ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (RNS) — At a welcoming ceremony in this city’s vast Sükhbaatar Square on Saturday (Sept. 2), Pope Francis paid homage to a large bronze statue of Genghis Khan, the founder of the 13th-century Mongol empire, as a crowd of about 1,000 Catholics, some from as far away as Hong Kong, looked on.
Francis, the first pope to visit this central Asian country and its small Catholic community, then met with the president of Mongolia, Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh, and other officials in the Great Ger, a room in the State Palace that resembles traditional Mongolian tents.
In his speech to the government ministers, the pope praised the Mongolian gers as “efficient and ecologically sound” dwelling places with “zero impact on the environment” as an example of the “native wisdom” of the Mongolian people, “respectful of the delicate balances of the ecosystem.”
“You help us to appreciate and carefully cultivate what we Christians consider to be God’s creation, the fruit of his benevolent design, and to combat the effects of human devastation by a culture of care and foresight reflected in responsible ecological policies,” the pope said.
The praise was as much encouragement as fact: Mongolia, a communist country until 1992, has wrestled with growing concerns over pollution and climate change. In 2016 Ulaanbaatar’s air was deemed the most polluted of any national capital in the world.
The pope also spoke to the religious diversity in the country, whose population of just more than 3 million is split between Buddhism and Mongolian shamanic traditions. He voiced his hope that these philosophies and beliefs will “contribute significantly to the urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve planet Earth.”
While Catholics only represent a small portion of that diversity, counting fewer than 1,500 members, Francis said that he hopes the community will enrich Mongol society. “When religions remain grounded in their original spiritual patrimony, and are not corrupted by sectarian deviations, they prove to be trustworthy supports in the construction of healthy and prosperous societies,” he said.
Francis made an appeal for peace, conscious that Mongolia shares a border with Russia, currently engaged in a violent war in Ukraine. He urged the Mongolian government to seek an end to war. “May the dark clouds of war be dispelled, swept away by the firm desire for a universal fraternity wherein tensions are resolved through encounter and dialogue, and the fundamental rights of all people are guaranteed!” he said.
Francis had the opportunity to directly address the Catholics gathered to see him in the afternoon, when he delivered a speech at the ger-shaped cathedral of St. Peter and Paul to missionaries, priests and local bishops, including Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, the apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, whom Francis made a cardinal, the country’s first, a year ago.
The pope blessed a statue of Mary that has become something of a legend in Mongolia, after it was improbably found in a landfill by a local woman, Tsetsege, almost two decades ago. After it was brought to Cardinal Marengo, the statue, now known as “The Mother of the Sky,” was given a place of honor in the cathedral. The pope met with Tsetsege in a ger outside the church.
“Brothers and sisters, do not be concerned about small numbers, limited success or apparent irrelevance. That is not how God works,” the pope said.
“Let us keep our gaze fixed on Mary, who in her littleness is greater than the heavens, for within her she bore the One whom the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain,” he added.