One of the world’s smallest national Catholic communities, Mongolia, is anticipating Pope Francis’s upcoming visit, demonstrating the Holy Father’s willingness to travel great distances and minister to even a handful of the faithful. Announced on July 15, the pope will travel to the country from August 31 through September 4.
Shortly after the announcement, Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, who has served as a missionary in Mongolia for two decades, spoke of his time serving the small Catholic community there. The Italian native described how Catholic missionaries “whisper” the Gospel in an effort to spread the faith via one-on-one relationships.
“When you whisper, you whisper to an individual or a few people, you cannot whisper to many people at the same time because they simply will not hear you,” said Marengo, speaking recently to reporters. “And I think this visit will also somehow manifest the attention that the (pope) has for every individual, every person who embarks in this journey of faith.”
According to Marengo, who was named a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2022, the Pope’s visit will serve as a “balm to a people who suffered ‘70 years of harsh communist rule’ until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.”
The focus of the visit will be meetings with leaders of government and civil society, encounters with area Catholics, ecumenical and interreligious gatherings, and the inauguration of a charity center.
Catholicism is still acutely insignificant in Mongolia, with only 1,450 Catholics in the country. Buddhism comprising 51.7% of the religious identity of Mongolians as of 2020, 40.6% identifying as non-religious, 3.2% reporting as Muslim, 2.5% as Mongol shamanic, 1.3% Christian and the remaining 0.7% in the “other” category.
The smallest of Mongolia’s nine Catholic parishes has only 30 members. Catholicism first came to Mongolia in the 1300s, but was ejected, only to resurface in 1922. The country fell under Communist control in the 1920s; following the 1990 Mongolian Revolution, Catholic missionaries came to rebuild the Church, starting from scratch. The first Masses there were held in a hotel, and later in rented apartments.
In 2003, Fr. Wenceslao Padilla became the first bishop of Mongolia. Catholics remain a small minority within the country, with no Catholic seminaries. According to 2017 statistics, the country has 33 priests and 44 nuns, with only six Catholic churches. The Church is still very much persecuted and seen as a threat to Mongolian culture.
Still, even the smallest number of Catholic faithful in the world matters to Pope Francis.
“This visit will manifest the attention that the successor of Peter has for every individual, every person who embarks on this journey of faith, reading his or her own life in the light of the Gospel,” said Cardinal Marengo.
Marengo recalled when he arrived in Mongolia more than 20 years ago, and the Church built two portable gers, or tents, for prayers, which drew in curious locals who wanted to watch the “funny foreigners praying.”
Although the presence of Catholics is small in this country, the Holy Father is well-known.
“When you visit the family of a Catholic, you always find a picture of the Holy Father in the household or ger,” noted Cardinal Marengo. “This trip demonstrates just how important every single faithful Catholic is to Pope Francis.”
This trip effectively demonstrates the missionary heart and zeal of the Holy Father, to preach the Gospel to “the ends of the earth.”
Image: Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Ulaanbaatar. By Torbenbrinker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16082724
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.