In a lush valley in the vast Mongolian countryside, hulking wrestlers, equestrians doing bareback tricks, throat singers and archers performed for top Vatican cardinals who snacked on dried yogurt delicacies under the shade of a ceremonial blue tent.
It was treatment worthy of an emperor for the prelates accompanying Pope Francis, who was back in Mongolia’s capital resting during his four-day trip to the country, the first ever by a Roman Catholic pontiff. But in a largely Buddhist and atheist country with barely 1,400 Catholics, some of the Mongolians at the Naadam festival in the central province of Töv on Friday were not quite clear why the Catholic clerics were there, or what Catholics even were.
“What are Catholics again?” Anojin Enkh, 26, a caterer with the Grand Khaan Irish Pub, said as she stocked a lamb and dumpling buffet for Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-in-command, and other top cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns and Vaticanisti in the papal press corps. “I don’t know any Catholic people.”
Francis has made visiting places where his flock is often forgotten a hallmark of his papacy. But even by that measure, Mongolia is especially off the radar, its Catholic population especially minuscule.
The country’s entire Catholic population could fit into a cathedral. It has a handful of churches and only two native Mongolian priests. On Friday, when Francis arrived, horses and goats vastly outnumbered the people standing on the road to see his motorcade pass.
On Saturday, a couple of hundred pilgrims, most of whom had come from other countries, barely registered in the immense Sükhbaatar Square in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where Francis bowed before a huge statue of Ghengis Khan and reviewed a parade of cavalry soldiers dressed in ancient Mongolian armor.
“I am pleased that this community, however small and discrete, shares with enthusiasm and commitment in the country’s process of growth,” Francis said at an event soon afterward with Mongolia’s president at the State Palace.
The pope also put his visit into the long continuum of contact between Mongolians and the Catholic Church — a familiarity that Francis said dated back not only to the establishment of diplomatic relations three decades ago, but to a “much earlier in time.”
Historians have traced that history to the seventh century, when an Eastern branch of Christianity coexisted with shamanism. Some of the commanders in the empire of Genghis Khan, who spread the Mongolian empire and his genes throughout Asia, were of the Christian faith. Francis said on Saturday that he was giving Mongolia the gift of an “authenticated copy” of a reply that Güyük, the third Mongol Emperor, had sent in 1246 in response to a missive from Pope Innocent IV.
Francis did not mention that the correspondence was not exactly chummy.
Pope Innocent had been alarmed by the Mongol Empire’s incursions and its laying waste to Christian forces in Eastern Europe. He questioned the emperor about his intentions to stretch out his “destroying hand,” beseeched him to desist, floated the idea of conversion and threatened that while God had let some nations fall before the Mongolians, he could yet punish them in this life or the next.
The Mongolian leader responded in kind — which is to say, not kindly. He told the pope and his kings to come to his court and submit to his rule. He expressed bewilderment at the pope’s suggestion of baptism, saying that God appeared to clearly be on the victorious Mongolia’s side, and warned that the pope risked becoming an enemy.
“All letters back then were like that,” Odbayar Erdenetsogt, the foreign policy adviser to Mongolia’s president, said with a shrug on Friday as horsemen behind him rode upside down, to the delight of Francis’ entourage. “Because we were a big empire.”
The earlier empire may be infamous for rape and pillage. But in some respects, it was, for the time, rather tolerant when it came to religion. In the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Mongolians controlled much of Eurasia, they fostered peaceful trading along the Silk Road: Mongolian nomads eager to do business would assess the religious affiliation of caravans crossing the Mongolian steppes and then extract from their coffers a Christian cross, a Quran or a Buddhist statue to facilitate trade.
“It was a pragmatic approach,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, a leading Mongolian political scientist who happens to be the nominal president of the Jewish community of Mongolia, which he said basically did not exist, but which the Vatican said would be represented at an interreligious event led by Francis on Sunday.
(Mr. Luvsandendev said he had not been asked to attend that gathering: “Maybe they found somebody else.”)
Perhaps the most famous of the merchant visitors to Mongolia, Marco Polo, wrote in his 13th-century “Travels” about how Kublai Khan, a Mongolian emperor and grandson of Genghis Khan, put down a revolt by “a baptized Christian.” After having the rebel rolled up in a carpet that “was dragged all over the place with such violence that he died,” the emperor made a peace offering to the Christians.
He told them, Marco Polo wrote, that the “the cross of your God did the right thing by not helping” the rebel and later suggested that the pope send 100 wise Christians to his land with the potential of his own conversion, “so there will be more Christians here than there are in your part of the world.”
It did not shake out that way. Buddhism took hold, and Catholicism struggled.
Centuries later, in the 1920s, the Vatican sought to establish mission structures in the country, but Mongolia fell under the Soviet sphere and Communism prevailed for the next 70 years. As religion was suppressed, atheism grew.
Only in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did Catholics return, and even then they were often outnumbered by other Christian missionaries.
“Back then, there were not many Catholics here,” Mr. Erdenetsogt said after the wrestling finals at the festival. The Mongolian official recalled that when he was in high school at that time, Christians had started coming in waves. “A lot of people from Salt Lake City,” he said. “A lot of Mormons. Even had some Quakers.”
In 2003, Giorgio Marengo, a Catholic missionary, arrived and then spent three years learning the language and the lay of the land. In 2006, he and other missionaries started spreading to provinces where, he said in an interview, “there were no Catholics at all” and where there had “never been a church before.”
They eventually obtained some land from the government.
“That is where we put our two ger — one for prayer and one for activities,” he said, referring to the portable circular dwellings, sometimes called yurts, that dot the Mongolian landscape. That community, reminiscent of the early church “like after the apostles,” he said, had grown into a small parish of about 50.
“The church is still a ger,” he said. “A ger of big dimensions or size, but it’s still a ger.”
Last year, Francis stunned the Vatican by making Father Marengo, who is 49, the youngest cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
On Saturday afternoon, Francis joined Cardinal Marengo, Catholic missionaries and some of the few Mongolian Catholics in Ulaanbaatar at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, itself shaped like a colossal red brick ger.
In the pews, Uran Tuul, 35, a Catholic convert, said that she had been the first among her friends and family to become Catholic, but that “now there are more.” She then listened as Francis encouraged the congregation to “not be concerned about small numbers, limited success or apparent irrelevance.”
He added, “God loves littleness.”
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