Francis opens clinic on the first papal visit to Mongolia. He says it’s about charity not conversion

  • FILE - Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Pope Francis has blasted the “backwardness” of some conservatives in the U.S. Catholic Church, saying they have replaced faith with ideology and that a correct understanding of the church envisages doctrine developing over time. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Pope Francis wrapped up the first-ever papal visit to Mongolia on Monday by inaugurating a church-run homeless clinic and shelter, insisting that such initiatives aren’t aimed at winning converts but are simply exercises in Christian charity.

Francis toured the House of Mercy, a three-story structure housed in an old school, which the local church has opened as an expression of the roots that it has taken in the three decades that the Catholic Church has had an official presence in Mongolia. It was the final event of an historic four-day visit to a region where the Holy See has long sought to make inroads.


Several of the foreign-staffed Catholic religious orders in Mongolia run shelters, orphanages and nursing homes to care for a population of 3.3 million where one in three people lives in poverty. But the new clinic for homeless people, people with disabilities and victims of domestic violence is aimed at showing the outreach of the Mongolian Catholic Church as a whole to its local community.

“The true progress of a nation is not gauged by economic wealth, much less by investment in the illusory power of armaments, but by its ability to provide for the health, education and integral development of its people,” Francis said at the shelter, urging Mongolians rich and poor to volunteer.

An emotional scene erupted as Francis left the facility and his car was approached by a number of faithful, apparently from China, where the church is under heavy pressure from the officially atheist ruling Communist Party.

Singing “Please lead us to heaven, great pontiff, we are blessed, dear pontiff, we admire you, you are the representative of God,” the group, many in tears, waved and reached out their arms. A couple of women among them were permitted to approach the pope and hand him gifts. One leaned inside and received a papal caress on her cheek.

At a certain point police had to push the excited faithful away from the car, but no incidents were reported.

The church has in past been viewed at times as using charities such as orphanages and soup kitchens to lure converts, particularly in China, where the phrase “rice Christian” had been a term of derision. China’s Communist leaders have continued to question the loyalty of the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics in both state-recognized and underground congregations, and keep them under strict monitoring.

Currently, some 77 missionaries minister to Mongolia’s Catholics, who with around 1,450 people constitute one of the tiniest Catholic flocks in the world. But only two Mongolian men have been ordained priests.

These foreign missionaries say the biggest challenge facing them is to cultivate a truly local Mongolian church, with trained lay people who are well inserted into the fabric of society. That, they hope, will eventually lead to more religious vocations so that foreign missionaries become less and less necessary.

“We have to make this a church of Mongolia, one that has the flavor of this land, of its steppes, of its sheep, goats, of its ger,” said the Rev. Ernesto Viscardi, an Italian priest of the Consolata missionary order who has been based in Mongolia for 19 years.

“There are 77 of us missionaries. We’re all great, all saints, everyone works well,” he said laughing. “But we have to think about making the local church grow, so that the (Mongolian) people take their church in hand. Otherwise we colonize Mongolia anew, and that makes no sense.”

In urging everyday Mongolians to volunteer to help the poor, Francis said charity work wasn’t just for the idle rich but for everyone. And he denied that Catholic charity was about winning new converts.

Some, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, boast a much bigger presence in Mongolia and claim far more members than the Catholic Church. But in a sign that Catholics weren’t competing with the Mormons or other Christian churches, Francis invited their leaders to an interfaith meeting on Saturday in Ulaanbaatar to show their common concern for promoting a more peaceful world.

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