Pope Francis departed Rome on a flight to Mongolia today, becoming the first pope to visit the country. During the trip, the pope will visit and encourage the tiny Catholic community (with under 1,500 members) in Mongolia — a country with a population of 3.3 million, of whom 60 percent identify as religious, the vast majority made up of Buddhists.

Kristi McCabe wrote a preview of the pope’s apostolic visit, focusing on the leader of the small Church, the Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, who at 49 years old is one of the youngest cardinals in the Church after his surprising appointment to the college last year:

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,” McCabe added.

Yesterday, as he has done before each of his international voyages, the pope visited Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, where he paused to offer a prayer in front of the venerable Maria Salus Populi Romani icon, entrusting his to Mongolia under the safeguard of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This marks the 43rd Apostolic Pilgrimage for Pope Francis and will be the 61st nation he will visit during his papacy.

To begin this four-day visit, Pope Francis will arrive in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and will be greeted by Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh. He will then meet with government officials and religious leaders before celebrating Mass for the local Catholic community.

The pope’s itinerary for the trip includes a welcome ceremony on Saturday in Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar Square before visiting with president Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh at his residence and then meeting with other officials. Later in the afternoon, he will meet with leaders of the Catholic community in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. On Sunday morning, Francis will take part in an Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting in Ulaanbaatar’s Hun Theatre, and in the afternoon he will celebrate Mass in the Steppe Arena — a winter sports stadium. Then on Monday, he will dedicate a new charity center and meet with the staff and volunteers before his official farewell and return to Rome.

One notable factor in this trip is that Mongolia borders both China and Russia, two countries that Pope Francis is unlikely to visit, and the relationships of both countries with the Vatican are strained, to say the least. For an in-depth preview of why Pope Francis is embarking on this trip, and to learn about the history of Catholicism in the country, I recommend the latest episode of “Inside the Vatican,” hosted by Colleen Dulle from America Media:

Pope Francis’s visit to Mongolia is a historic event that is likely to have a lasting impact on the country. It is a sign of the Pope’s commitment to the Catholic Church in Asia and to promoting interreligious dialogue. The visit is also likely to have a positive impact on Mongolia’s relations with the Vatican and with other countries in the region.

Image: Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. . Via Flickr. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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