Pope Francis Trip to Mongolia. Photo: Vatican Media

[From Rome] Pope Francis in Asia: A Trip to Mongolia to Evangelize with Messages for Russia and, Especially, for China

In the dialogue that the Pope seeks, be it with Russia or with China, is the imprint of evangelization. Imprint that, as he has underscored, isn’t proselytism, or, in other words: diplomacy from a new optic: pastoral care.

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(ZENIT News / Rome, 05,09,2023).- Pope Francis visited Mongolia from August 31 to September 4, 2023. This pastoral trip was framed in the context of one of the guidelines of the present pontificate: the peripheries. It might be thought that it’s about the “Catholic peripheries” of the world, given that, to the distance that exists between Ulaanbaatar and Rome, is added to the fact  of a total of only 1,300 Catholics in a country of 3 million inhabitants, the majority being Buddhists. However, it was not solely the criterium of the periphery: “I make these trips to visit Catholic communities and also to enter into dialogue with the history and the culture of the people, with the mystique of a people,” said the Pontiff in the press conference on his return to Rome. Hence, the trip had two objectives: to visit the Catholic community and to dialogue with the people welcoming him. 

There is an especially interesting aspect of the way the Pope conceives the second aspect, which is dialogue. And he expressed it himself thus:

“It is important that evangelization not be conceived as proselytism. Proselytism always restricts. Pope Benedict said that faith does not increase by proselytism but by attraction. The proclamation of the Gospel enters into dialogue with the culture. There is an evangelization of culture and also an inculturation of the Gospel. Because Christians also express their Christian values with the culture of their own people. This is the opposite of what would be a religious colonization. For me, the trip was to [get to] know these people, to enter into dialogue with these people, to receive the culture of these people and to accompany the Church on her path with much respect for the culture of these people. And I’m satisfied with the result.”

In other words, for the Pope dialogue is part of the dynamic of evangelization. And in this connection, it can be said that the Pope’s trip to Mongolia had this evangelizing imprint, not a proselytizing imprint.

It’s also true that Mongolia’s geographic location makes possible an extended “dialogue.” Mongolia has only two borders: Russia to the North and China to the South. Hence, Mongolia offered the “evangelizing” space for the Pope to enter into dialogue with those two other countries. Pope Francis ended by calling this “the mystique of the third neighbour”:

Ulaanbaatar is the capital of the country that is farthest from the sea, and we can say that its land is between two great powers: Russia and China. Therefore, its mystique is to try to dialogue also with its “third neighbours” — not out of contempt for these two, because it maintains good relations with both, but because of a yearning for universality, to show its values to the whole world, and also to receive from others their values to be able to dialogue. It is curious that in history to go out to other lands, was confused often with colonialism, or entering to dominate, always. Instead you all, with this mystique of the third neighbour, have this philosophy to go out to seek dialogue. I liked this expression of the third neighbour very much. It’s a richness of theirs (was the Pope’s answer during the press conference on the return flight to Rome.):

In his first address to the Mongolian Authorities the Pope highlighted the fact of Mongolia as a diplomatic platform (in fact, he was taking advantage): 

“(. . . ) Mongolia today, with its wide network of diplomatic relations, its active adherence to the United Nations, its commitment to human rights and to peace plays a significant role in the heart of the great Asian Continent and on the international scene. I would also like to mention your determination to halt nuclear proliferation and to present yourselves to the world as a country without nuclear arms. Mongolia is not only a democratic nation that carries out a peaceful foreign policy, but which wishes to play an important role for world peace.”

Pope Francis spoke of peace in Mongolia and certainly not because the country welcoming him was at war. He spoke from Ulaanbaatar but the echo was directed North. However, in Mongolia the Pope had gestures and words especially for China. Addressing the Catholics gathered in the local Cathedral on September 2, he said:

“When the Lord Jesus  sent His own into the world, He did not send them to spread a political thought, but to witness with their life the novelty of the relationship with His Father, so that He could be “Our Father” (cf. John 20:17), thus activating a concrete fraternity with each people. The Church that is born from this mandate is a poor Church, which leans only on genuine faith, on the helpless and disarming power of the Risen One, able to alleviate the sufferings of wounded humanity. It’s because of that that the secular governments and institutions have nothing to fear from the evangelizing action of the Church, because she has no political agenda to take forward, but only knows the humble strength of God’s grace and of a Word of mercy and truth, [which is] able to promote the good of all.”

A day later, Sunday, September 3,the Pope dedicated his entire address to talk about the theme of harmony to which religions are called.” Religions are called to offer this harmony to the world, which technological progress on its own cannot give because, being pointed only to man’s earthly and horizontal dimension, runs the risk of forgetting Heaven, for which we have been created,” he said.

And, as a special gesture, he added at the end of the Mass on Sunday, September 3 (taking the hands of the two Chinese Bishops present, both from Hong Kong): 

These two brother Bishops, the Emeritus of Hong Kong and the current Bishop of Hong Kong: I would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people. I wish the best to all the people and always forward, always progress! And I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens, Thank you to all.”

Another message destined to the country of Mongolia’s southern border was expressed by the Pontiff on his last day and in his last public address. Speaking of myths to dispel around Christian charity, he said: “A second myth that must be dispelled is that by which the Catholic Church, which is distinguished in the world for her great commitment to works of social promotion, does all this for the sake of proselytism, as if to be concerned with others is a way of convincing them and putting them “on her side.” No, the Church doesn’t advance by proselytism, she advances by attraction.”

And to all this, what has China, in particular, responded? The first response came on September 1, in reply to the telegram the Pope sent to the Chinese President when flying over China’s air space. The spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry said that China wants to “continue working with the Vatican to establish a constructive dialogue, to reinforce understanding and mutual trust.” On Monday, September 4, the spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was asked about the greeting the Pope sent to the Chinese people, through the Bishops of Hong Kong, on Sunday, describing its citizens as a “noble” people and asking Catholics to be “good Christians and good citizens.” Will China consider the possibility of improving its relations with the Vatican? How will China respond to the Pope’s statement of good will?” Her answer was very short: “my colleagues presented previously China’s position.”

The Pope’s trip ended on September 4. China was also the topic on his return, and asked in a press conference about China on the plane, the Pontiff said: Relations with China are very respectful, very respectful. Personally, I have great admiration for the Chinese people, the channels are very open; there is a Commission for the appointment of Bishops that has worked for some time with the Chinese Government and the Vatican, then there are or, better said, there are some Catholic priests and Catholic intellectuals that are often invited to Chinese Universities  to give courses. I think we must advance in the religious aspect to understand one anther better and that Chinese citizens not think that the Church doesn’t accept their culture and their values, and that the Church depends on a foreign power.”

In the dialogue the Pope seeks with Russia or with China, is the imprint of evangelization. Imprint, that as he has stressed, isn’t proselytism but is, in other words, diplomacy from a new optic: pastoral care.

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