ROME – Temüjin, a fearsome general and emperor of the Mongols, is better known to history by his title “Genghis Khan,” which roughly translates as “universal leader.” In the 13th and 14th centuries, he formed the largest empire the world has even known by uniting all Mongol tribes under his rule.
Today Pope Francis, the “Genghis Khan,” so to speak, of the Catholic Church, the largest branch of Christianity and whose name, “Catholic,” also roughly translates from the original Greek καθόλου as “universal,” will become the first pope to set foot in Mongolia.
The Holy See and Mongolia have had diplomatic contact since the 13th century, when Pope Innocent IV in 1246 sent a delegate to Mongolia to establish ties with the Han emperors.
Italian Archbishop Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, a papal diplomat and explorer, became one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1246 bearing a letter from Innocent IV, beginning an exchange of correspondence which to this day is preserved in the Vatican Archives.
The presence of Christianity in Mongolia has undergone many changes over the centuries, and was practically eradicated altogether during the country’s nearly 70-year Communist era. With the fall of Soviet rule in 1992, religious freedom was restored, and Catholic missionaries returned.
To this day, Mongolia is one of the Catholic Church’s smallest flocks, composed of a few dozen foreign missionaries and around 1,450 Catholics, making this a true visit to the peripheries.
Francis will travel to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, from Aug. 31-Sept. 4, marking his 43rd international trip and the 61st country he has visited in his decade-long papacy.
While there, he is set to meet local civil authorities as well as the country’s missionaries and clergy. He will also preside over an interreligious event and inaugurate a new charitable center.
Since his election, the pope has routinely passed over visits to larger countries or major world capitals, opting instead to prioritize the “peripheries” of the world and the Church through visits to countries such as Albania, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and now Mongolia.
As with any papal trip, there will be both pastoral and geopolitical elements at play as Pope Francis steps into a country bordered by China to the south and Russia to the north, and which is a largely Buddhist nation in which Catholics are an all-but-invisible minority and Christianity itself is relatively unknown.
Pope’s ‘diplomacy of dialogue’
Ahead of this week’s trip, many have speculated that one of the pope’s primary reasons for visiting Mongolia was because of its vicinity to both China and Russia at a time when the Vatican has been seeking to bolster relations with each.
Pope Francis has gone to great lengths in recent years to establish more formal and consistent engagement with both, proposing a permanent footprint for the Church in China to assist in collaborative episcopal appointments, and pursuing regular dialogue with Russian authorities to discuss peace solutions for the war in Ukraine.
Salesian Father Paul Leung, a missionary in Mongolia, said in a recent video series published in Fides News about the papal trip that “The pope’s visit to Mongolia is a big event for us, because the representative of Jesus Christ on earth will come to us, this small Catholic community.”
“We also asked ourselves why the pope chose this place to make his visit. I think we are not the only ones who ask this question, I think the whole world is also wondering about it. Looking at recent events, one can also wonder,” he said.
In 2018 the Vatican penned a controversial agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, which has been renewed twice and also violated twice by Chinese authorities in recent months by transferring bishops to different dioceses without the Vatican’s knowledge or permission.
The Vatican recently formalized one of these transfers but released an interview with Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin the same day proposing a permanent liaison office in Beijing to improve communication.
Francis also sees China as a potential mediator in the Ukraine conflict given the good relations it enjoys with Russia, with whom he has sought to forge more stable channels of communication since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion last February.
The day after Russia invaded, Pope Francis made the unusual move of showing up at the Russian Embassy to the Holy See for a conversation with the ambassador, and he recently sent his personal peace envoy for Ukraine, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to Moscow to discuss potential avenues for peace.
Francis has so far attempted to walk a careful line on the Ukraine war, avoiding the appearance of taking sides, which has been criticized by some Ukrainians hoping for a clearer message from the pontiff, who found himself in hot water again this week when he told a group of Russian youth via video call that they are “heirs of the great Mother Russia.”
The remarks were met with immediate backlash from Ukrainians, who called the language “imperialist propaganda,” but were praised as “balanced” by Russian authorities, illustrating the delicacy of the situation and the potential for anything the pontiff says to become inflammatory.
Pope Francis is unlikely to address China or Russia directly during this week’s trip, but he could speak in subtleties that reverberate among the leadership of Mongolia’s complicated neighbors.
Whatever the pope says this week, particularly in his message to authorities, will be watched carefully not only by Catholics, but the world.
Yet in addition to regional geopolitics, the environment is also expected to be an important talking point during the visit.
In addition to pollution concerns in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s vast mineral resources such as copper, gold and coal, have long been exploited by external conglomerates and it faces a potential grassland crisis with over-grazing, as herders breed more sheep to fuel the country’s growing cashmere industry.
A vast, nomadic territory, Mongolia is the third most sparsely populated country in the world, where livestock outnumber humans roughly 20-1.
It occupies six different ecological zones which stand at the center of both European and Asian life, making it an ecological crossroads between continents, specifically with water channels that flow through Mongolia and irrigate the rest of Asia.
Given the importance of Mongolia’s ecosystems and growing concern over environmental degradation and global warming in the area, it is expected that these will be prominent themes for Pope Francis, who on Oct. 4 will publish a second edition to his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si.
In the Fides video series, Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, 49, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar who got his red hat from Pope Francis just last year, stressed the importance of the papal visit in light of the Holy See and Mongolia’s historic relationship.
“The invitation to the pope was a great gift” for the country and the Catholics who live there, Marengo said, saying he had personally invited the pope to visit, and the government formalized this invitation in July 2022, just ahead of the consistory in which he became the world’s youngest cardinal.
“It was a very nice moment of encounter between this delegation and authorities of the Holy See,” he said, saying the pope welcomed the invite “with much joy and satisfaction.”
“It’s an important event because the history of relations between the two countries, the Holy See and Mongolia, is very ancient,” Marengo said, saying the pope’s acceptance and immediate decision to visit “crowned this history of relationship.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen