ULAANBAATAR – Speaking to one of the Catholic Church’s smallest flocks, located in a region that has not always been hospitable to Christianity and where some tensions are still felt, Pope Francis on Sunday insisted that God is present even in difficulty and is always a source of hope.

Addressing the roughly 2,000 people attending his Mass at Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena, usually an indoor hockey rink and multi-purpose stadium, the pope focused his homily on the day’s Psalm reading, which reads, “O God… my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

This plea from the psalmist, he said, “accompanies our journey through life, amid all the deserts we are called to traverse.”

Such imagery is especially evocative in a country in which roughly 30 percent of its territory is made up of deserts, including the vast Gobi Desert shared by Mongolia and China.

“It is precisely in those deserts that we hear the good news that we are not alone in our journey; those times of dryness cannot render our lives barren forever; our cry of thirst does not go unheard,” he said.

Pope Francis’s Mass came on the final day of his four-day trip to Mongolia, marking the first-ever papal visit to the majority Buddhist country, and the closest a pope has come physically to Mongolia’s big regional neighbors, China and Russia.

Catholics in Mongolia number fewer than 1,500 and are largely served by foreign missionaries, who reestablished a presence there just 30 years ago after the fall of Soviet Communism in 1992.

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In a show of the budding faith across Asia, Catholics from Russia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and other nearby countries were expected to attend the pope’s Mass Sunday.

As Pope Francis arrived in Ulaanbaatar, reports emerged that Chinese officials had forbidden Catholics from traveling to Mongolia to participate in the papal visit, with one group of Chinese Catholics who made it to the pope’s official welcome ceremony Saturday morning saying they had to invent other reasons for traveling.

One man who spoke on behalf of the group told Crux they were at risk for being there and could face a government investigation when they return. Most in his group wore face masks and covered themselves with hoods and scarves so they could not be identified by China’s digital facial recognition system.

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However, despite the risks, the man said there were roughly 100 people in his group, and that many more Chinese Catholics were expected to come from all over the country.

There was another group of Chinese faithful from Shaanxi present outside of Sts. Peter and Paul cathedral for the pope’s meeting with bishops and missionaries there on Saturday afternoon, who waved a Chinese flag and chanted aloud, “all Chinese love you” as the pope passed by.

In his homily Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis pointed to Mongolia’s vast, arid steppes and desert terrain and its traditionally nomadic culture, saying that in a spiritual sense, “all of us are ‘God’s nomads,’ pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers thirsting for love.”

“We are that dry land thirsting for fresh water, water that can slake our deepest thirst. Our hearts long to discover the secret of true joy, a joy that even in the midst of existential aridity, can accompany and sustain us,” he said.

Francis said the Christian faith is the answer to the thirst of mankind, as it takes the search to satisfy this thirst “seriously, without dismissing it or trying to replace it with tranquilizers or surrogates.”

“For in this thirst lies the great mystery of our humanity: it opens our hearts to the living God, the God of love, who comes to meet us and to make us his children, brothers and sisters to one another,” he said.

Noting that the spiritual life can at times feel like being in a hot desert, the pope said God provides the “clear, refreshing water” needed to complete the journey.

Pointing to the small numbers of Mongolia’s church, he said that “amid the deserts of life and in the difficulties associated with being a small community, the Lord has ensured that you not lack the water of his word,” and pointed to the role the roughly 76 foreign missionaries in Mongolia play in sustaining the local church.

Through their work, missionaries sow seeds of beauty, Francis said, saying the concept of beauty is “the very heart of our faith: allowing ourselves to be loved by God and in turn to make our lives an offering of love. For love alone truly quenches our thirst.”

Pope Francis then pointed to the day’s Gospel reading, in which Peter refuses to accept Jesus’s death on the cross, and is rebuked by Jesus, who says, “get behind me Satan” and chastises him for thinking “as the world does.”

“If we think that success, power, or material things suffice to satisfy the thirst in our lives, then we are thinking as the world does. That kind of worldliness leads nowhere; indeed, it leaves us thirstier than before,” he said.

“Jesus instead shows us the way,” he said, saying the path Jesus indicates in the Gospels is to “take up their cross and follow me.”

To embrace one’s cross is “the best way” to go forward, the pope said, saying the decision to sacrifice, if done generously with love and consideration for others, “will return to you in abundance, and you will be overwhelmed by endless joy, peace of heart, and inner strength and support.”

“This is the truth that Jesus wants us to discover, the truth he wants to reveal to all of you and to this land of Mongolia,” he said, assuring faithful that “You need not be famous, rich or powerful to be happy.”

“Only love satisfies our hearts’ thirst, only love heals our wounds, only love brings us true joy,” he said, urging attendees to follow Jesus and to avoid thinking “as the world does.”

If this is done, he said, “we will be able, with the grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit, to journey along the path of love. Even when love calls for denying ourselves, combatting our personal and worldly forms of selfishness, and taking the risk of living a life of genuine fraternity.”

While all of this involves great effort and sacrifice, Pope Francis insisted that “it is even more true that, when we lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, the Lord gives them back to us abundantly, in the fullness of love and joy for all eternity.”

In a message of gratitude for his trip, Pope Francis told Mongolian Catholics they are proof that God “loves to use what is little to achieve great things.”

“You are good Christians and honest citizens. Go forward, gently and without fear, conscious of the closeness and the encouragement of the entire Church,” he said, and thanked locals and those who came from other areas of Asia to participate in his visit.

He thanked government delegates, who were present at each of his five public events, for their presence, voicing gratitude for “their welcome and hospitality,” and for the work they put into organizing his visit.

Pope Francis also thanked those from other Christian confessions who participated in his visit, one of whom was the Russian Orthodox representative in Mongolia, praying that they would “continue to grow closer in fraternity, as seeds of peace in a world tragically devastated by all too many wars and conflicts.”

He closed with a reference to French Jesuit priest, Father Teilhard de Chardin, a famed scientist and theologian. Teilhard, the pope said, showed that the Eucharist is a source of life and love, “even in times like our own, marked by conflicts and wars.”

Francis closed thanking Catholics in Mongolia for their witness, and promising that “You are in my heart, and in my heart you will remain.”

At the end of Mass, Pope Francis took the hands of the current Bishop of Hong Kong, cardinal-designate Stephen Chow, who will get his red hat from the pope Sept. 30, and former bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong, and an off-the-cuff greeting to the Chinese people.

Pope Francis takes the hands of Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow, current bishop of Hong Kong, and the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, at the end of his Sept. 3 Mass in Mongolia. (Credit: Andrea Gagliarducci/pool photo.)

“These two brother bishops, the emeritus of Hong Kong and the current bishop of Hong Kong,” he said referring to Tong and Chow, saying he wanted to take advantage of their presence at his Mass in Mongolia “to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people.”

“To the entire people I wish the best, go forward, always progress. And to the Chinese Catholics, I ask you to be good Christians and good citizens. To everyone,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen