Nearly a year after visiting Kazakhstan, Pope Francis is about to head to the nearby neighboring country. The pope will visit Ulaanbaatar from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 in response to an invitation from the Mongolian government, which is seeking to present its country as an international hub between Europe and Asia.
Despite the distance and declining health, Pope Francis prioritized Mongolia. There are three main reasons behind his trip.
The most commented explanation is the geopolitical one. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and the complex dynamics of Sino-Vatican dialogue, Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia, which lies between Russia and China, has an undeniably strategic dimension. While the avenues for acknowledging the Vatican’s influence are limited, Pope Francis remains steadfast in his commitment to dialogue.
However, there is no evidence that the pope’s visit to neighboring Mongolia will have an impact on Russia or China, both of which have repeatedly rejected the pope’s outreach. Last year, during a simultaneous visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese leader Xi Jinping refused to meet with Catholic Church leaders.
Walk with the Mongols
The second reason for the pope’s visit was the Mongolian people themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was eager to restore autonomy and restore its economy and governance. Yet three decades later, the mining boom has faded, confidence in democratic ideals has eroded, and corruption has taken hold. Authoritarian tendencies may resurface in an environment where neighboring states have significant influence.
Consistent with his approach in Kazakhstan, Pope Francis hopes to deliver influential speeches to Mongolian officials and leaders. His speech transcended partisanship to delve into the moral foundations of civic virtue, foster inclusive social policies, advocate for the separation of powers, and support anticorruption initiatives.
Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Mongolia also includes a pastoral mission – to support and comfort the local Catholic community. In a country that calls itself Buddhist, and although most people are not affiliated with a Buddhist temple or profess any religion, the small Catholic community – fewer than 1,500 churchgoers – has not always had it easy comfortable.
Thirty years ago, when Mongolia embarked on its journey to independence, it sought not only the Vatican’s endorsement, but assistance to address social needs. The Holy See responded by sending missionaries from around the world—Belgium, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Korea, and the Philippines—to devote themselves to non-missionary development.
One notable initiative supported by the church is an agricultural initiative that introduces innovative greenhouses into private homes, diversifying diets and increasing income. Beyond the technical aspects, the effort includes redesigning cooking methods and eating habits to address health issues associated with nutritional imbalances.
In search of new opportunities, half of Mongolia’s population has migrated from their ancestral homelands to emerging urban centers. There, alcoholism and domestic violence became common. Facing this complex social reality, Catholics opened several kindergartens and launched support programs for women. Later, the missionaries also participated in a transnational program to support Mongolian migrants eager to return home.
These programs are mainly sponsored by the European Union and European Catholic organizations, and most of the beneficiaries are not Christians themselves. Nonetheless, Catholic organizations have played a vital role in translating foreign aid into local action while curbing discriminatory mechanisms and corruption.
Thirty years later, however, Soviet-era anti-religious sentiment persists in administrative circles. Although Catholic organizations are committed to social service, missionaries are only granted short-term visas. The missionaries – some of whom have worked in Mongolia for 20 years, learned the Mongolian language and survived the harsh winters – go abroad every three months and don’t know if they will be able to return. Additionally, the government requires Catholic institutions to pay substantial fees for each missionary visa and employ some local citizens.
This ambivalent attitude towards Catholics by the government is one of the key domestic issues the Vatican wants to discuss with the government. After decades of loyal support for the Mongolian people, the Church wants fairer treatment.
Caring for “Our Common Home”
Finally, the third reason for the pope’s trip to Mongolia has to do with Pope Francis’ core priorities. Since assuming the throne of St. Peter, Francis has continually called attention to the planet and the cries of the poor. And according to him, the relationship between the two is also very deep.
This connection is the paramount concern of his pontiff, who has translated it into papal visits to marginalized populations, apostolic documents such as Laudato si, and church mobilizations such as the Pan-Amazonian Synod.
In this dialogue, Mongolia has a lot to offer. The country’s long history with the Catholic Church, marked by political collapse and biological catastrophe, has given them unique authority to speak on behalf of the poor and the planet.
Christianity has existed in Central Asia since the seventh century. In the 13th century, the Holy See established formal diplomatic relations with the transcontinental Mongol Empire. But trials like the Black Death and the spread of communism reshaped their trajectory. Both the Catholic Church and the Mongol nation have shown resilience, showing that ecological and political catastrophe need not be the final destination.
Today, Mongolia is no longer a poor country. No country is born poor; poverty is created by social mechanisms and needs to be addressed. Mongolia has vast mineral resources that have been overexploited by Russian, Chinese and Australian conglomerates. After decades of abuse, the country is facing an environmental crisis that could affect entire ecosystems in Europe and Asia.
As the Mongols like to recall, their ancestral land was the second lung of the earth. While the Amazon rainforest is crucial to absorbing the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, Central Asia filters the water that irrigates the rest of Asia. Mongolia specifically occupies six distinct ecoregions that lie at the junction of European and Asian life streams.
After a summer of mass destruction and migration caused by extreme weather events, Pope Francis not only drafted the second part of Laudato Si, a document advocating for the care of our common home, but also Visited Mongolia. At the crossroads of Eurasian ecosystems, Pope Francis, who lost part of his lung as a young man, hopes to find allies against environmental degradation and global warming.
Pope Francis is visiting Mongolia for good reason. Because of its location and unique history, Mongolia can play a more central role in the geopolitical and environmental challenges of our time. Our planet’s second lung needs to be healthy and strong to enliven the international conversation about global warming, national sovereignty, and the globalized economy. At the same time, the Holy See hopes that the Mongolian authorities can adjust their attitude towards Catholic institutions and personnel in order to promote future cooperation.