priest was the next to speak. With visible emotion, Sanjaajav Peter emphasized to the Pope that "God has given me numerous opportunities to grow as a Mongolian in Mongolian soil, and has also chosen me to contribute to the salvation of my people" and recalling the traditional Mongolian way of life, tied to the land, he affirmed, hopeful, how "the fruit of God's love began to grow long ago, is ripening right now, and I am sure that your visit will produce a rich harvest".

Finally, Rufina Chamingerel, a pastoral agent who told the Pope her story of faith that was accentuated in her student days. Rufina felt a responsibility to be a beacon of faith in her country and this led her to study in Rome and return to Mongolia to help the Church grow. "Learning to know Catholicism seemed to me like learning a new language, the Catholic language. I have been studying this language for fourteen years, and I will continue to learn it", she told the Pope, to whom she wanted to emphasize the very important role of the missionaries in Mongolia: "we do not have many catechetical books in our language, but we have many missionaries who are living books".

Pope: "Return to the first glance".

Referring to Psalm 34

"Taste and see how good the Lord is" together with them, he wanted to "savor the taste of faith in this land, remembering stories and faces, lives spent for the Gospel. To spend one's life for the Gospel: this is a beautiful definition of the Christian's missionary vocation, and in particular of the way in which Christians live this vocation here", the Pope emphasized.

The Pontiff wanted to emphasize the personal relationship with the Lord, which is necessary for carrying out the mission and dedication to our brothers and sisters. Without this relationship of personal love, mission is not possible - out of love for the other - because there is no experience of God: "This experience of God's love in Christ is pure light that transfigures the face and makes it in turn resplendent. Brothers and sisters, the Christian life is born of the contemplation of this face, it is a matter of love, of a daily encounter with the Lord in the Word and in the Bread of life, in the face of others, in those in need, where Christ is present".

In this sense, he encouraged the small but active religious community and consecrated men and women who carry out their pastoral work in Mongolia to "taste and see the Lord, to return again and again to that first glance from which everything arose".

The Church has no political agenda

Another point the Pope wanted to stress was the mission of the Church, which governments need not fear because the Church "has no political agenda to advance, but knows only the humble power of God's grace and of a Word of mercy and truth, capable of promoting the good of all.

Although the numbers of the Church in Mongolia are small, the Pope stressed the need for communion. In this sense, he wanted to point out that "the Church is not understood on the basis of a purely functional criterion, according to which the bishop acts as moderator of the various members, perhaps based on the principle of the majority, but by virtue of a spiritual principle, by which Jesus himself becomes present in the person of the bishop to ensure the communion of his Mystical Body".

In this sense, he recalled that the unity of the whole Church and communion with Rome have a clear example in Mongolia, which, despite its small number, has a cardinal at its head: Msgr. Giorgio Marengo.

Finally, the Pope has turned his gaze to Our Lady. It is not a casual glance, Marian devotion has a strong meaning in this trip in which the Pope will bless the image of the Mother of Heaven, a wooden carving that a Mongolian woman found and rescued from a garbage dump before the fall of the communist system and the arrival of the Church.

The Pope referred to this Marian devotion as a sure pillar and emphasized that "our heavenly Mother, who - I was very pleased to discover - wanted to give you a tangible sign of her discreet and prompt presence by allowing an image of herself to be found in a rubbish dump. This beautiful statue of the Immaculate appeared in a waste place. She, without stain, immune to sin, wanted to become close to them to the point of being confused with the refuse of society, so that from the filth of the garbage has emerged the purity of the Holy Mother of God".

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