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A first papal visit to Mongolia

Pope Francis is preparing to spend four days in Mongolia, a landlocked country surrounded by Russia to the north and China to the south. That geographical fact is arguably the primary reason for the pope’s Sept. 1-4 visit.

The country is home to only 1,500 Catholics – one of the smallest Catholic communities to ever receive a papal visit. But officials in China, and to a lesser degree Russia, will be watching and listening closely to the pope’s events.

Asia is considered by many Vatican officials as the church’s next great evangelizing opportunity. The number of Catholics in Asia has more than tripled over the last century, but still represents only about 3 percent of the total population.

China, of course, offers the biggest prospects for growth. But Pope Francis is unlikely to knock too loudly on China’s door while visiting Mongolia. Instead, he’s expected to deliver a low-key explanation of the church’s role in Asian societies. As he said last year in Kazakhstan – another country that borders Russia and China – Christians are called to immerse themselves “in the joyful and sorrowful events of the society in which we live, in order to serve it from within.”

The message is that Catholics are good citizens, at home in every culture, and do not operate as representatives of a foreign power. The theme will be compatibility, not competition.

The papal visit comes at a delicate time in China-Vatican relations. A 2018 agreement between the two states foresaw a new level of cooperation in the naming of bishops, but China has at times continued to act unilaterally – most recently when the government transferred a bishop to Shanghai without Vatican agreement, prompting the Vatican to issue a statement of regret.

The Vatican’s China policy has prompted internal church debate, with critics arguing that Vatican diplomats have conceded too much and gained too little. It’s not a new criticism, however; both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were at times accused of diplomatic moves that betrayed the “underground” Catholic community in China.

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