During his trip to Mongolia between 1-4 September Pope Francis visited the country’s small but growing Catholic community and met with other religious leaders. ACN’s Head of projects for Central Asia, Peter Humeniuk, accompanied the Pope on this trip. Talking to María Lozano he assesses the papal visit and discusses its possible implications for the future of the country and the entire region.
How would you summarise the three-day papal visit to Mongolia? What, in your opinion, are the key takeaways from this visit?
In the run-up to this somewhat unexpected papal visit many were wondering if it was likely to take place at all. But, in the end, it turned out to be a very successful visit indeed.
The papal visit to Mongolia succeeded in setting a course for the future of this country. I can tell you that the feelings and compassion the Holy Father has shown towards others throughout his visit has really impressed me.
Again, in the run-up to this trip questions were asked about why he would want to visit a country with a population made up largely of Buddhists, with so few Catholics and such a small ecclesiastical infrastructure. It is often said that the Pope reaches out to the peripheries, and this trip was no exception in that respect. In reaching out to the peripheries the Pope really succeeded in reaching the very centre – the heart.
What exactly do you mean by this? What centre did he reach out to?
By “centre” I mean Central and Eastern Asia, the heart of Asia. Many of the region’s local Churches took this visit as an opportunity to get together. Not only his ecclesiastical representatives, bishops and cardinals, but also the many faithful of these local Churches who came together to welcome the Pope. His gesture has certainly given them orientation and guidance.
What countries are we talking about?
In addition to Mongolia I was talking about countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
So, do you believe that the Pope’s visit could be a landmark event for all of these countries?
With the exception of the Philippines, Christians are not only in the minority in Asia, but they also generally live under varyingly difficult conditions. They came together with all their individual and distinctive characteristics. The trip has once more revealed the cultural wealth of these countries and regions that are so very different from each other, and I am absolutely sure that Catholics everywhere have felt inspired by it and have seen their faith renewed.
Do you think that this trip will have a positive effect in the long term?
Countries which in the past have taken on the risk of hosting a papal visit have undoubtedly benefited from the event. A particularly good example would be the case of Kazakhstan. Pope John Paul II’s first visit in October 2001 was positive for the Church on a local level and this was again apparent after Pope Francis’ most recent visit in September 2022. It gave rise to many improvements in the lives of local Christians, not only legally but on many other levels also.
The papal visit to Mongolia has also shown the positive effects that setting a course for the future can have and how important it is to engage in this. The circumstances here in a country where Buddhists make up the majority of the population are completely different to those we encounter in Kazakhstan, but I think that both the country and people of faith will ultimately benefit from this courageous act. These processes obviously take their time to develop and it would be unrealistic to expect results from one day to the next.
There were a large number of Vietnamese Christians and bishops in Mongolia. Is Vietnam also a country where we can expect the situation for Christians to improve?
Vietnam is a good example of where we can show how relationships between Communist countries and the Vatican have taken a positive turn. When the Vietnamese President visited the Vatican on 27 July 2023 an agreement was reached, following several well-prepared rounds of negotiations, that we can truly call “historic”. This means that from now on Vietnam will have a resident Vatican representative in Vietnam and we are hopeful that this new development will markedly improve the situation of Catholics living in the country.
And what does this trip mean for aid provided by ACN? Is there a certain mission that the charity aims to fulfil in Mongolia?
At this point we should mention that the Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, which was founded in 2021, has recently accepted Mongolia as a member. We see this as a very positive sign. As part of this cooperation ACN intends to safeguard and expand its support of local churches, including the Catholic community in Mongolia. This is done proportionately to the size of the communities, but we want to play our part in supporting the very existence of these local churches as well as the conditions they find themselves in and the development opportunities provided to them.
The Pope has repeatedly emphasised the special circumstances that churches and communities on the peripheries find themselves in, and it is exactly in these marginalised fringe areas that ACN has been trying to be present for some time now. We have thought about how we can tailor and adjust our support in line with the conditions and realities we encounter so that we can model our actions on those of the Pope.
It is important that we understand why we are doing it. If we fail to support the small – only in terms of numbers – local churches along the peripheries they will gradually cease to exist and we will have to face the prospect of losing them altogether and not being able to revitalise them. This is the reality we have to face. For this reason ACN treats these countries as a priority.