By Alexandria Sage

Pope Francis appeared to seek to reassure China on Saturday, using a gathering of Catholic missionaries in Mongolia to state that governments had “nothing to fear” from the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis arrives for an ecumenical and interreligious meeting at the Hun Theatre, in Ulaanbaatar on September 3, 2023. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP.
Pope Francis arrives for an ecumenical and interreligious meeting at the Hun Theatre, in Ulaanbaatar on September 3, 2023. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP.

The comments came during the first papal visit to the young democracy sandwiched between China and Russia, where the 86-year-old pontiff has hoped not only to encourage the tiny Catholic community but also use his presence at China’s backdoor to try to improve the Vatican’s relations with Beijing.

“Governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelisation, for she has no political agenda to advance…” said the 86-year-old pontiff, during an address at Saints Peters and Paul Cathedral in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.

The Church’s message of “mercy and truth…is meant to promote the good of all,” he said.

In visiting the landlocked nation of Mongolia, a former Soviet satellite state that has been a democracy since 1992, the Argentine Jesuit has had one eye on geopolitics, even as the visit fulfils his desire to reach out to remote, largely ignored areas far from Rome.

Beijing’s Communist Party is wary of the Catholic Church on its territory, and exercises strict control over all recognised religious institutions.

St. Peter's Square St. Peter's Basilica Vatican Obelisk
The St. Peter’s Square before the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/cc-by-sa 3.0.

The Holy See renewed a deal last year with Beijing allowing both sides a say in appointing bishops in China, a move critics have called a dangerous Vatican concession in exchange for a presence in the country.

Beijing has never extended an invitation for Francis to visit.

The apparent message to China came on Francis’ second day in Ulaanbaatar, where earlier Saturday he was feted with an official welcome ceremony that included a phalanx of Mongolian horsemen in metal armour parading past the State Palace.

He waved to a crowd of more than a thousand people at the side of President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, in front of a massive bronze statue of Genghis Khan.

Calling himself a “pilgrim of friendship,” Francis extolled the virtues of the country, including its nomadic people “respectful of the delicate balances of the ecosystem”.

A bird’s eye view of downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, where 60% of the population live. File photo: Khasar Sandag/World Bank, via Flickr.

He said Mongolia’s Shamanist and Buddhist traditions of living in harmony with nature “can contribute significantly to the urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve planet Earth.”

But while praising the country for its religious tolerance and pacifist foreign policy, he warned that corruption was “the fruit of a utilitarian and unscrupulous mentality that has impoverished whole countries”.

Again underscoring the benefit of organised religions, he said they can “represent a safeguard against the insidious threat of corruption, which effectively represents a serious menace to the development of any human community.”

Mongolia has been marred by corruption and environmental degradation in recent years, with its capital suffering from some of the world’s worst air quality and an embezzlement scandal sparking street protests last year.

Vast swathes of the country’s territory are also at risk of desertification due to climate change, overgrazing and mining.

Global figure

In the vast Sukhbaatar Plaza, named for a Mongol revolutionary hero, many hoped to catch a glimpse of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

In the crowd was Mongolian Enkhtur Dagvadorj, who said Francis “seems a great person. He is indeed a global figure.”

“Although Mongolians are Buddhists, it is lovely to receive a Pope from Rome in our country. Also, his visit is very beneficial to our country in many aspects, from reputation to the economy,” he said.

Many of the priests, nuns and laypeople administering to the 1,400-strong Catholic community in Mongolia turned out for the pope’s afternoon address at the cathedral, in which he praised their missionary work.

China’s doorstep

Francis’ trip drew pilgrims from the wider region, including Chinese Catholics, with about a dozen waving the country’s flag during the welcome ceremony Saturday and others later unfurling a large flag outside the cathedral.

Catholic mass for the Church in China
The Hong Kong Catholic mass for the Church in China on May 24, 2023. Photo: The Catholic Way.

Also making the trip was Stephen Chow, Archbishop of Hong Kong, who is due to be named a cardinal later this month by Francis.

AFP heard one Chinese visitor advising another not to speak with reporters, for fear of “trouble” upon their return to China.

But another told AFP that seeing the pope will “basically be like seeing Jesus”.

“There are a lot of Catholics in China who wanted to come, but they couldn’t make it. So we feel quite blessed,” the woman said.

The pope, who had a hernia operation in June, was gingerly taking steps with a cane when not in a wheelchair.

On Sunday, his last full day before his departure Monday, Francis will lead an interreligious meeting and conduct mass inside a newly built ice hockey arena.

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