When I was growing up, my family would use the idiom “further than Outer Mongolia” to describe someplace that seemed impossibly far away. So imagine my surprise when I found out that I would be traveling 5,000 miles with Pope Francis to the actual country of Mongolia for a quick four-day trip over Labor Day weekend.
Traveling with the Pope is always a bit of a flying circus. Security personnel, cardinals, bishops, Vatican officials, and some 70 journalists packed into the papal plane, a commercial ITA Airways plane chartered for the 10-hour journey.
I have never seen so much mid-air movement during a flight. Entire rows of seats were taken up by bulky camera equipment as some reporters recorded television spots at more than 30,000 feet above sea level. But everyone grew quiet when Pope Francis came to the back of the plane to greet us, saying he looked forward to experiencing Mongolian culture and the silence of the world’s most sparsely populated sovereign country.
“Mongolia, you understand with your senses,” he told us.
As soon as his white zucchetto was out of view, journalists resumed shuffling up and down the plane aisles to compare notes on everything the Pope had said.
When we landed at Ghenghis Khan International Airport, the press corps and members of the Roman Curia traveling on the papal plane were immediately swept off in a police motorcade to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
Traveling past a far-stretching landscape, I caught a glimpse of horses running across an open field dotted with circular white yurt dwellings, which the local Mongolian nomadic herders refer to as gers. It seemed like a dream world after the sleepless night flight.
Pope Francis is known for traveling to the peripheries of the world to visit places no pope has gone before. And with this historic trip, the Pope said that he was coming to visit Mongolia’s small flock of just 1,450 Catholics, which he described as “small in number but great in faith and charity.”
During my four days in Mongolia, it was inspiring to meet many Catholic missionaries on the ground who had given years of their lives to help bring the Gospel to this country where the Catholic Church has only had an official presence for 30 years, as well as Mongolian Catholics, many of them recent converts, who traveled hours across Mongolia’s vast territory to see the Pope.
We were welcomed on the first day with traditional horsehead fiddle music and dancers in elaborate costumes adorned with peacock feathers, followed by a Mongolian folk wrestling tournament and an acrobatic equestrian show, a recreation of a traditional “Besreg Naadam” festival, about 25 miles outside of the city.
But for most of the trip, we remained in the Soviet-style capital; the brutalist architecture reminded me of cities I had previously visited in China near its eastern border with Russia and brought back nostalgic memories of years past before Xi Jinping’s crackdown on foreign missionaries.
My original interest in traveling to Mongolia came from the idea that this trip could be the closest the Church has ever come to a papal trip to China. Mongolia shares a nearly-3,000-mile border with China, and Beijing is only a two-hour flight from Ulaanbaatar, where Pope Francis presided over the first-ever papal Mass in Mongolia.
Each day I was in Mongolia, I encountered small groups of Chinese Catholics who had come to the papal events to see Pope Francis. Some were very hesitant to speak to the press and tried to shield their identities using face masks and sunglasses, out of fear of potential retribution from the government. But there were also many people enthusiastically waving Chinese flags and cheering loudly when the Pope passed by.
Also in the crowd at the papal Mass in Ulaanbaatar were some Catholics who said they were from the underground Church in Inner Mongolia and were able to cross the border because they often traveled to Mongolia for business.
In a memorable moment at the end of that Mass, Pope Francis embraced two bishops from Hong Kong and gave a surprise shout-out — saying he wanted to “send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people” and asking Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens, carefully chosen words amid the Holy See’s ongoing diplomacy with Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops.
In Mongolia, I spoke with Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow, the bishop of Hong Kong, who said that “the Asian church is a growing church” and added that he believes “the Asian church also has a very important role to play now in the universal Church.”
Cardinal-elect Chow was one of many bishops who traveled across Asia for Pope Francis’ visit. With so few Catholics living in Mongolia, the papal trip gave visitors the unique opportunity to see the Pope up close in an intimate setting. I met Catholics from Vietnam, South Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines who had decided it was worth the miles traveled to seize their chance to meet the Pope.
“For people in Asia … we do not have a lot of opportunities to meet the Pope personally, so, for many of us, for most of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it is like a dream come true for many,” Hee Jung Choi from Seoul told me with a big smile on her face.
“We came to Mongolia to ask the Pope to visit Vietnam,” Father Huynh The Vinh from Vietnam’s Diocese of Phu Cuong said.
Mongolians who had no prior contact with the Catholic Church also appeared to be intrigued by the Pope’s visit. I spoke with a Buddhist monk from Mongolia’s Dashchoilin Monastery, who described meeting the Pope as like seeing the Dalai Lama.
Time will tell what fruit the first apostolic journey to Mongolia by a successor of Peter may bear for the country sandwiched between China and Russia or the lands beyond its borders, but after we returned to Rome, Pope Francis’ words to the Catholic missionaries in Asia during this trip remain with me.
“Brothers and sisters, do not be concerned about small numbers, limited success or apparent irrelevance,” he said. “God loves littleness, and through it, he loves to accomplish great things, as Mary herself bears witness.”