As Pope Francis crossed the tarmac at Ulaanbaatar‘s international Chinggis Khaan airport in the capital of Mongolia this morning he no doubt welcomed the warm sunshine and the gentle breeze after his lengthy nine and a half hour flight from Rome.
The balmy conditions were less than usual for Ulaanbaatar – at 4,300ft above sea level and in the midst of the Siberian Anticyclone it has the unenviable reputation of being the coldest capital city in the world.
The East Asian nation the Pope has chosen to visit during his 43rd Apostolic Journey abroad is the second largest landlocked country in the world (after Kazakhstan). Of its 3.5 million largely nomadic population, less than two per cent are Christians, and there are just eight parishes and some 1,500 baptised Catholics.
During his customary in-flight chat with journalists, His Holiness said: “To go to Mongolia is to go to a [numerically] small people in a vast land. Mongolia seems to have no end, and its inhabitants are few, a people few in number of a great culture. I think it will do us good to understand this silence, so vast, so big.
“It will help us understand what it means: not intellectually but with the senses. Mongolia is to be understood with the senses.”
His landmark visit – the first by any pope – coincides with the launch of the ecumenical Season of Creation, which runs from 1st September to 4th October, on which day Francis will release the text of his follow-up to Laudato Si’ – the document that has defined the Catholic Church’s position on contemporary global concerns.
No doubt the subject of care for creation will come up during the Pope’s visit, as just weeks ago the heaviest rains in 50 years beat down on Ulaanbaatar, causing the waters of the Selbe and Tuul rivers to burst their banks leading to extensive flooding across the city and more than 20,000 inhabitants displaced. Even the combined members of the Mongolian army, civil defence forces, Mongolian Red Cross and global aid agencies struggled to cope – rescue and relief activities involved moving thousands of families rapidly to higher ground and the building of temporary refuges, as well as distributing food, clothing and medicines on a huge scale in incredibly challenging conditions. The region’s fragile infrastructure also took a devastating hit, with more than 700 roads, bridges, schools, dams and power lines damaged.
The latest climate extremes have also impacted neighbouring China, where extreme weather such as drought and floods have become major threats to the country’s agricultural and food supplies. Over the past 70 years, China’s average temperature has risen faster than the global average, making the country extremely vulnerable to floods, droughts and typhoons, and there is particular concern about the threat to China’s vital ‘rice bowl’ region, where northern provinces such as Henan, Shandong have only 4% of the country’s surface water resources, but produce 24% of China’s grain.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, attention has focussed on the capital city’s poor urban planning, and the alleged mismanagement of funds earmarked for essential repairs to roads, bridges and flood zones. Much has also been made of the city’s spiralling population, especially in low income areas and communities living in gers (traditional portable dwellings used by nomads), many of which have been built in areas at very high risk of flooding and landslides.
Whilst dealing with the challenges of a mushrooming population is one priority, Mongolia is also having to come to terms with a climate that has changed fundamentally in recent years, with catastrophic consequences for a population living predominantly at the margins of safety and sustainability.
For millennia Mongolia has been home to extended periods of light rainfall, which have been manageable for both the landscape and population. But global warming has changed all that, and a week’s gentle rainfall can now come crashing down within a period of just a few hours – with appalling consequences not only for people, but for livestock, agriculture and general sustainability.
It is estimated that Mongolia’s mean average temperature has risen by two degrees over the past 70 years, and this has increased humidity in the air which creates these intense rainfall and cloudbursts. In a predominantly rural and non-industrialised landlocked country none of this can be blamed on local activity – it’s an obvious warning to the rest of the world.
As it happens precipitation and its consequences is the central theme of this year’s Season of Creation. Drawing on quotations from Isaiah (43:19) and Amos (5:24), our Church is calling on everyone to “join the river of justice and peace, to take up climate and ecological justice, and to speak out with and for communities most impacted by climate injustice and the loss of biodiversity.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that is we don’t act now with far greater urgency we will miss our chance to create a more sustainable and just world.
In his Message for today’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis said we must all act in whatever way we can “and we must prevent the worst from happening.” He proposes that we must do this by “resolving to transform our hearts, our lifestyles, and the public policies ruling our societies.”
As well as re-evaluating our thinking about our relationship with God, our fellow humans, ourselves and nature (Hearts) we should also transform the way we live (lifestyles) and adopt lives “marked by less waste and unnecessary consumption, especially where the processes of production are toxic and unsustainable. Let us be as mindful as we can about our habits and economic decisions so that all can thrive.”
Whilst there is undoubtedly a lot we can do to improve our own personal planetary footprint, changing the hearts and minds of those in positions of power may seem less achievable.
As Francis say: “economic policies that promote scandalous wealth for a privileged few and degrading conditions for many others, spell the end of peace and justice. It is clear that the richer nations have contracted an “ecological debt” that must be paid (cf. Laudato Si’, 51).
“The world leaders who will gather for the COP28 summit in Dubai from 30th November to 12th December must listen to science and institute a rapid and equitable transition to end the era of fossil fuels. According to the commitments undertaken in the Paris Agreement to restrain global warming, it is absurd to permit the continued exploration and expansion of fossil fuel infrastructures.
“Let us raise our voices to halt this injustice towards the poor and towards our children, who will bear the worst effects of climate change. I appeal to all people of good will to act in conformity with these perspectives on society and nature.”
We may think that our apparent insignificance and powerlessness in the global scheme of things makes such aspirations utopian, but all change starts with one single action, just as all mighty rivers begin with one inconspicuous fountainhead.
As it happens the 2023 Season of Creation ends of 4th October, the Feastday of St Francis of Assisi, one of our most beloved and influential of saints. Francis knew only too well how the smallest actions can become the greatest of things; as he once said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”.
But he also warned “you have no enemy except yourselves”. In this critical time for human survival, and the survival of our planet, the greatest crime is to allow ourselves to be convinced that we have no power to create change, and to have done nothing.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian
For more on how you can make a difference: https://laudatosimovement.org