Pope Francis blesses the statue of Our Lady Mother of Heaven (Photo: Vatican Media / Catholic Press Photo)

Mongolia: "We are all nomads of God"

The SkyTg24 vaticanist, following the Pope, recounts the apostolic visit to the Asian country. The small flock of 1,500 Catholics, the faithful who came from China and that boy who will receive Baptism at Christmas…
Stefano Maria Paci

The words of Pope Francis resonated in what is usually an ice palace, but there, in the Steppe Arena on a Sunday in September, the biggest Mass ever held in the country was being celebrated. Up until 30 years ago there was not a single Catholic in Mongolia, a presence totally wiped out by the persecution of the pro-Soviet regime. Today there is an embryonic community with a cardinal, Giorgio Marengo, the Italian missionary who is the youngest cardinal of the entire College of Cardinals, that small number of people from which the popes are elected.

It was a tiny Christian community, only 1,500 people, that received the Pope's visit, astonishing the many who wondered why Bergoglio did not instead go to countries crowded with Catholics. The national media, however, gave great prominence to the event.
"We are all nomads of God, and yes, we have an insatiable thirst for happiness," Francis continued, speaking under the large cross that towered over the altar, while listening to him there were also boys and girls in sumptuous traditional Mongolian clothes, and Vietnamese dancers with pointed straw hats. Francis spoke to a largely still nomadic Mongolian population living in the vast spaces from the Gobi desert to the steppes. "All of us are ‘God’s nomads’, pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers thirsting for love. The Christian faith is the answer to this thirst; it takes it seriously, without dismissing it or trying to replace it with tranquilizers or surrogates. It is the encounter with Christ that makes us savour the beauty of life.”
There were almost 2500 faithful in the arena, which is strange for a nation where there are far fewer Catholics. The explanation is that many came from other countries in Asia, to be able to experience, for a few hours and together with the Pope, the incredible mystery of the Mass, with the Body of Christ that gives itself to each person, becoming flesh of their own flesh.

In the stands, before the celebration, I met a group of Chinese people. They told me, thanks to a young man who was acting as my interpreter, that it took them 50 hours by train to get there. A great effort, also because of the consequences they might have: in front of me they unfurled a large red national flag with five golden stars, and had little flags that they waved as Francis passed by. The Pope greeted them from the white golf minivan in which he arrived, and would greet them again at the end of the Mass. China sent soothing messages to Francis in response to the telegram the Pope sent from the plane flying over the country as he arrived in Mongolia. At the end of this Mass, Francis had the Bishop Emeritus and the current Bishop of Hong Kong, now on Chinese soil, stand next to him, holding their hands, expressing his esteem for China. He would soon receive new words of appreciation from Beijing. And on the plane back to Rome, during the press conference at an altitude of 10,000 metres that he held while answering questions from us international press journalists travelling with him, he said that he hopes China will understand that the Church and the Vatican are not foreign powers, but only want to contribute to people's lives. Words that seek to defuse the tension with the Beijing government, which recently appointed new bishops without agreeing it with the Pope, (there is a signed and still secret agreement between the Vatican and China) and the government has prevented the Chinese Bishops, except those of Hong Kong, from going to Mongolia. All things that clash with the words of esteem expressed by China during the trip, or perhaps those words from Beijing indicate a desire to overcome the current controversies.

The Russian faithful also attended the Mass, and a prayer of the faithful was also said in Russian. Mongolia, a democratic country, is geographically wedged between the strong regimes of China and Russia, and during the trip there were many speeches made by the Pope that referred to the war in Ukraine, beginning with the first meeting, with the President and political authorities and representatives of society. It took place in the huge government palace in the centre of the capital Ulan Bator on whose entrance steps stands a huge statue of Genghis Khan, here considered the father of the nation who at the time had built the largest land empire in the history of mankind. "A world tragically devastated by all too many wars and conflicts," said Francis: "May the dark clouds of war be swept away and tensions be resolved on the basis of encounter and dialogue".
But it would be a mistake to describe this journey, in many ways anomalous, through only geopolitical evaluations, important though they may be.

And it is also true that the Jesuit Pope has a dream that is not measured in the short term and has never been expressed, but which has to do with the history of the order: that Asia should recover its relationship with the Church as it was in the days of Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier.
But what moved Francis' heart and will was the strong desire to meet a nascent, lively and enthusiastic Christian community that lives the faith intensely and creates places of charity, and that can become an example for the whole Church spread throughout the world. One of the most intense moments during the trip was when the Pope went to celebrate Mass in the Ulan Bator Cathedral. Next to me, among the many people outside awaiting Francis' arrival, was a Mongolian boy whose kindness amazed me: he gave me his place by the barriers that he had been occupying for a long time, exactly opposite where the Pope was going to stand, to allow me to film the live coverage for my television news programme. Usually, in the various countries of the world I have been to, these are places that are defended with tooth and nail. Amazed, I ask him if he is a Christian. He replied: “Not yet, I have yet to be baptised, I am experiencing many difficulties with those who know me, but what I have encountered is so fascinating that I am not giving up, and at Christmas I should receive my baptism. I await that moment with great emotion. And to see the Pope come here for us, even for me, is something incredible.”

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Then Francis arrived, three metres away from the place given to me at the barriers, and he walked towards the ‘ger', the Mongolian tent that had been placed in front of the church, a cathedral dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul also built in the shape of a ger. Bergoglio received a cup of milk wrapped in a blue scarf from a Mongolian girl, then lowered his head and entered the tent. Waiting for him was the woman who 10 years ago found a wooden statue of Our Lady thrown in the rubbish. And in front of that statue, on 8 December, Cardinal Marengo consecrated all of Mongolia to Mary. Perhaps there is no more beautiful image to represent this tiny and often despised nascent Mongolian Christian community than this statue of Mary thrown among the rubbish, a 'Madonna of the Garbage', now venerated with the title 'Mother of Heaven'.