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Pope Francis Unites Mongolia’s Catholics in Historic Mass

WorldPope Francis Unites Mongolia's Catholics in Historic Mass

In an extraordinary and unprecedented event, Pope Francis found himself in the company of nearly the entire Catholic population of a country as he presided over a Mass in the heart of Mongolia’s capital. The Mass, held at Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena, marked a religious zenith during the pope’s visit to the small Catholic community comprising just 1,450 faithful. It’s worth noting that the majority of Mongolia’s 3.3 million people adhere to Buddhism.

While most of Mongolia’s nine parishes are situated in the capital, there’s one remote outpost with approximately 30 members. Church authorities had expressed their hopes that all available members would journey to attend this momentous event. Mongolia, a land where many still embrace a nomadic lifestyle centered around tending to their animals, provided Pope Francis with a vivid metaphor for his homily.

In his address, Pope Francis eloquently articulated, “All of us are God’s nomads, pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers thirsting for love.” He emphasized that the Christian faith served as the ultimate quencher of this spiritual thirst, uniting the congregation in a common pursuit of divine fulfillment.

What made this gathering even more exceptional was the presence of several Buddhist monks clad in their distinctive saffron robes. The Mass itself was conducted in three languages: Mongolian, English, and Italian, symbolizing the universal message of love and faith that transcends linguistic barriers.

Pope Francis embarked on his day’s journey with an inter-religious service, where he humbly referred to himself as one of the “humble heirs” of ancient schools of wisdom, even quoting the Buddha. Sharing the stage with a diverse assembly of religious representatives numbering a dozen, the Pope appealed to all religions to coexist harmoniously, shunning ideological fundamentalism that tends to breed violence and division.

Throughout his visit to Mongolia, Pope Francis consistently lauded the importance of religious freedom, especially poignant given the country’s proximity to China, a nation frequently criticized for its restrictions on religious practices.

In a candid moment following the Mass, the Pope extended greetings to China, extending yet another olive branch to the communist nation, urging them to ease their restrictions on religion.

The inter-religious gathering drew leaders from a wide spectrum of faiths, including Mongolian Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, evangelical and Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Hindus, Shintos, Bahais, and shamans. Pope Francis, in his address, stressed the importance of sharing the treasures of faith among these diverse traditions in order to enrich humanity and steer it away from the relentless pursuit of materialism.

Quoting a teaching of the Buddha that “the wise man rejoices in giving,” Pope Francis underscored the similarity to Jesus’ famous saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This observation highlighted the common ground between different religious philosophies and their shared emphasis on selflessness and generosity.

Nevertheless, not everyone was on board with the Pope’s approach. Some conservative Catholics, like Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, criticized the Pope for attending such gatherings, labeling them as a “supermarket of religions” that, in their view, diminished the stature of the Catholic Church. Despite this opposition, Pope Francis remained resolute in his commitment to “ecumenical, inter-religious, and cultural dialogue.” He clarified that dialogue did not seek to gloss over differences but rather aimed to foster understanding and mutual enrichment.

Pope Francis took a firm stance against narrow-mindedness, unilateral imposition, fundamentalism, and ideological constraints, all of which, he argued, served to erode fraternity, exacerbate tensions, and imperil peace. His message resonated with the audience, as evidenced by the words of Buddhist Monk Altankhuu Tserenjav from the Zuun Khuree Dashichoiling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, who described the meeting as “very important and meaningful.” He compared Pope Francis to a global religious leader akin to the Dalai Lama, expressing his deep respect and appreciation for the Pope’s visit.

Mongolia has experienced a resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism since the fall of the Soviet-backed Communist regime in 1990, with the Dalai Lama being regarded as the principal spiritual figure. However, China has repeatedly exerted pressure on Mongolia to prevent the 88-year-old exiled Tibetan leader from visiting, branding him a dangerous separatist. This complex geopolitical backdrop added a layer of significance to Pope Francis’ visit, emphasizing the delicate balancing act required when navigating the intersections of faith, politics, and international relations.

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