ULAANBAATAR – On his final day in Mongolia, Pope Francis inaugurated a new charitable center in Ulaanbaatar and took a jab at what he said are several “myths” mistaking charity as a money-making business that seeks to obtain conversions.
Speaking to workers and volunteers at the new House of Mercy center Monday morning, the pope said one myth surrounding charitable work is that “only the wealthy” can afford to volunteer their time to serve others.
“Reality tells us the opposite. It is not necessary to be wealthy to do good; rather, almost always it is people of modest means who choose to devote their time, skills and generosity to caring for others,” he said.
Another myth Francis said needs to be debunked “is that the Catholic Church, distinguished throughout the world for its great commitment to works of social promotion, does all this to proselytize, as if caring for others were a way of enticing people to ‘join up.’ No!”
Christians, he said, serve in order “to alleviate the suffering of the needy, because in the person of the poor they acknowledge Jesus, the Son of God, and, in him, the dignity of each person, called to be a son or daughter of God.”
Francis said he wanted the House of Mercy to be a place “where people of different creeds, and non-believers as well, can join efforts with local Catholics in order to offer compassionate assistance to our many brothers and sisters in the one human family.”
“That would be a splendid witness of fraternity: a fraternity that the state will rightly seek to protect and promote,” he said, but insisted that if this is to happen, those in public office must “support such humanitarian initiatives, encouraging a virtuous synergy for the sake of the common good.”
A final myth Pope Francis said he wanted to clear up was “the notion that only money counts, as if the only way to care for others is to employ a salaried staff and invest in large facilities.”
“Certainly, charity demands professionalism, but charitable works should not turn into businesses,” he said, but rather, they must “retain their freshness as works of charity where those in need can find people ready to listen to them with compassion, regardless of whatever pay they may receive.”
Pope Francis spoke on his final day in Mongolia, shortly before heading to the airport for his return flight to Rome.
He spent four days in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, making him the first pope to ever set foot in the country and the first to get as close as he did to Mongolia’s big regional neighbors, China and Russia. His Mass on Sunday afternoon was the first-ever papal Mass celebrated in the country.
Mongolia is a majority Buddhist nation with a small Catholic flock, who number less than 1,500 and are primarily served by foreign missionaries. Throughout the visit, missionaries were present at various events and the pope praised their sacrifice and service in nearly every speech.
However, despite the generally good relations between Church and state, foreign missionaries still face problems obtaining visas and navigating state involvement when new parishes or Church-related sites are established.
Oftentimes foreign missionaries in Mongolia, no matter how long they’ve lived there or how well they speak the language, receive only short-term visas, meaning they are forced to travel abroad every three months without having the certainty of whether they will be allowed back in.
The Mongolia government also requests that for every missionary visa granted, Catholic entities pay certain fees and employ a number of local citizens.
Pope Francis in several of his speeches mentioned that a bilateral agreement between Mongolia and the Holy See is currently being negotiated, and Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told Crux Saturday that the agreement focuses largely on the status of foreign missionaries and their visas.
The charitable center the pope inaugurated Monday is located in a disused school complex which once belonged to the Hospitaller Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres, in the central Bayangol district of Ulaanbaatar.
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, began the initiative with the help of the Australian Pontifical Mission Societies.
The complex is composed of three floors plus a basement and has been transformed into a shelter for the poor and homeless. It includes a clinic, assistance for victims of domestic violence, and also offers assistance to migrants. Workers at the center will collaborate with national health facilities, as well as local police and social workers.
In his speech, the pope praised the Mongolian church’s commitment to charity, saying that while small in size, “its life is marked by fraternal communion, prayer, selfless service to those in need, and witness to its faith.”
Charity and care for others is “the hallmark of the Christian community,” he said, noting that missionaries in Mongolia have been involved in charitable service since arriving in the early 1990s, following the fall of Soviet Communism.
He noted that in the past, the Mongolian government itself has turned to the Catholic Church for help amid various social emergencies, and that these projects continue to put their knowledge, experience and resources at the service of Mongolian society.
Francis said the House of Mercy center must represent “hands outstretched toward our brothers and sisters struggling to navigate life’s problems. A safe haven, in other words, where people can find a listening ear and an understanding heart.”
The Church, he said, is called “to be a home where all are welcome and can experience a higher love that stirs and moves the heart: the tender and provident love of the Father, who wants us to be brothers and sisters in his house.”
He also spoke of the importance of volunteer work, which he said is “indispensable” and through the generous donation of time and effort “unburdens the soul, heals the wounds of the heart, brings us closer to God, becomes a source of joy, and keeps us young inside.”
“In this country so full of young people, volunteer work can be a decisive path towards personal and societal growth,” he said, saying the true gauge of a nation’s progress is not so much its economic wealth and investment in “the illusory power of armaments.”
Rather, it is found in a country’s ability to provide health, educational, and integral development of its people and resources.
“For this reason, I would like to encourage all the citizens of Mongolia, who are well known for their generosity and capacity for self-sacrifice, to engage in volunteer work, placing themselves at the service of others,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen