MUMBAI – A nun from India, where Catholics are a tiny minority, who’s currently serving as a missionary in Mongolia, where Catholics are an even tinier sliver of the population, says “positive vibes of excitement” about a looming papal visit to Mongolia are palpable within the country’s small flock.

“As a missionary working among the young people, especially in the formation of Catholic teachings, I could feel the positive vibes of excitement for the visit of His Holiness whispering along the corridors of our parish offices and in meetings with the faithful,” said Sister Nirmala Rani, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Rani comes from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and has been serving as missionary sister in Mongolia for the past 21 years, where the entire Catholic community is estimated at around 1,500 people out of a total population of 3.3 million.

“A young girl was asking me in wonder, ‘What can this Pontiff offer to us?’” Rani said. “And without much delay, I said ‘a God experience.’ This is, in fact, the longing of many of our faithful, that the Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis will bring to us an experience of an encounter with God,” she said.

Rani spoke in an exclusive interview with Crux.

Mongolia is a landlocked country, bordered by Russia to the North and China to the South. While that geography has led many observers to suspect that Francis’s motives for making the trip may be geopolitical, Rani emphasized the spiritual and pastoral dimensions of the experience.

She said that the largely Mongol population, traditionally followers of Buddhist and Shamanistic religious beliefs, have been slowly introduced to Christianity in recent decades, and the pope’s visit will accelerate that process.

“For sure, we must be hearing the name Mongolia often these days as the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is making his Apostolic Journey to this small, unknown country this year from September 1 to 4,” she said.

In historical terms, the Catholic presence in Mongolia is among the most recent in the world. Missionaries from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, popularly known as the “Scheut Fathers,” arrived only in 1992.

It was ten years later, in 2002, that the first ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Mongolia was established, the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, with a Filipino member of the Scheut Fathers, Wenceslao Padilla, named its first prefect.

Padilla was appointed bishop a year later, and led the church in Mongolia until his death from a heart attack in September 2018. In 2020, Italian cleric Giorgio Marengo was named to the post, who was later made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2022.

Rani recalled that in 2003, John Paul II was planning to make a visit to Mongolia but had to back out due to ill health. Twenty years later, the country is once again awaiting a pope.

“What a joy for this small flock to celebrate the presence of His Holiness!” Rani said.

“Can you imagine? The 266th bishop of Rome and head of the entire Catholic world decides to come and visit our little church, which on paper counts barely 1,500 baptized people,” she said.

Rani described Francis’s visit as a “golden opportunity.”

During his time in the country, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet political and civic leaders, to take part in ecumenical and inter-faith encounters, to meet with local priests, religious and pastoral workers, to celebrate a public Mass in a winter sports stadium, and to inaugurate a new charitable center.

“It is a time of grace for the faithful in Mongolia,” Rani said.

“With deep gratitude, we stand before God in prayer, asking the Lord to guide us in His ways for this important event,” she said. “Our Cardinal, His Eminence Giorgio Marengo, IMC, invites the faithful to pray to our heavenly mother of Mongolia to intercede for us, as we are looking forward to this ecclesial communion in faith and patience.”