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What the pope’s visit to Mongolia says about his priorities and how he is changing the Catholic Church

Pope Francis, dressed in a white robe with a crucifix around his neck, gesturing with his hand while talking.
Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to meet the tiny Catholic community of Mongolia is drawing considerable interest. Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Mongolia, which is home to fewer than 1,500 Catholics, has elicited curiosity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

This will be the pope’s 43rd trip abroad since his election on March 13, 2013: He has visited 12 countries in the Americas, 11 in Asia and 10 in Africa.

What do these visits tell us about this pope’s mission and focus?

As a scholar of Roman Catholicism, I have studied Catholicism’s appeal for immigrants and refugees, and I argue that the pontiff’s official travels since 2013 are part of his decadelong effort to rebrand the Roman Catholic Church as a religious institution that centers the poor.

Prioritizing the poor

While previous popes have included the poor in their speeches, what has distinguished this pope is that he has focused on the Global South and prioritized immigrants, refugees and the less privileged, from Bolivia to Myanmar to Mongolia.

At his July 2013 visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa to commemorate migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, Francis gave a blistering critique of the world’s failure to care for the poor: “In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

Three years later, the pope flew 12 Syrian Muslim refugees from a Greek refugee camp to Rome. Francis is the first pope to relocate refugees and to work with groups like The Community of St. Egidio charity in Rome that have successfully resettled thousands of refugees.

During my own interviews with Central American Catholic immigrants and refugees in central and eastern Iowa between 2013-2020 for my book, “Meatpacking America,” I heard from women and men who fled violence and poverty in their home nations that they look up to this pope “because he cares about us,” as Fernando said. And Josefina told me back in 2017 that this pope is “the real deal” in terms of supporting immigrants and the poor.

Francis and liberation theology

His predecessors – Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict – specifically condemned liberation theology, a philosophy rooted in Catholic social teachings that calls for a preferential option for the poor and an embrace of Marxist ideology.

According to Austen Ivereigh prior to his becoming pope, Francis — then Jorge Mario Bergoglio – condemned liberation theology as well. He would say “that they were for the people but never with them,” wrote Ivereigh, in his biography of Pope Francis.

Since his election as pope, however, Francis has undertaken what I call “people-focused” liberationism. In one of his first official announcements in 2013, “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” the pope wrote about the essential inclusion of the poor in society, arguing that “without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.”

In other words, the Gospel’s message that all Christians proclaim doesn’t mean a whole lot if the poor are not central to the goal of personal as well as collective salvation.

Journeying to Mongolia

How does the pope’s upcoming visit to Mongolia factor into this decade-spanning trajectory of his people-focused liberation?

A Catholic nun handing out food to children seated on a rug in two rows.
Food service for homeless children in a shantytown in Mongolia. Michel Setboun/Corbis via Getty Images

Christianity has been present in Mongolia since the seventh century. Nestorianism, an Eastern branch of Christianity named after the Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius, who lived from 386 C.E. to 451 C.E., coexisted alongside an even older religious practice, shamanism, which emphasized the natural world and dates to the third century. Nestorians believe that Christ had two natures – one human and one divine.

While Mary was seen as important within Nestorian theology as Christ’s mother, she is not seen as divine. This is similar to Roman Catholic theology where Mary is deemed special because she is Christ’s mother and worthy of veneration.

According to historian Robert Merrihew Adams, the missionary activity of Nestorian Christians in central Asia from the seventh to the 13th centuries was “the most impressive Christian enterprise” of the Middle Ages because of its rapid spread and influence.

Adams argues that Nestorianism’s spread was in part because of its belief that Christ was a two-natured individual – one divine and one human. These two natures in one body meshed well with preexisting shamanic beliefs, as shamanism sees individuals as able to harness the supernatural.

In addition to this branch of Eastern Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism came to Mongolia in the 13th century, as did Islam. Today, Buddhism is the dominant religion of Mongolia, while Islam and Christianity remain very small percentages at 3% and 2.5%.

Pope Francis has made it clear throughout his tenure that interfaith dialogue is an essential remedy to division. During his visit he will preside over an interfaith gathering and the opening of a Catholic charity house.

A strategic visit

The past decade has brought rapid urbanization and growth in major cities such as the capital of Ulaanbaatar, along with high rates of unemployment and Covid-era economic downturn.

And yet, according to the World Bank, the economic forecast for Mongolia remains “promising” because of its rich natural resources, such as gold, copper, coal and other minerals.

However, extraction of Mongolia’s resources is occurring at a rapid pace – so much so that the country, according to the Harvard International Review, has been called “Minegolia.” The United States has made significant investment in Mongolia’s mining industry, and China is a major importer of Mongolian coal. Two rail lines connecting Mongolia to China were installed in January 2022 and a third is being built.

In the past, Francis has made strong comments against corruption and environmental degradation, and it would not be surprising if he addressed the challenges of the mining industry during his trip. During his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2023, he critiqued the Global North that contributed to “the poison of greed” that has “smeared its diamonds with blood.” In 2018, the pope spent a few hours in Madre de Dios, an area in the Peruvian Amazon, where mining has led to large-scale environmental degradation.

The pope’s visit will be bold given the challenges before Mongolia and its geographic location between Russia and China. A peace delegation on behalf of Pope Francis for the war in Ukraine, led by Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, that visted Russia this summer is likely to head to China in the coming months.

As Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, a missionary in Mongolia for two decades, has emphasized, Pope Francis’s visit to this country with a tiny minority of Catholics will “manifest the attention that the (pope) has for every individual, every person who embarks in this journey of faith.”

This piece has been updated to correct the depiction of the Roman Catholic Church’s view on Mary’s divinity.

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