Greeted with "aaruul," a dried yogurt cheese, which he tried, Pope Francis arrived in Ulaanbaatar for a four-day visit.

After the nine-hour, overnight flight from Rome, the pope's arrival Sept. 1 was low key. Battsetseg Batmunkh, Mongolia's foreign minister, met him at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and had a brief meeting with him in the airport VIP lounge.

Afterward, the pope was driven into the city for a day of rest at the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Mongolia, the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar.

During his flight from Rome, the pope, who had said he was going to the "heart of Asia," told reporters traveling with him that Mongolia is a vast country with a very small population and a great culture that needs to be understood more with the senses than with the intellect. He also suggested they listen to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin, who wrote "In the Steppes of Central Asia."

The ITA plane carrying the pope flew over northern China rather than over Russia, giving the pope an opportunity to send greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping, keeping with the custom of sending a telegram as he flies over a country.

"I send greetings of good wishes to your excellency and the people of China as I pass through your country's airspace enroute to Mongolia," the papal telegram said. "Assuring you of my prayers for the well-being of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace."

The Vatican and China have had a rocky relationship for decades, and tensions have continued even since Pope Francis and Chinese leaders first signed an agreement in 2018 on the naming of bishops for Chinese dioceses.

In fact, in July Pope Francis regularized a bishop who had been appointed by the government in April without consulting the Vatican, an appointment that drew a Vatican protest. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said the Vatican later recognized the appointment for the "greater good of the diocese."

Researchers estimate China has about 12 million Catholics, who are split between those whose leaders have joined the patriotic association and those who refuse to do so. The U.S. State Department and a variety of human rights organizations continue to report excessive restrictions and even persecution of religious believers in China, including Catholics.

Pope Francis is welcomed with "aaruul," traditional Mongolian treat made from yogurt that is boiled and dried, as he arrives at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Sept. 1, 2023. The pope was planning a four-day stay in Mongolia to visit the country's small Catholic community and encourage tolerance and harmony. (CNS/Lola Gomez)

Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong was expected to lead a delegation of Hong Kong Catholics to Ulaanbaatar for the papal visit. Catholic missionaries in Mongolia also expected some Catholics from mainland China to arrive to see the pope, although America magazine reported Aug. 31 that a department of the Communist Party issued an order forbidding bishops and faithful from crossing the border for the papal visit.

Also during the flight to Mongolia, a Spanish journalist gave Pope Francis a canteen riddled with bullet holes. A priest in Lviv, Ukraine, had sent her the canteen, explaining that the soldier who was carrying it was hit by Russian machine-gun fire and survived. He donated the canteen to the parish. Pope Francis blessed the canteen, which will be returned to the church.

Pope Francis also was asked about his comment that there is a strong, reactionary element in the Catholic Church in the United States; the comments made to Jesuits in Portugal at the beginning of August were published later by the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica.

The pope said he knew some people were upset by the remarks, but the church must keep moving forward.