19.09.2023 Author: Boris Kushhov

What was the obvious and not-so-obvious significance of the Pope’s visit to Mongolia?

Pope’s visit to Mongolia

The Pope’s journey to Mongolia concluded on September 4. This was a spiritual as well as a state visit, and the Pope was not only visiting Mongolia as the head of the Catholic Church. In addition to preaching, inaugurating a Charity House, and meeting with members of the Catholic community, Francis met with Mongolian dignitaries, including the President of Mongolia, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament.

Despite a pretty unusual agenda and expectations of equally unusual remarks and outcomes from this journey, it turned out to be devoid of sensations. However, the most intriguing “messages” of the Pope’s visit are concealed not in his meetings or other interactions with his Mongolian counterparts, but rather in the nonverbal cues and signals he used during his stay. That is the focus of this article.

The fundamental emphasis of the author’s thesis is that this trip should be viewed as taking place outside the context of Mongolian-Vatican relations and as the most effective venue for the Vatican to express its current priorities. Of course, the Vatican has been paying attention to Mongolia for a long time. If we exclude the Holy See’s occasional contacts with Mongolian khans in the 13th century and the activities of Catholic missionaries in Karakorum, the Vatican provided humanitarian aid to Mongolia three times at the turn of the twenty-first century, in 1993, 1996, and 2000, during times of economic restructuring and food crises. Neither was the September meeting the first time the two sides had met at the highest level; Mongolian presidents paid official visits to the Pope in 2000 and 2011.

Mongolia’s Catholic community, despite its tiny size, is quite active.  According to the Pope, thirty years ago Mongolia got its first preacher who did his spiritual work from home, and today a whole monastery complex is being created in the country’s capital. Other manifestations of attention to the Mongolian community can be found. Last year, the Pope elevated the leader of the country’s Catholic mission to the rank of cardinal.

Mongolian and Vatican relations are therefore quite long-standing and have been on the rise since the 1990s. Nonetheless, Francis’ personal visit to the country was most likely inspired by broader objectives. According to the most recent data, Mongolia’s Catholic community has 1450 members and plays no significant role on a global scale.  Nonetheless, 86-year-old Francis, who requires a wheelchair after undergoing surgery in June, flew from the Vatican to Ulaanbaatar and completed his rather busy tour to this country. What messages was he trying to get out to the world through Mongolia?

Rapprochement with world powers

The Pope’s visit to Mongolia demonstrates the Vatican’s desire to deepen and broaden ties with not only Mongolia but also other “non-traditional” allies of the Holy See. Francis sent telegrams of greetings to the leaders of each country he flew over. Some of these nations cannot claim to have frequent relations with the Vatican and are by no means rich in Catholic tradition. The Chinese President Xi Jinping also received greetings. Given the rather difficult political context of Sino-Vatican relations, Francis may view the trip to Mongolia as an opportunity to deepen and enhance ties. By the way, this statement also holds true for Russia: just prior to the commencement of his journey, the Pope extended an invitation to meet with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, using his travel to Mongolia as the basis for these discussions. The Pope’s trip to Mongolia is, among other objectives, an effort to deepen ties with other “civilizational centers” and is probably intended to increase the Vatican’s actual influence in contemporary world politics, which are marked by a clear conflict between the West and Russia as well as escalating tensions between the West and China.

Expanding partnerships with “people of different faiths”

The Pope’s visit to Mongolia also serves to highlight the Vatican’s openness to fostering more dialogue between religions. In this regard, Mongolia appears to be an ideal place to begin: it is an eastern nation with unique religious traditions that are distinct from those of Christianity, yet it is secular and receptive to dialogue with non-traditional confessions. The visit was almost certain to be a success, and the favorable outcome can be used by the Vatican to create constructive cooperation between the Holy See and non Catholic (non-Christian) nations and peoples in general.

Indirect expression of the Vatican’s position on uncomfortable issues on the global agenda

Additionally, the Pope most likely made an effort to convey his own views on a variety of global issues and risks through his favorable assessment of Mongolian foreign policy orientations. During his talk with the prime minister, he acknowledged that Mongolia is actively working to promote world peace and prosperity, that it is a democratic country with religious freedom, and that it is prepared for dialogue across cultures and religions. It is reasonable to believe that Francis’ words reflect support for the ideals of a non-partisan and cooperative strategy for resolving significant international problems, such as the Ukrainian crisis. Declaring it a viewpoint would be a far riskier venture than showing the world a living example of it.

Seeking contacts with the Chinese Catholic community

In the absence of connections between the PRC and the Vatican, it is also plausible that the journey to Mongolia was an attempt to establish contact with the Chinese Catholic population.  During his visit’s mass festivities, the Pope also addressed the Chinese Catholic community, which dispatched about a hundred representatives to Mongolia to meet with the Pope.

This visit was not only an effort to deepen and broaden the Vatican’s ties with a small but steadfast ally, but it was also a crucial component of the Holy See’s modern foreign policy, which sought to express its views on global issues and broaden its network of contacts in order to gain more influence in world affairs and to play a more significant role as a peacemaker between the competing and warring powers of the time.


Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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