Keep your eyes on Pope Francis the next few days.
You may have noticed two dominant stories on the pope this week. One concerns his visit to Mongolia, arriving on Aug. 31 and staying through the weekend, returning to Rome on Sept. 4. The other involves controversial statements he made praising the “Great Russia” of the traditional past, which led to a mass media meltdown. Those statements were received positively by the Kremlin, which called them “very gratifying,” much more so than Francis’ comments last year critical of President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, which were condemned by the very sensitive Kremlin. (READ MORE: New Cracks in the Rock of Peter)
I submit to you here that these two stories are very much related — that is, Francis going to Mongolia and Francis saying what he said about Russia this week. Here’s why.
Francis’ trip to Mongolia makes little sense from a Catholic perspective. You could fit in a sandbox the tiny number of Catholics living in the massive land of Mongolia. There are less than 1,500 Catholics in the entire country, or about 0.04 percent of the population. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Francis in a few hours could shake the hand of every Catholic in Mongolia if they were in one place.
Some Vatican watchers say that Francis going to Mongolia is consistent with his papal message of reaching out to the so-called “periphery,” as he has done since 2013. Point taken.
But to other Vatican watchers, Francis’ long plane ride to Mongolia is a mere pretext to stop in Moscow along the way and get an audience with a prominent official from the Kremlin or the Russian Orthodox Church to plead for peace in Ukraine. He will pray to the heavens that the official would be the level of President Putin or Patriarch Kirill, but he will take whoever he can get.
I’m convinced that Francis’ statements earlier this week praising the Russian motherland were a carrot to entice the Kremlin to soften up and reconsider meeting with him en route to or from Mongolia. And given the positive reaction by the Russian leadership to his comments, the carrot might work. They might take the bait. A crafty move by the pope. (READ MORE: Leftist Catholics’ Reign of Doubt Descends on Conservative Theologian Scott Hahn)
But here’s where it gets even more interesting, if not downright mystical, if not apocalyptic.
Vatican watchers from the Catholic-prophecy world are abuzz over purported prophetic visions from some 60 years ago among a group of four girls in the tiny Spanish farm village of Garabandal. These were apocalyptic messages relating to the end times, allegedly given by the Virgin Mary. This publication is not the place to get into those alleged messages or to offer you a bunch of links (okay, here are few, click here and here and here). I assure you, dear reader, that prophecy is above my pay grade. I dare share no speculation for you. And, notably, Garabandal has not received the approval of the Holy See nor that of the local bishop (neither have some other notably apocalyptic Marian apparitions, such as Our Lady of Akita, though Akita did receive the approval of the local bishop).
But here’s the key point for right now: The messages of these visionaries are purported to include claims that two things will happen in the world and with the pope before, well, all Hell breaks loose. One is said to be the calling of a special “synod,” a word totally foreign to those young girls 60 years ago. That synod will, in fact, convene this October, and many of us are dreading it. Another alleged Garabandal prophecy is that the pope will visit Moscow.
No pope has ever visited Moscow before. Never.
I wrote in my book A Pope and a President about Mikhail Gorbachev inviting Pope John Paul II to visit Moscow when they met at the Vatican in December 1989. John Paul II enthusiastically wanted that trip, but it was vetoed — as he suspected it would be — by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has always viewed the Church of Rome as a rival. It doesn’t want the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the pope) anywhere near Moscow or on Russian territory.
Pope Francis knows that, and he’s right now angling for a way to get in. Will his foray to non-Catholic Mongolia provide that opportunity? We shall see. My suspicion is that it’s the main reason he’s going to Mongolia.
As for the suspicions of Garabandal prophecy watchers, well, they shall see, too.