Pope Francis has long expressed a desire to visit Russia and China in hopes of healing the church’s historical rifts and ensuring the faith’s future in the populous East. On Friday, he came very close, landing in Mongolia, a country sandwiched between the two geopolitical giants, with a minuscule Catholic population that no pope has visited before.
“The inhabitants are few,” Francis acknowledged in brief remarks on the plane to Mongolia. But the country, which at times seems so vast as not to end, is also a place where the “culture is great,” he said.
On Sunday, he called the trip a “much-desired visit which will be an opportunity to embrace a church that is small in number, but vibrant in faith and great in charity.”
But many observers in and out of the church are wondering why Francis, who is 86 and often uses a wheelchair, traveled more than 5,000 miles to visit fewer than 1,500 Catholics, in a geographically vast nation where a good chunk of the largely nomadic population of 3.3 million knows very little about him, according to a pollster.
The answer, the Vatican has said, is that Mongolia, like other far-flung places Francis has visited, speaks to his priorities for the direction he wants to take the church, and his mission to improve cooperation and dialogue among the world’s religions. Francis also has ambitions to be heard on the secular stage, and by two world powers with which he has rocky relations, at a time of great upheaval.
The Vatican says the principal reason for the visit is to encourage the tiny community of Catholics, in keeping with his emphasis on drawing attention to the church’s peripheries.
More than 40 percent of Mongolians say they have no religious identity, according to census data. Of those who say they are religious, some 87 percent say they are Buddhist. About 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent identify as adherents of shamanism and barely 2 percent are Christians.
Last year, Francis stunned many in the Vatican by elevating an Italian missionary in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, who has been in Mongolia for decades, to the exalted status of cardinal, and gave him a coveted spot in the Vatican’s powerful office for evangelization.
“It has been a gradual and slow growth,” the cardinal, Giorgio Marengo, 49, said, describing his experience in Mongolia. It has not, he said, been “very sudden or significant in a way in terms of numbers, but a constant little growth.”
But the numbers are still exceptionally small, and as a result, there appears to be less than the usual buzz over a papal visit.
“Nobody actually is talking about the pope,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, a leading Mongolian political analyst and opinion pollster.
Beyond meeting members of the small Mongolian church, Francis will also use a gathering with representatives from Mongolia’s mix of faiths to further his mission of interreligious tolerance.
Ulaanbaatar, which is heavily polluted and increasingly crowded because of internal displacement, will provide an opportunity for him to touch on the themes of migration and the environment that are core to his pontificate.
Mongolia’s suffering from climate change, exploitation by mining interests and even overproduction of cashmere by pasture-decimating goats will allow him to amplify his cry to protect the environment, in a nation where eagles and horses are core to the national identity, and where livestock outnumber people by about 20 to one.
The four-day visit to what Francis called the “heart of Asia” began at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, where he received a welcome gift of dried yogurt instead of the customary gift horse — sometimes symbolic, sometimes real — given to visiting dignitaries. He was met on the tarmac by soldiers in red and blue uniforms and gold helmets, then wheeled into a Hyundai flying a Vatican flag, which took him to the residence of the head of the local church, where he will stay.
The pope’s visit will include meetings with Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai and other authorities, Catholic charity groups and local clergy. But it also brings Francis close to the two neighboring leaders, President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and President Xi Jinping in China, who have vexed his ambitions in and out of the church.
In 2018, Francis, seeking more access to China, made a largely secretive deal with the government to ensure more collaboration over the nomination of bishops. The pope typically appoints bishops, but the Communist government has long insisted on naming its own to more closely control the state-run church there.
Conservatives and advocates for human rights protested the Vatican’s decision to acknowledge some of those bishops and, they say, legitimize the practice — though the deal, designed to narrow the divide between the state- and Rome-led churches, recognized Francis as the leader of the church and gave him an important role in the process.
Some accused the pontiff of selling out religious liberty and China’s long-suffering underground church, which does not recognize the state-appointed bishops. But the Vatican argued that the deal was worth it given the longer-term goal of more dialogue and a greater church presence in China.
Since then, China has only strained relations by continuing to crack down on religious minorities, and it has consistently violated the spirit of the agreement by unilaterally appointing bishops. It is unclear whether Chinese Catholics will cross the border with Mongolia to hear or even meet the pope during the visit.
Some experts suggest that the Vatican hopes that Mongolia, because of its location and close economic and political ties to China, could act as an intermediary to improve relations. In his flight to Mongolia, Francis will pass over Chinese airspace, allowing him to send a customary telegram of greetings to Mr. Xi, a rare direct communication between them.
Mongolia’s neighbor to the north, Russia, has proved even more nettlesome. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis pursued steps to reconcile a more than 1,000-year schism between the Eastern and Western church by meeting in Cuba with Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine has blown up that effort, and vexed Francis, who has chastised Kirill as being the “altar boy” of Mr. Putin.
Francis’ lingering ambitions to keep the dream of reconciliation alive, experts say, has led to some awkward moments of softening and kind words for Russia. The latest came in recent days, when in comments made by video to Catholic youth in St. Petersburg, Francis praised 18th century Russian rulers and the Great Russia they helped create — an empire that Mr. Putin has invoked in framing his invasion of Ukraine.
“Never forget the legacy,” Francis said. “You are the heirs of Great Russia: Great Russia of saints, rulers, Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — great, enlightened, of great culture and great humanity.”
The Vatican did not publish those remarks, which were off the cuff, but they were heard in a clip circulated by religious agencies and Russian news media. They prompted criticism from Ukrainians, who have long been frustrated by the pope’s efforts to maintain a sort of neutrality in the hopes of playing an eventual role in a peace deal, an ambition geopolitical experts say is a fantasy.
Pope Francis did not intend to “glorify imperialistic logic,” the Vatican said on Tuesday.
Many Mongolians still feel culturally close to Russia after 70 years of Soviet-influenced communist rule that suppressed religion. The country opened up after the fall of Communism, established relations with the Vatican in 1992 and enshrined religious freedom in its Constitution.
But while Mongolia’s neighbors perhaps increased the resonance of the pope’s trip, the Vatican on Tuesday made it clear, when asked about possible meetings with the Chinese or Russians while there, that the focus was on Mongolia.
“The trip is Mongolia,” said Matteo Bruni, the pope’s spokesman. “Pope Francis will go principally to talk to them.”
But the world’s powers were clearly on his mind. When a reporter on the flight who showed him a Ukrainian soldier’s canteen, apparently perforated with shrapnel, asked if diplomacy was hard, Francis said, “Yes, you can’t imagine how hard it is,” and added, “And at times it takes a sense of humor.”