ULAANBAATER – At Pope Francis’s Mass in Ulaanbaatar Sunday afternoon, which was attended by nearly 200 people from mainland China, one young Catholic from the mainland said life for the Church in his country is extremely difficult and asked that the pope help “save” them.

Speaking to Crux in broken English, the young man, named Li, said that if he had the chance to say something to Pope Francis, his message would be, “Pope, please save our Chinese (Church)!”

“Here (in Mongolia) everyone has no fear, they are not controlled. We have a Church in China, but if there’s a church you see around, it works for the government,” he said, saying there are still many Catholics in China who belong to the so-called “underground” Church, despite the pope’s efforts to heal the divide with a controversial 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Li said his family comes from Inner Mongolia, a northern region in China that borders Mongolia, and that he and his family have business in Mongolia, so it was easier for them to travel to attend the papal events.

Pope Francis is currently closing a four-day visit to Mongolia, the first a pope has ever made to the country, where Catholics number fewer than 1,500, one of the Church’s smallest flocks.

After arriving Friday, Francis met with national civil authorities and spoke to missionaries in Mongolia and bishops who serve in the region. He also led an interreligious event and on Sunday celebrated the first-ever papal Mass in Mongolia.

Despite a government order barring them to come, an estimated 170 Catholics from mainland China were present in Mongolia for the pope’s trip and could be seen at various events throughout the week.

Li told Crux that while he had already been in Mongolia for some time because of his family’s business, it was not easy for most Chinese people to get the travel permits to come.

“I heard that someone had to go back,” he said, saying routine travel was not allowed, and that “everyone, even workers, they are asked, why do you want to visit here?”

The response, Li said, was always “for travel,” because travel and sightseeing was the only stated purpose accepted by the Chinese government, “because they know that our pope is in Mongolia.”

When asked for comment by the Vatican press corps, many Chinese Catholics immediately declined, though some agreed to speak anonymously. They wore face masks that became mandatory during COVID-19 and routinely obscured their faces with hoods and scarves so that they could not be identified if they were photographed.

Chinese Catholic groups present carried the Chinese flag and waved it and shouted whenever the pope was present, but they would quickly hide the flags after the pope had gone or left their area.

While driving through Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena where Sunday’s Mass was held, Pope Francis paused to kiss an infant in front a group of Chinese Catholics displaying a large Chinese flag and waved to the group.

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 gave an off-the-cuff greeting to the Chinese people.

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.

Speaking to Crux, Li said he was joined by his grandmother, his parents, and some friends of his father’s at the Mass, and the pope’s presence in Mongolia is “really important because, as you know, in China the government said they cannot have (it) there, so we are underground.”

“It’s really important, it means we can visit, we can believe God, we can be really near God, so it’s really important and amazing. It’s a pleasure,” he said.

Li said that he does not know whether the pope’s message will resonate inside of China, but he voiced hope that the pontiff’s close proximity would lead to more openness to the Church.

“In China, everything is hiding, we can’t send a photo or anything to our group or anything, it’s not good. That’s why we have to visit” somewhere else to see the pope, he said, saying that a member of the group waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at his official welcome ceremony Saturday morning “took lots of photos, but they cannot send them.”

“One of my friends posted a photo in our Chinese chat group, but no one replied, because they’re worried that just by talking about this, the government will get you in trouble,” he said.

Asked what “getting into trouble” meant, Li said the government if they found out the person had attended a papal event in Mongolia would say, “You shouldn’t have been there. It’s not good.”

“They are questioning someone even just staying in jail,” he said, noting that a friend of his father’s once shared photos of doing something the government did not approve of, and he was put behind bars. “I don’t know how long it was, but someone stayed there,” Li said.

It was unclear if the photos the person had shared involved the pope, or another matter.

Li said that in general, it’s hard to imagine the government taking a more open stance, but that “if the pope can visit our country, it [would be] really our pleasure. We’re just waiting…but I still believe.”

Asked whether Pope Francis’s 2018 agreement on episcopal appointments, aimed largely at establishing regular contact with Chinese authorities and unifying the official state-sanctioned Church and the underground Church loyal to Rome, had been impactful, Li said he believed that it helped, but said, “I’m not sure.”

The separation between the official and unofficial Churches is still quite strong, he said, recalling how his own community several years ago sent money to their priest to build a church in their area, “but it only worked for two years and then it closed.”

“Then we sent money again and they built another one, and it closed again. Even if we are hiding, it doesn’t work,” he said.

Li said problems of censorship in Chinese media are also prominent, and that in the national news, “the government only shows the positive news in the TV, but some bad things happen everywhere. The government hides that news, they won’t let people know that something has happened.”

However, after the coronavirus pandemic, videos that leaked out to international media showing strict authoritarian lockdowns and bodies piled up, indicating the pandemic had been far worse than the government had let on, things have changed, he said.

“People see that a lot of things happened, it’s really bad, so people don’t so much believe in our Chinese community, the Chinese government,” Li said, saying the government is feeling pressure, “so they have to control.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen