VATICAN CITY — Being a Catholic does not destroy or replace a person’s culture, and wanting to share the Gospel message does not mean wanting to take someone’s allegiance away from their nation.
Visiting Mongolia Sept. 1-4, Pope Francis encouraged the nation’s tiny Catholic community to grow in faith and charity, but the visit also was designed to reassure the government that it has nothing to fear from the Catholic missionaries who arrived in the country in 1992.
The pope’s speeches in Ulaanbaatar, the national capital, repeatedly referenced positive contacts between Mongolians and the Vatican going back to 1200s when Pope Innocent IV sent an emissary to Güyük Khan, the ruler of the Mongol Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan.
Pope Francis used the ger, the traditional round house of the nomadic Mongolians, as symbols of warmth and unity. And he made repeated references to the “big sky” of Mongolian poetry as a sign of the Mongolian people’s constant attention to the transcendent.
At the end of Mass Sept. 3, the pope praised Mongolians as “good Christians and honest citizens,” and told them to “go forward, gently and without fear, conscious of the closeness and the encouragement of the entire church, and above all the tender gaze of the Lord, who forgets no one and looks with love upon each of his children.”
Earlier, meeting with the missionaries in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Francis told them: “Closeness, compassion and tenderness: treat people like that, personally caring for them, learning their language, respecting and loving their culture, not allowing yourselves to be tempted by worldly forms of security, but remaining steadfast in the Gospel through exemplary moral and spiritual lives.”
And while the focus was on Mongolia and its 1,400 Catholics, China — and perhaps Vietnam — was never far from Pope Francis’ mind.
The Catholic Church is registered as a “foreign NGO” in Mongolia, not as a church. Individual parishes are registered separately. Missionaries receive visas that must be renewed each year. And for every foreign missionary granted a visa, the church must hire at least five Mongolians.
The bigger challenge, Catholic missionaries told reporters covering the trip, is convincing Mongolians that Catholic missionaries are not some kind of advance team preparing for a Western invasion of their country.
Similar suspicions exist in China, and to a lesser degree, Vietnam.
Pope Francis flew over China early Sept. 1 before landing in Ulaanbaatar and again Sept. 4 on his way back to Rome, sending courtesy telegrams to Chinese President Xi Jinping, thanking him for allowing the papal plane to enter Chinese airspace and offering his blessings and good wishes to the nation.
Throughout his stay in Mongolia, Pope Francis was accompanied by bishops from Central Asia and beyond. They included Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow Sau-Yan of Hong Kong and the city’s retired Cardinal John Tong Hon.
At the end of Mass Sept. 3 in Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena, the pope called the two over to him and told the international congregation, “I want to take the opportunity of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people.”
To Chinese Catholics, he added, “I ask you to be good Christians and good citizens.”
Mao Ning, spokeswoman of the Chinese foreign ministry, was asked about the pope’s remarks at a Sept. 4 news conference.
“We noted the reports,” she said. “China is positive toward improving the relations and we are in contact and communication with the Vatican.”
Bishops and priests from mainland China were not permitted to travel to Mongolia, but several small groups of lay Catholics from China did manage to cross the border to see the pope.
A large group of Catholics from Vietnam also were present and were hopeful that the pope could visit their country soon.
“I don’t know if I will go, but John XXIV certainly will,” the pope, using the name he has invented for his successor, told reporters on his flight back to Rome.
The Vatican and Vietnam’s communist government have a joint working group focused mainly on bilateral relations and trying to reach an agreement on establishing diplomatic ties. And since the 1990s, a Vatican delegation has made annual visits to Vietnam, getting government approval for the nomination of bishops and seeking permission on issues like establishing or expanding seminaries.
“I am very positive about the relationship with Vietnam; good work has been going on for years,” Pope Francis told reporters on the plane Sept. 4.
“I remember four years ago, a group of Vietnamese parliamentarians came to visit: there was a nice dialogue with them, very respectful,” the pope said. “When a culture is open, there is possibility for dialogue; if there is closure or suspicion, dialogue is very difficult. With Vietnam, the dialogue is open, with its pluses and minuses, but it is open and slowly moving forward. There have been some problems, but they have been resolved.”
Pope Francis and his predecessors have been betting on a similarly patient dialogue with China for decades. And Pope Francis shows no sign of giving up.
“The relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful,” he told reporters on the flight back to Rome. “I personally have great admiration for the Chinese people.”
While some priests and Catholic intellectuals have been invited to teach at Chinese universities, promoting a cultural dialogue, the pope said, “I think we need to move forward in the religious aspect to understand each other better and so that Chinese citizens do not think that the church does not accept their culture and values” and to dispel the idea that through ties with the pope, the Catholic Church in China “is dependent on another, foreign power.”
“Relations are moving forward,” he repeated.