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Francis' eccentric trip to Mongolia.

di Maria Antonietta Calabrò

With an "eccentric" initiative in the literal sense of the word ("outside the centre"), the Pope leaves for Mongolia today. At 87 he travels thousands and thousands of kilometers to visit a predominantly Buddhist country where there are only 1,500 Catholics.

Why does he do it? Certainly there won't be the massive crowds of Lisbon Youth Day (one and a half million young people from all over the world). So what's the Pope going to do?

It's an eccentric journey also in the other meaning of the word according to Treccani: "referring to a person or to the acts and behavior of a person, bizarre, extravagant, which moves away from common ways".

If there is one who distances himself from clichés,he is Francesco. Only St. Paul VI on November 30, 1970 (more than 50 years ago) also made a long journey out of the ordinary, arriving as far as the Samoa Islands in the Pacific Ocean. During the celebration of Mass in the village of Leulumoega Tuai, on the north-western coast of the island of Upolu, Pope Montini - as Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican media recalled today - set aside the majestic "we" then used by the popes and he said: "It is not the pleasure of traveling or even any interest that brought me to you: I come, because we are all brothers, or rather because you are my sons and daughters".

The trip to Mongolia is a much desired trip, Pope Francis announced himself, who has even created a cardinal for Mongolia, an Italian, Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulan Bator since 2 April 2020. The youngest red hat ever among the entire College of Cardinals (49 years old) for a "Children's Church" as headlined by the Fides agency. While it has not granted it (at least not yet) to traditionally cardinal sees: Venice, Milan, Turin.

Of course, the basis is Francis's theology of the Church of the peripheries, namely that the essence of the Church is best seen from afar and in the midst of a small flock.

But in this moment in which a terrible war is being fought in Europe, the visit to Mongolia also has a geopolitical implication given that the country is set between the two giants Russia and China (to which the third mission of the president of the CEI Matteo Zuppi is preparing ).

There is therefore expectation for the telegram that the Pontiff will send to President Xi-Jinping when he flies over China, while - according to the official program announced today - he will not fly over Russia. As for the latter circumstance, "usually the route is chosen according to the one that is the most convenient at such a moment. I am not aware that there are other reasons", said the spokesman of the Holy See Matteo Bruni. While on a meeting with Patriarch Kirill that had been aired in a possible intermediate stop or even at the Moscow airport, "if there have been previous assumptions, they have not been made by me. If there are any distortions with respect to the program, I will try to let you know" .

Francis will certainly meet Catholics from Russia and China and at the ecumenical and interreligious meeting, Anatoly Gussev, the parish priest of the Russian Orthodox church of Ulan Baator, the church of the Holy Trinity, the only Russian Orthodox church in Mongolia, will be present.

The statements made by the pope two days ago to a group of Russian Catholic students in which he exalted the great figures of Russian history should also be read in this context. "In the words of greeting addressed to some young Russian Catholics in recent days, as is clear from the context in which he pronounced them, the Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great cultural and spiritual heritage Russia, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference", specified Bruni, after the outbreak of the controversy over Peter the Great and the Tsarina Catherine on the Ukrainian side. While the spokesman of Cremlin, Peskov appreciated the fact that the Pontiff "knows Russian history well".

"Beyond any explicit appeals for peace that the Pope may make on this occasion, it seems to me that it is the Pope's very presence in Mongolia that constitutes an invitation to peace. And this, because of the significant place that this country occupies in the great Asian context.

This visit carries within itself the call to respect for every country, whether small or large, to the observance of international law, to the renunciation of the principle of force to settle disputes, to the building of relationships of collaboration, solidarity and fraternity among neighbours and with all the countries of the world", said Secretary of State cardinal Pietro Parolin to the Vatican media yesterday.

What is certain is that with this long journey of thousands of kilometres, Francis, close to ninety years of age, is turning to the East, perhaps in the knowledge that the center of the Church of the future will be there.


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