Mongolia is ready to embrace a Pope for the first time in its history, and “expectations are high”. In an interview with Vatican Media, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, thus described the enthusiasm with which the small Catholic community of the Asian country has been preparing to welcome the Holy Father.
In his 43rd Apostolic Journey, Pope Francis is in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, from 1 to 4 September, in a nation that borders Russia and China and is five times the size of Italy with a population of around 3.3 million inhabitants. Central to understanding the trip is the motto: “Hoping Together”, because, as Cardinal Parolin explains, there is such a great need for hope, “a hope that is not an empty expectation, but that is based, at least for us Christians, on faith, that is, on the presence of God in our history, and that, at the same time, is transformed into personal and collective commitment”.
Your Eminence, what are the Holy Father’s expectations?
This trip to the heart of Asia responds to the invitation of the country’s authorities and the Catholic community. Expectations are certainly high, both on the part of the Holy Father and of Mongolia, which is seeing a Successor of Peter in its land for the first time. The Pope’s desire is to meet this community, a community small in number, but young, lively, and fascinating because of its peculiar history and composition. Moreover, the interreligious dimension will be very significant, in a country that has a great Buddhist tradition.
The Pope will confirm some 1,500 Catholics present in Mongolia in the faith. How important is the presence of Pope Francis for this small missionary community?
The enthusiasm with which Catholics are preparing to welcome the Holy Father is palpable. His presence is expected both as a confirmation and an encouragement on the path of Christian life, on the path of faith, hope and charity; but also as a confirmation of this fulfilment of a fascinating period of missionary inculturation. In fact, if we think of the story of this Church, we cannot but stand in admiration and I would even say be moved; after centuries of absence, at the beginning of the 1990s, following the peaceful democratic transition of the country, it started again practically from scratch. The first missionaries arrived as pioneers, learned the language, began to celebrate in homes, felt that the way forward must be the way of charity, and embraced the local population as if it were their own people. Thus, after only a few decades, there is a Catholic community in the literal sense of the term, a ‘universal’ community, made up of local members, but also of members from various countries, who, with humility, meekness and a sense of belonging wish to be a small seed of fraternity.
The focus will also be on the Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting to be held on Sunday, 3 September.
Yes. As the Holy Father has repeatedly reminded us, the interreligious path, the path of ecumenical dialogue, are not choices of expediency or convenience, but are paths that, since the Council, the Catholic Church has followed without syncretism. From this point of view, the meeting with exponents of other religions is always aimed at building peace and fraternity, and we know how much this very effort is needed today to build peace and fraternity! And, of course, the visit also marks an important moment of encounter with Buddhism, which in Mongolia boasts a very significant presence and history, characterised by a wise search for truth, but also marked by great suffering in the past.
In recent years, alongside the traditional way of life, there is a growing urbanisation. In the context of this social change, what role can the Holy Father’s visit play?
Pope Francis often emphasises the importance of seeking harmony. With this expression, he intends to suggest a global, total growth, that is, a human, social and spiritual growth that keeps away from the risks of homologation, knowing instead how to integrate differences and changes as factors of growth, so that the meeting of opposites and differences prevails over clash and opposition. Mongolian society is undoubtedly going through a challenging historical period, where the wisdom well rooted in the people is called upon to combine tradition and modernity, without losing its roots, and promoting the development of all. The Pope, who as a sign of friendship and with great respect is happy to meet the Mongolian people, will certainly be attentive to these aspects as well.
The dialogue between the Holy See and Mongolia dates back some 800 years, to the time of Pope Innocent iv . What is the relationship today?
In the wake of the historical precedents you just mentioned, the convergence of interests led to the formal establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. And the cooperation established then — even on a formal level, let us say — continues to progress! Significant progress has been made in areas of common interest, as was highlighted by the official visit of Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States and International Organisations, last June. And it will continue in this vein. The upcoming Apostolic Journey is therefore an auspicious occasion to further strengthen these ties, which are intended to promote the common good, religious freedom, peace, integral human development, education, cultural exchanges, and also to address common challenges affecting the region and the international community.
In this vein, can we expect a renewed call for peace from the Holy Father, in these times when the entire world is torn by conflicts?
The Holy Father keeps appealing for peace, why? Because he carries in his heart the heartbreaking pain caused by what he himself has long called the ‘third world war fought piecemeal’. Beyond any explicit appeals for peace that the Pope may make on this occasion, it seems to me that it is the Pope’s very presence in Mongolia that constitutes an invitation to peace. And this is because of the significant place that this country occupies in the great Asian context. This visit carries within itself the call to respect for every country, whether small or large, to the observance of international law, to the renunciation of the principle of force to settle disputes, to the building of relationships of collaboration, solidarity and fraternity among neighbours and with all the countries of the world.
A large country that borders Mongolia is China, a nation that Pope Francis regards with great interest. Is a trip to the People’s Republic of China under consideration, even if not in the near future?
Everyone knows the interest Pope Francis takes in China. And with regard to your question, I can say that there is in the Holy Father’s heart this great desire, an entirely understandable desire that he has already manifested several times publicly, to travel to that noble country, both to visit the Catholic community and encourage it on the path of faith and unity, and to meet the political authorities, with whom the Holy See has long established a dialogue, confident that, despite the difficulties and obstacles along the way, it is precisely by this path of dialogue and encounter, rather than that of ideological clash, that good fruits can be achieved for all.
The Holy Father recently returned from wyd in Lisbon where, as he pointed out, hope became visible in young people. Where does this trip to Mongolia take us?
The motto of the journey, as we know, is ‘Hoping Together’. So once again, the emphasis is on hope, which will also be the theme of the Jubilee of 2025. Why so much insistence on hope? Obviously, because there is so much need of it in our world! Our world is short on hope, in the face of the many personal and collective dramas it experiences. A hope that is not an empty expectation, waiting for things to get better, almost in a magical way; but one that is founded, at least for us Christians, on faith, that is, on the presence of God in our history, and that at the same time is transformed into personal and collective commitment, an active commitment, for the betterment of the world, and this we can do together, believers and non-religious, all those who are convinced of this possibility. It seems to me that the fact that the Pope sets out for geographically distant countries and also faces the inconveniences that come with this, is precisely to signify his desire to actively witness to, and concretely promote, hope in today’s world.
Your Eminence, what is your hope, what are your expectations?
I share the Holy Father’s expectations, the ones I have just tried to describe. It seems to me, moreover, that the apostolic journeys of the Pope, of the Successor of Peter, are of great significance and effectiveness in drawing the attention of the entire Church to certain communities that make up the Church and which, as in the case of Mongolia, are numerically small and therefore perhaps somewhat risk not always being adequately known, first of all, but also appreciated and taken into consideration. On the other hand, it allows these communities to offer their contribution to the Church as a whole, drawing attention to what is fundamental for its life and mission. I would say that they are a bit like the first Christian communities by which we must be inspired. I am confident that this will happen, it will also happen on this occasion. And for this I also assure you of my prayers.
By Massimiliano Menichetti