ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) — Pope Francis wrapped up the first-ever papal visit to Mongolia on Monday by inaugurating a church-run homeless clinic and shelter, insisting that such initiatives aren’t aimed at winning converts but are simply exercises in Christian charity.
Francis toured the House of Mercy, a three-story structure housed in an old school, which the local church has opened as an expression of the roots that it has taken in the three decades that the Catholic Church has had an official presence in Mongolia. It was the final event of an historic four-day visit to a region where the Holy See has long sought to make inroads.
Several of the foreign-staffed Catholic religious orders in Mongolia run shelters, orphanages and nursing homes to care for a population of 3.3 million where one in three people lives in poverty. But the new clinic for homeless people, people with disabilities and victims of domestic violence is aimed at showing the outreach of the Mongolian Catholic Church as a whole to its local community.
“The true progress of a nation is not gauged by economic wealth, much less by investment in the illusory power of armaments, but by its ability to provide for the health, education and integral development of its people,” Francis said at the shelter, urging Mongolians rich and poor to volunteer to help their fellow citizens.
An emotional scene erupted as Francis left the facility and his car was approached by a number of faithful, apparently from China, where the church is under heavy pressure from the officially atheist ruling Communist Party.
Singing “Please lead us to heaven, great pontiff, we are blessed, dear pontiff, we admire you, you are the representative of God,” the group, many in tears, waved and reached out their arms. A couple of women among them were permitted to approach the pope and hand him gifts. One leaned inside and received a papal caress on her cheek.
At a certain point police had to push the excited faithful away from the car, but no incidents were reported.
The church has in past been viewed at times as using charities such as orphanages and soup kitchens to lure converts, particularly in China, where the phrase “rice Christian” had been a term of derision. China's Communist leaders have continued to question the loyalty of the country's estimated 12 million Catholics in both state-recognized and underground congregations, and keep them under strict monitoring.
Currently, some 77 missionaries minister to Mongolia's Catholics, who with around 1,450 people constitute one of the tiniest Catholic flocks in the world. But only two Mongolian men have been ordained priests, and no Mongolian women have decided to join religious congregations as nuns.
These foreign missionaries say the biggest challenge facing them is to cultivate a truly local Mongolian church, with trained lay people who are well inserted into the fabric of society. That, they hope, will eventually lead to more religious vocations so that foreign missionaries become less and less necessary.
“We have to make this a church of Mongolia, one that has the flavor of this land, of its steppes, of its sheep, goats, of its ger,” said the Rev. Ernesto Viscardi, an Italian priest of the Consolata missionary order who has been based in Mongolia for 19 years.
“There are 77 of us missionaries. We’re all great, all saints, everyone works well," he said laughing. “But we have to think about making the local church grow, so that the (Mongolian) people take their church in hand. Otherwise we colonize Mongolia anew, and that makes no sense."
In urging everyday Mongolians to volunteer to help the poor, Francis said charity work wasn’t just for the idle rich but for everyone. And he denied that Catholic charity was about winning new converts.
“Another myth needing to be dispelled is that the Catholic Church, distinguished throughout the world for its great commitment to works of social promotion, does all this to proselytize, as if caring for others were a way of enticing people to ‘join up,’" Francis said. “No! Christians do whatever they can to alleviate the suffering of the needy, because in the person of the poor they acknowledge Jesus, the Son of God, and in him the dignity of each person.”
Francis’ comment was a tacit acknowledgement of the competition for souls in places like Mongolia, which banned religious observation during decades of Soviet-allied communist government. Now, religious freedom is enshrined in the Mongolian constitution, and a variety of Christian and evangelical churches have taken root here.
Some, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, boast a much bigger presence in Mongolia and claim far more members than the Catholic Church. But in a sign that Catholics weren't competing with the Mormons or other Christian churches, Francis invited their leaders to an interfaith meeting on Saturday in Ulaanbaatar to show their common concern for promoting a more peaceful and harmonious world.
In seeking to encourage Mongolia’s tiny Catholic flock, Francis has insisted that their small size doesn’t matter and that their success shouldn't be measured in numbers. “God loves littleness, and through it he loves to accomplish great things,” Francis told priests, nuns and bishops from around the region during a Saturday encounter in the cathedral.
Francis came to Mongolia to give a word of hope to the young church, but also to make a geopolitically important foray into a troubled region for the Holy See, particularly given neighboring China’s crackdown on religious observance.
On Sunday, Francis gave a special shout-out to Chinese Catholics, issuing a warm word of greeting from the altar of Mass at the Steppe Arena.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the pope’s Sunday greeting to the "noble Chinese people” had been noted.
"China has always taken a positive attitude towards improving relations with the Vatican and has maintained contact and communication with the Vatican,” Mao told reporters at a daily briefing Monday.
China cut ties with the Vatican shortly after the 1949 Communist revolution and current Chinese leader Xi Jinping insists all religions conform to party doctrine and make themselves Chinese in essence. Under Xi, China has largely torched a pledge to consult on the appointment of Chinese bishops.
On Monday, Oyunchimeg Tserendolgo, a social worker at a public school, brought a group of her students to see Francis outside the shelter. She said she felt she had to come see the pope even though she herself isn’t Catholic.
“I wish for (the) Roman pope to live a long life and to bring more goodness not only to Mongolia, but to the rest of the world,” she said as she held a photo of the pontiff. “When I heard that pope is leaving today, I had to come here to pay my respects. I am so glad I got a glimpse of him. Just so happy.”
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