Pope Francis sparks controversy with Mongolia visit
A pope’s foreign travels reflect his priorities. So what can we learn from Pope Francis’ controversial trip to Mongolia, with fewer than 1,500 Catholics?
In early September 2023 Pope Francis visited Mongolia, a country whose Catholic population could easily fit inside the Sistine Chapel. Questions have been raised about the value of such a trip, given its beneficiaries number so few.
But Pope Francis’ visit is not only, or even primarily for his flock in that country. It is far more than that, with geostrategic, interreligious, political, and optical angles. Deciding a papal visit is a combination of “diplomacy, collaboration, and fine-tuning,” and involves some of the pope’s closest aides. So why Mongolia?
Pope Francis: geostrategist
Mongolia is a country sandwiched between China and Russia. A recent study of Americans showed these two countries are, by a huge margin, perceived as the most threatening to the West. From Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the existence of secretive mass internment camps in China’s Xinjiang, these two countries are thought to challenge Western values of freedom, equality, and respect for the rules-based international order.
While Mongolia is in many ways influenced by its giant neighbours, in other ways it is a bastion of Western values in the East. The pope praised Mongolia’s history of religious tolerance, and advised citizens to continue to reject ideological fundamentalism that causes violence.
This has been interpreted as a dig at both Russia and China, where religious freedom is scarce (although ideological fundamentalism is by no means lacking in the West, either). However, Pope Francis sent unscripted greetings to China, asking its Catholics to be “good Christians and good citizens” – an apparent bid to persuade China to ease restrictions on Christians.
Moreover, a few days before arriving, the pope spoke positively about previous leaders of the Russian empire. With the Kremlin delighted and Ukrainians furious, as he returned from Mongolia the pope admitted that he misspoke.
While Pope Francis was clear that the Church should not be interpreted as a “foreign power,” he clearly understands the scale of his diplomatic influence, as EARS recently explored. As the first pope to hail from Latin America, Francis is a pope with a truly global perspective.
Controversy over pope’s interfaith outreach
In a country whose Buddhist roots date back thousands of years, the pope used his Mongolia trip to reinforce the importance of interfaith dialogue. He convened a historic meeting of many faiths, including Mongolian Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, evangelical and Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Hindus, Shintos, Bahais, and Shamans.
The pope quoted historical Buddhist texts about the goodness of charity, comparing it to Jesus’ own message of giving. This sent strong signals about the Catholic Church’s willingness to dialogue, understand other groups, and respect difference.
While Pope Francis’s interfaith engagement has been generally well received, the meeting drew criticism from conservative Catholics who have called such gatherings a “supermarket of religions.” They believe Francis’ attendance dilutes the Catholic faith, where he should be promoting it as the one universal and inalienable truth. The pope is never far from controversy.
A turn away from the West?
Pope Francis’s 10-year papal itinerary has taken in countries historically overlooked by world leaders, whether for their insignificance, political troubles, or remote location. His trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was the first papal visit there since 1985. His 2021 trip to Iraq was advised against by many, citing security and COVID-19 concerns.
His Mongolia visit is no different. The choice continues his turn towards the East and Global South, and away from the West. For example, his trip to Iraq to visit persecuted Christian minorities highlighted the chaos that followed in the wake of the West’s disastrous military interventions. Mongolia may also be a warning to Western countries not to repeat past mistakes. Peace in many parts of the world is a fragile and precious thing.
According to a source close to Francis, the pope always “chooses the peripheries.” In Mongolia, the pope said, “We are all God’s nomads,” referring to the Mongolian tradition of nomadic communities. The map of his travels shows an impressive breadth of countries, including those whose populations are not Christian.
All this reflects a pope prioritising the marginalised, poor, and unimportant – regardless of their religion. Opening a homeless clinic on his final day in Mongolia, Pope Francis denied that Christians should do good in order to win converts. In a country with fewer than 1,500 Catholics, there seems to be little risk of that.
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