ROME – Cardinal Giorgio Marengo of Mongolia, the youngest Prince of the Church in Catholicism, who will welcome Pope Francis to his adopted country in just over a month’s time, has stressed the importance of the papal visit for the country’s small Catholic population.

“He wants to visit one of the tiniest Catholic communities in the world,” showing once more that “his heart burns with love for the universal Church, and especially the Church where it lives in a minority context,” Marengo told journalists on the margins of an event organized by the Lay Centre in Rome on Monday.

Noting that the pope will visit just one year after giving him a red hat, Marengo said there are many reasons why Mongolia is important for Pope Francis, but he said the biggest reason is “probably because the small Catholic flock in Mongolia lives out its faith with joy, with simplicity, being a missionary disciple.”

“Two, three years ago, during the extraordinary missionary month, Pope Francis insisted on living out our identity as missionary disciples, and this dimension of our faith is lived in simplicity in Mongolia, and I think this is an aspect that will for sure emerge from this journey,” Marengo said.

Marengo, a member of the Consolata Missionaries, has lived in Mongolia for over 20 years, and was named prefect of the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar by Pope Francis in 2020. He was named a cardinal last year, making him the youngest member of the Church’s College of Cardinals.

He said there are roughly 1,450 Catholics in Mongolia, which shares borders with both China and Russia and is a majority Buddhist nation.

In his comments to journalists, Marengo was careful to avoid any reference to geopolitics and sidestepped questions on the diplomatic impact of the visit in terms of the Vatican’s relations with China, focusing instead on the pastoral nature of the papal trip.

Pope Francis’s visit, he said, would help “open new ways for the Gospel” to be welcomed and preached in the scarcely populated, nomadic country, and would help its Catholic minority to feel like they are part of the global Church.

“I hope that our people, by meeting with the Successor of Peter, will feel how wide is the Catholic Church around the world, because for them it’s not easy to feel it, since we are few,” he said.

At the same time, Marengo said he also believes the trip will showcase the importance of “the personal journey of faith” that each person undergoes in their various realities.

Marengo was in Rome to give a keynote speech at a July 17 event organized jointly by the Lay Centre and the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology in New Jersey, titled, “Grace and Action: The Ministry of Catechists in the Footsteps of St. Paul.”

In his speech, Marengo focused on the task of missionaries to “whisper the Gospel” to the people they serve.

He said the phrase was initially coined by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, the former Archbishop of Guwahati in India, who was inspired with the concept during a coffee break at the 1998 synod special assembly for Asia.

This image is especially potent in Mongolia culture, where mantras and various spiritual iterations are often expressed in a whisper, he said.

Whispering, Marengo said, “presupposes friendship, closeness. One doesn’t whisper to the first person on the street, but to a friend or someone you love,” and it can also imply “discretion and calm.”

“Whoever is called to serve as a missionary knows how long and how crucial is the time you take to learn a language. In Mongolia, the average is three years. Then there is the time to understand the culture, then the individual, in them you must see the whole country, and the person’s social psychology,” he said.

“It takes a lot of time to plunge into a culture,” but when this is done, he said, a relationship is created in which the Gospel can be proclaimed, and which is based on the closeness and friendship that allows one to whisper.

Marengo also spoke about the importance of the enculturation of faith for foreign missionaries, and the difference between evangelizing and proselytism.

To this end, he quoted Pope Saint Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical on evangelization Evangelii nuntiandi, which addresses the intersection of evangelization and culture.

In the document, Paul VI said the Gospel and evangelization “are certainly not identical with culture, they are independent in regards to all cultures. Nevertheless, the kingdom which the Gospel proclaims is lived by men and women who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building up of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing the elements of human culture or cultures.”

“Though independent of cultures, the Gospel and evangelization are not necessarily incompatible with them. Rather, they are capable of permeating them, without subject to any of them,” the document reads, calling the split between the Gospel and culture “without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times.”

“Therefore, every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture or more correctly, of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel, but this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed,” he said.

In this sense, Marengo said the Gospel is never muted when the faith enculturates, but rather, it “has to be proclaimed because it is an element of empowering cultures and helping them to open to new dimensions.”

“If evangelization doesn’t reach the heart of a culture, it’s destined to be like a superficial paint that cracks and fades away,” he said, saying the enculturation of the Gospel “is a long process, it takes centuries and usually never ends.”

It is a process “in which we are all ‘freshmen,’ we have to learn every day. But it is fundamental that the Gospel is proclaimed, is offered,” he said.

Protagonists in this process are not foreign missionaries, as one might assume, he said, but they are rather “the people who have welcomed faith in Christ, who have re-interpreted their own life in the light of the Gospel.”

When it comes to “whispering the Gospel” to the heart of Asia, and to Mongolia specifically, Marengo said it ties all elements of faith and culture together.

“You have the Gospel, which is the center of the evangelizing mission of the Church, it cannot be hidden, it has to be offered freely, even taking into account that it can be misunderstood or can create some problems, because the other side of wonder is scandal. These two dimensions go together,” he said.

This is different that proselytism, Marengo said, saying proselytism is something done “in order to get some sort of benefit out of it: you increase the number of your assembly; you make a genuine dimension of sharing into something corrupted by personal interests. You use political tools to sell your product.”

“But the Gospel doesn’t need to be sold. The Gospel has to be lived and to be shown by the witness of those who live it out,” he said.

Marengo said he has shared his thoughts on “whispering the Gospel” with Pope Francis, and the two of them have had “some nice reflections together” on the topic.

At a personal level, Marengo said that when he found out about the papal visit, which will mark the first-ever visit of a pope to Mongolia, he reacted “as a son with the sense of wonder and joy, the joy of having with us the Successor of Peter, which shows how important any, every single faithful, is for him.”

“When you whisper, you whisper to a few people, you cannot whisper to many people at the same time because they cannot hear you, so I think this visit will also somehow manifest the attention that the Successor of Peter has for every individual, every person who embarks on this journey of faith, reading his or her own life in the light of the Gospel,” he said.

Marengo said there are nine parishes in Mongolia, five of which are located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

Yet despite the church’s small numbers, the pope is well known within the Mongolian Catholic community, he said, noting that every Catholic family he has visited has an image of Pope Francis in their homes.

Around 70 percent of the Church’s activities in Mongolia are social projects, he said, noting that during his visit, Pope Francis will inaugurate a new charitable center called the House of Mercy, which will serve the poor and disadvantaged and is a way to encourage Mongolians to engage in charitable volunteer work.

Recalling that Pope Francis himself has often said he dreamt of being a missionary in Asia as a young Jesuit, Marengo said the pope, while never being sent on mission, “has lived his missionary life anyway. Maybe he didn’t leave Argentina, but he’s a great missionary model for us.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen