Pope Francis, in words that appeared to be aimed at China rather than the neighbouring country he was visiting, said on Saturday that governments have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church because it has no political agenda.
Francis, 86, made his comments in Mongolia, which has only 1,450 Catholics and where the tiny Church has good relations with a government that has expressed appreciation for its social, health and charitable activities.
On his first working day in Mongolia, the government feted the pope with traditional events such a parade including men on horseback dressed as ancient Mongol warriors.
In an address to bishops, priests, missionaries and pastoral workers, he said Jesus gave no political mandate to his apostles but told them to alleviate the sufferings of a “wounded humanity” through faith.
“For this reason, governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization, for she has no political agenda to advance, but is sustained by the quiet power of God’s grace and a message of mercy and truth, which is meant to promote the good of all,” he said.
Beijing has been following a policy of “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party. A landmark 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops has been tenuous at best, with the Vatican complaining that Beijing has violated it several times.
Francis spoke at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, a small church built in the shape of a ger – a traditional round, nomadic tent-like home – that venerates a statue of the Virgin Mary found in the garbage 10 years ago.
In the audience was Hong Kong’s top Catholic cleric, Archbishop Stephen Chow, who in April made the first visit to the Chinese capital by a bishop of the former British colony in nearly 30 years.
Chow, who will be a made a cardinal by the pope this month, told reporters he hoped the Church in Hong Kong could be a “bridge Church” with mainland China.
Leading a delegation of about 40 Catholics from Hong Kong, Chow said the Catholic Church in Asia was growing and in a position two help Catholics from the East and the West better understand each other.
He said the pope taking the trouble to travel such a long way to visit such a small congregation showed “that the Church is expanding to the peripheries. The Church is not (just) the Church of Rome”.
“This is the Church of the world, especially for the margins, and that is a good thing,” Chow said.
Outside the pope’s meeting with Mongolian leaders, about two dozen Catholics from China waved red, five-starred Chinese flags.
“I’m just extremely happy because this is the first time I’ve seen him. It’s not as if I have this kind of opportunity all the time. I’m just very happy. Passion,” said Yang Guang, a 37-year-old Catholic from Shanghai.
Catholics in the small cathedral were thrilled to see the pope and smiled with pride when he mentioned their pastor, Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, who has worked as a missionary in Mongolia for more than 20 years.
On Saturday morning, Francis called on leaders to dispel the “dark clouds of war.”
Francis has sent an envoy, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to Kyiv, Washington and Moscow to discuss ways of ending the conflict in Ukraine and aiding humanitarian efforts. Zuppi is due to go to Beijing soon.