By Courtney Mares
Pope Francis made history Friday morning when he became the first pope to travel to Mongolia, the world’s most sparsely populated sovereign country.
The papal plane touched down in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar at 9:52 a.m. local time on Sept. 1. As Pope Francis debarked from the plane at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, he was welcomed by the Asian country’s foreign minister and a young woman who offered the pope a cup of traditional Mongolian dried curds.
Pope Francis told journalists aboard the chartered ITA Airways plane that to visit Mongolia is to encounter “a small people, but a big culture.”
“I think it will do us good to understand this silence … to understand what it means, but not intellectually, with the senses. Mongolia can be understood with the senses,” he said.
Roughly the size of Alaska, Mongolia has five people per square mile. About 30% of its population is nomadic or semi-nomadic. Bordering Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia is also the second-largest landlocked country in the world with the vast Gobi Desert covering one-third of its territory.
During the nearly 10-hour flight, the papal plane passed over more than 10 countries, including Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and China.
The pope sent a message to the leaders of each of these countries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Pope Francis told the Chinese leader that he was praying for the well-being of the nation of China and asked for the “divine blessings of unity and peace.”
The 86-year-old pope will spend the first day in the Mongolian capital resting at the apostolic prefecture. His first public event will be a welcome ceremony on Sept. 2 in the city’s Sükhbaatar Square with President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh. He will later meet with the country’s small Catholic community in the city’s Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Mongolia is home to 1,450 Catholics, which is far fewer than 1% of the country’s 3.3 million people. The Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, a missionary area that does not have enough Catholics to warrant a diocese, has jurisdiction over the entirety of Mongolia.
The first modern mission to Mongolia was in 1922 and was entrusted to the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But under a communist government, religious expression was soon thereafter suppressed, until 1992. Mongolia’s first native priest was ordained in 2016.
Last year, Pope Francis named an Italian who had served as a missionary in Mongolia for nearly 20 years as the world’s youngest cardinal. Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, 49, is the apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which serves the entire country.
The motto of the pope’s four-day trip to Mongolia is “Hoping Together.” In his Angelus address this week, Pope Francis said that the trip “will be an opportunity to embrace a Church that is small in number but vibrant in faith and great in charity, and also to meet at close quarters a noble, wise people with a strong religious tradition that I will have the honor of getting to know, especially in the context of an interreligious event.”
“I ask all of you to accompany this visit with your prayers,” he said.