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Pope Francis opens clinic in Mongolia He says it’s about charity, not conversion

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia –

Pope Francis on Monday concluded the first-ever papal visit to Mongolia by opening a church-run homeless clinic and shelter, stressing that such initiatives are not aimed at attracting converts but are merely exercises in Christian charity.

Francis toured the House of Mercy, a three-story building in an old school opened by the local church as an expression of its roots in the three decades that the Catholic Church has had an official presence in Mongolia. It was the latest event in an historic four-day visit to a region where the Holy See has long sought to establish a foothold.

Several of Mongolia’s foreign-staffed Catholic orders operate shelters, orphanages and nursing homes to serve a population of 3.3 million, where one in three lives in poverty. But the new clinic for the homeless, people with disabilities and victims of domestic violence aims to demonstrate the outreach of the Mongolian Catholic Church as a whole to its local community.

“A nation’s true progress is measured not by economic prosperity, much less investment in the illusory power of armaments, but by its ability to provide for the health, education and holistic development of its people,” Francis said in the shelter. We call on rich and poor Mongolians to volunteer to help their fellow citizens.

Around 77 missionaries are currently looking after the Catholics of Mongolia, who, with around 1,450 people, form one of the smallest Catholic flocks in the world. But only two Mongolian men have been ordained priests, and no Mongolian woman has chosen to become a nun.

These foreign missionaries say that the greatest challenge for them is to build a truly local Mongolian church with educated lay people who are well integrated into the fabric of society. They hope this will eventually lead to more religious vocations, so that foreign missionaries will become less and less necessary.

“We must make it a Church of Mongolia, one that embodies the flavor of this country, its steppes, its sheep, goats and gers,” said Rev. Ernesto Viscardi, an Italian priest of the Consolata Missionary Order who has been in Mongolia for 19 years lives.

“We are 77 missionaries. We’re all great, all Saints, all working well,” he said, laughing. “But we have to think about growing the local church so that the (Mongolian) people take charge of their church. Otherwise we will colonize Mongolia again, and that makes no sense.”

When Francis called on everyday Mongolians to volunteer for the poor, he said that charity work isn’t just for the idle rich, it’s for everyone. And he denied that Catholic charity was about attracting new converts.

“Another myth that needs to be dispelled is that the Catholic Church, known worldwide for its great commitment to social advancement, does all this to proselytize, as if caring for others was a way to get people to do so to entice oneself to “join in”. ‘ said Francis. “No! Christians do their utmost to alleviate the suffering of those in need, because in the person of the poor they recognize Jesus, the Son of God, and in him the dignity of every human being.”

Francis’ comment was a tacit acknowledgment of the competition for souls in places like Mongolia, where religious worship was banned during decades of communist rule with the Soviet Union. Freedom of religion is now enshrined in the Mongolian constitution and a large number of Christian and Protestant churches have taken root here.

Some, like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have a much larger presence and membership in Mongolia than the Catholic Church. But in a sign that Catholics are not competing with Mormons or other Christian churches, Francis invited their leaders to an interfaith meeting in Ulaanbaatar on Saturday to express their common concern for promoting a more peaceful and harmonious world.

To encourage Mongolia’s small Catholic flock, Francis stressed that their small size did not matter and that their success should not be measured in numbers. “God loves the small and loves to achieve great things through them,” Pope Francis told priests, nuns and bishops from across the region at a meeting at the cathedral on Saturday.

Francis came to Mongolia to offer a word of hope to the fledgling Church, but also to make a geopolitically important foray into a troubled region for the Holy See, especially given neighboring China’s crackdown on religious customs.

On Sunday, Francis offered a special greeting to Chinese Catholics, delivering a warm greeting from the Altar of Mass in the Steppe Arena.

On Monday, Oyunchimeg Tserendolgo, a social worker at a public school, brought a group of her students to see Francis outside the shelter. She said she felt she had to come to the Pope even though she wasn’t a Catholic herself.

“I wish the Roman Pope would live long and bring more good not only to Mongolia but to the rest of the world,” she said while holding a photo of the Pope. “When I heard that the Pope was leaving today, I had to come here to pay my respects. I’m so glad I got a glimpse of him. Just so happy.”

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The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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