Catholics gather to attend the Mass of Pope Francis at the Steppe Arena in Ulaanbaatar on September 3, 2023. Pope Francis on September 3 hailed religion's power to resolve conflict and promote peace, on his final full day in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar for a visit that has seen him seek to build bridges with neighboring China. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)
Some 2,500 people filled the Steppe Arena stadium in Ulaanbaatar two hours before Pope Francis arrived for the afternoon Mass on Sept. 3, his final full day of the four-day visit to Mongolia.
When the 86-year-old arrived, the atmosphere was already abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm with a significant presence of young people. In several pockets inside the stadium, various dances were taking place, each carrying a unique Mongolian cultural essence.
Although the tiny Catholic Church here has only some 1,400 members, Mongolia houses an estimated 40,000 Christians. Hundreds of Catholics also came from South, Korea, Singapore, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
As the crowd filled the external ring of the stadium, an unexpected scene greeted people – popcorn vendors, much like those found at any entertainment spot. The juxtaposition of the sacred and profane painted a picture of the unity in diversity that defines the Catholic experience in Mongolia.
Amid the buzz, Mungunbolor Gantumur, a 30-year-old graduate of Don Bosco School in Ulaanbaatar, says she plans to have a unique business.
"Now my dream is to write quotes from the Bible and sell them," said Gantumur, who has embarked on a journey as an artist specializing in Mongolian traditional calligraphy.
Mungunbolor is not Catholic but said she is “learning to become Catholic," guided by the encouragement of her uncle, who suggested she explore Don Bosco School.
"I really liked it (the school) as soon as I arrived because they were preparing me for both the material and spiritual life," she said, highlighting the holistic education and support she found at the school.
A group of nine Koreans sat in the last row of the Arena, all next to each other eagerly awaiting the Pope's arrival.
Among them was Jung Inok, a 48-year-old woman, who was baptized in a Catholic Church when she was ten.
“It really changed my life because I found a community of very close friends," she reflects.
Her friend Ji-yeong Lee, a 31-year-old graduate of Seoul's Jesuit University of Sogang, said he was excited to see Pope Francis in person in Mongolia.
However, his wife is not Catholic and is not present with him. "She is still thinking about it (receiving baptism), but I will try to make it happen."
Sitting in another row was Gabriel Chimeddorj, who was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar. She became Catholic at the age of 14.
“Horror movies and songs related to the Bible,” kindled interest him about Christianity, he says. “I started reading the Bible at home when I was barely 14 years old," he recounted.
"I watched movies and listened to songs that were related to it, like 'The Omen' movie, where, at the very end, there is a quotation from Revelation. It was impressive, so what I did at the end of the movie was go and check with the Bible to see if the quote was really there. And it was!"
Another source of his faith is the song Angel by DMX. His journey led him to baptism, even though his parents were not Catholic. "But they do respect my decision," he said.
Next to him was Caroline Nyamdelger Ochirbat, whose faith journey began when a friend invited her to attend a Mass in Ulaanbaatar in 2005.
"I liked it immediately because of the peaceful and quiet atmosphere, very different from anything else I was used to," she said reflecting on her initial encounter with Catholicism.
A year later she decided to be baptized. "But I never expected the Pope to come to Mongolia; we have so few Catholics here."
However, her baptism had a ripple effect as her friend and even her own mother decided to join the Catholic faith.