The atmosphere in Ulaanbaatar’s Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Saturday afternoon was prayerful and serious. There was also a tangible feeling of almost incredulous amazement and joy as the faithful awaited the arrival of Pope Francis, who has come to Mongolia to show his tiny flock how much he and the entire Church love them.
The Cathedral is small, but a fair number of simple faithful were also able to participate in the event, during which he addressed the country’s bishops, priests, missionaries, consecrated men and women, and pastoral workers.
Those who couldn’t fit inside waited patiently in the courtyard to greet the Pope as he arrived. Those who couldn’t make it into the courtyard lined the pavement outside, many with their families and small children excitedly waving Vatican flags.
Missionaries are the cornerstone of the young Church in Mongolia, and the Pope is here not only to show his closeness and walk the peripheries with them but also to express gratitude for their witness.
The same gratitude he has for the work of the pastoral workers, thanks to whom the universal Church’s care for the poorest and the weakest is a concrete reality that supports the nation and has turned out to be a gentle motor of evangelization through the channel of charity.
Before the Pope’s words, the hosts were given the chance to greet him and tell their stories. After a speech by the President of the Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, he listened to the testimonies of a missionary nun, of a Mongolian priest, of a pastoral worker.
They all spoke of the grace received in their mission, in their work and in their lives. And they all spoke of the hope that enables them to overcome difficulties, knowing that the Pope is close, that God is close.
“It is wonderful to know that God is so close to our daily lives,” Fr. Sanjaajav said, adding that “the fruit of His love is ripening at this moment and I am sure it will bring a rich harvest.”
And he asked Pope Francis to pray for his tiny Church, especially “for our brothers and sisters who are not believers.”
Rufina, a pastoral worker who converted to Catholicism, spoke of how as a child she enjoyed spending time at the local parish where she learnt about the life of Jesus. “In learning about Catholicism, I felt like I was learning a new language called the Catholic language,” she continued. “I have been studying this language for 14 years and will continue to learn it.”
She recalled the fact that a year ago the Pope named her local bishop, Giorgio Marengo, a Cardinal, and when the news appeared on social media, she said, “I saw so many comments: Congratulations! But who is a Cardinal?”
“Our Church,” Rufina concluded, is in that typical phase of children constantly asking their parents questions. Dear Holy Father, you have come to a young and small Church. On behalf of all Catholics in Mongolia, I thank you deeply.”
After listening to the Pope in silence and wonder, after praying the Hail Mary with him in Mongolian, everyone streamed out in respectful order, smiling and clapping, having finally experienced, first-hand, a visit they had never dared hope would come true.
And there were more faithful Catholics and onlookers lining the pavement outside the small Cathedral, waiting to catch a glimpse of him as he drove by on his way back to the nunciature.
Two young boys – no older than eight or nine – happened to walk by minding their own business. They halted at the sight of the crowd and the security outside, and turned in curiosity to read the banner proclaiming Pope Francis’ presence in Mongolia.
The police gently pushed them out of the street, but still they peered at the banner and at the people waving Vatican flags, clearly asking themselves: “What’s going on?”
After a good five minutes – an eternity for a boy of that age – and no sign yet from the cathedral, they spun on their heels and went their way, continuing to wonder, perhaps, “Who is this Pope Francis that has come to our land? What does he have to say to us?”