Pope Francis departs the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral following his meeting with bishops, priests, missionaries, consecrated persons and pastoral workers in Ulaanbaatar on Sept. 2. (Photo: Cristian Martini Grimaldi/UCA News)
Catholics in Mongolia say the historic visit of Pope Francis to their Buddhist-majority nation shines a light on the country's small but vibrant Christian community.
The vast Asian nation is now home to 1,400 Catholics — a tiny community who say they never expected the pope to visit.
"We have never dreamed... that the Holy Father will visit Mongolia, a country with a very small Catholic community," Paul Leung, a priest from Hong Kong who has worked in Mongolia for 17 years, said.
"Many people do not even know where is Mongolia or what is Mongolia," he said.
"But now our Holy Father chose to visit us, I really feel that it is a special grace from God."
He was tired from the busy preparations, he said, but "very excited."
Religion was suppressed during Mongolia's communist period, which ended in 1990. Two years later, the country established formal ties with the Vatican.
Otgontsetseg Dash-Onolt, speaking from her home, said it was a "proud moment," especially given the pope's recent health issues.
"The Holy Father is visiting in the remote country after his surgery," she said.
"This means he is coming to us to prove that we are one united brothers and sisters."
Her retired husband, Khurts Lhamsuren, said that the church makes him feel "much younger."
"It's nice to share and help each other," he explained.
Sangaajav Tserenkhand, a local priest, said he had converted from Buddhism after meeting Catholic charity workers.
"I asked my Father Kim why are you doing this? He pointed to the cross and said
I came to Mongolia because Jesus told me to help Mongolians," Tserenkhand said.
"His answer truly moved me and opened my heart," he said.
"I realized God is real and I want to be the tool of God to deliver love if he lets me."
Son Jijung is not of the Catholic faith, but her journey here with three Korean friends is deeply intertwined with her husband's unwavering Catholic beliefs.
“He currently works abroad, and it's his profound faith that has kindled my curiosity. I do contemplate the possibility of undergoing the sacrament of baptism,” she said, while waiting for the arrival of the pope at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar on Sept. 2.
Son passionately underscores the significance of Pope Francis' visit to Mongolia.
“This historic event carries immense weight for the local Catholic community. I believe it to be a transformative opportunity, one that can foster unity among the faithful in Mongolia,” she noted.
Son and her companions, who work at the Catholic Medical Association, see the visit as an opportunity to raise global awareness about the faith and existence of such a small yet vibrant community.
“Until the pope's visit, their presence may have gone unnoticed beyond Mongolia's borders, but this momentous occasion promises to change that,” she observed.
Suora Francesca and Teodora are devoted Consolate Sisters serving in Mongolia for the past five years.
Teodora is from Tanzania while Francesca traces her roots back to Italy. The recent announcement of Pope Francis' upcoming visit took them by surprise.
"We were really surprised" at the news, they admit, perhaps echoing the sentiments of many in the local Catholic community. “The papal visit was an unforeseen blessing, an extraordinary event.”
They see the papal visit as a significant catalyst, an event that will not only inspire and uplift the local Catholic community but also breathe new life into their own spirits.
Enkhzul Otgondorj, on the other hand, shares her unique story of marrying a non-Catholic husband, an alliance blessed in the traditional Catholic manner.
Her introduction to the Catholic faith came through the compassionate guidance of Father Simon from Korea and Father Andrew from Vietnam, both dedicated Salesian priests.
“During the early 2000s,” she says, “Ulaanbaatar grappled with a pressing issue, street children.”
The young souls, aged between 11 and 18 years, were living a precarious existence in makeshift shelters along the roadsides, some living in actual holes underground. They were totally deprived of the most basic necessities, such as water, medicine, and adequate food, and mostly they relied on the benevolence of strangers.
“Father Simon took it upon himself to provide these vulnerable children with clothing and medical aid, particularly during the harsh Mongolian winters,” Enkhzul said.
These children were born into impoverished and troubled families, and their plight was exacerbated by the scourge of alcoholism plaguing their parents. This dire situation unfolded in the eastern part of the city, home to the very cathedral that stands as a symbol of hope today.
Enkhzul now reflects on the immense progress made in alleviating the suffering of these street children, underscoring that conditions have significantly improved over the years.
Currently, she collaborates with three Salesian priests in Darkhan and takes on the role of managing a study center.
“My hope is for Pope Francis' visit to transcend matters of faith. I hope to see greater support from the Mongolian authorities for the Catholic Church here,” she said.
She believes that the positive impact of the Church on the community and society at large does warrant such support.