The Catholic Church in Mongolia recently turned twenty-five. It was only in 1992 that the first Catholic community was set up in its capital-city Ulaanbaatar, shortly after the Mongolian government established diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
The Missionhurst CICM (Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) congregation was asked to send some missionaries to the new mission. The first to go were three CICM priests who were already engaged in missionary activity in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Among them was Philippines-born Fr. Wenceslao Padilla, who was then serving as provincial-superior in Taiwan. He now has the distinction of being not only the first but also the longest-serving missionary in Mongolia. He was appointed its bishop in 2003.
When the three priests first set foot on Mongolian soil, they were literally starting from scratch and ground zero. There was no church or convent or native Catholics to welcome them in the land of horses, nomads, and blue sky. They initially stayed in hotels and later moved into rented apartments which doubled-up as their mission headquarters.
The only Catholics they came across were a handful of expatriates working in international aid agencies or the Polish and other embassies. Like the early Christians, the three priests ministered out of house-churches, going from home to home to celebrate the Eucharist and supporting one another in the faith. The attendees soon brought along their colleagues and friends, including local Mongolians, and with time they had to rent community halls for the Sunday celebrations.
But it was their mission that brought them out to the public sphere and revealed the face of the Church to the Mongolian society. Noticing that many homeless runaway street-children were hanging out in the capital city in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Soviet pull-out which resulted in economic turmoil, the new missionaries began their mission by befriending them, bringing them tea, pancakes, medicine and clothing. They were later invited to visit the underground rat-infested sewers, which housed the heating pipes that served as homes to the children needing to escape the harsh winters.
The priests became familiar with the manholes in the city and in particular the “residents” living beneath each of them. As their ministry expanded they sought the assistance of their neighbours and youth groups to serve the street children. Having rubbed shoulders with the missionaries and marvelling at their selfless service, some would inevitably ask about Catholicism and eventually joined the Church. Today, there are few children left roaming the streets and the Catholic Church in Mongolia runs orphanages and care centres housing many of them.
With time, the ministries expanded to providing formal education as well as social and other forms of services, with other Catholic religious congregations being invited in to set up appropriate centres to cater to the peoples’ needs. Today, twenty-five years later, there are more than 70 missionaries from about two dozen countries and representing a dozen congregations serving in Mongolia. They come mainly from African countries such as Congo, Cameroon and Tanzania, Asian countries such as the Philippines, Korea and India, and European countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Poland.
The Society of the Divine Word runs a technical school providing training to young men and women in the areas of secretariat service, plumbing, welding, mechanics, sewing, and so on. The Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity have set up homes for the aged, orphans, and for the sick and dying. The Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres operate some of the best kindergartens and health care centres, primarily for the benefit of those who would otherwise not have access to basic education and medical services.
Caritas Mongolia offers relief services when disasters and catastrophes strike, reaching out especially to peoples living in the interior and remote villages, accessible only by 4-wheel drive trucks through unpaved roads. All these ministries are supported by the 1,300+ native Mongolians who have since asked for baptism into the Church.
Like any fledging mission, there are of course many challenges which confront the Church as it continues its evangelizing efforts in the land of the great Mongol warriors of old. Chief among these is the poverty of the people, which brings with it a host of problems such as unemployment, alcoholism and domestic abuse.
The Church’s mission has therefore concentrated on communities who are poor, which effectively means that they are engaged in non-income-generating ministries. Reliance on the outside-world for funds is a major burden as they are at times inconsistent. The bishop sometimes describes himself as a “professional beggar”, as the young Church depends on the generosity of more established Churches in developed countries as its does not have the resources to sustain the many projects for the least, the last and the lost.
Moreover, the Church, as a foreign NGO is bound by governmental regulations with regard to its activities and especially the staffing of its ministries. While missionaries from abroad may be willing to offer their services free-of-charge, there is a quota which states that for every missionary who comes into the country the Church needs to employ x number of local Mongolians. That in itself is a good policy as it serves to ensure that foreign entities engage actively with the locals. But it also means a lot of funds are needed to maintain each missionary as jobs need to be found in the Catholic mission schools or clinics or care centres for the locals to be employed in.
Another major challenge is that all the missionaries are in Mongolia on work visas which need to be renewed regularly, sometimes annually. One can only imagine the difficulties resulting from the non-renewal of the visas, especially how its impact on the ministries. There are occasions when priests and Sisters have had to leave the country on the eve of their visa expiration date and wait outside for months before they can re-enter. At times the reason or excuse given for the non-renewal of visas is that the missionary is proselytizing the locals.
This charge is better appreciated against the backdrop that there is a resurgence of Buddhism in Mongolia in the post-communist era. Christianity, therefore, is viewed as a threat. Aside from these issues, there are also the difficulties confronting the missionaries such as the minus 30 or 40 C temperatures, the remoteness of lifestyle in mission outposts and also the difficulty of learning the language, with its hard guttural sounds and use of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Not only is the perseverance rate among the missionaries a challenge, the perseverance rate of the local converts to Catholicism is also a reality that confronts the Church. Of the 1,300+ who have received baptism perhaps only a few hundreds remain active church goers. That in itself is not bad as it represents about 30 or 40% of the Catholic population especially if this is compared with the many so-called “Catholic” countries in the West where church participation rates are as low as single digit percentage figures.
However, most of the regular church goers in Mongolian are the Catholics who are employees of the many ministries of the Church. Those who cease working in these ministries usually move on to other jobs and soon lose contact with the Church as well. Others go abroad in search for greener pastures.
Needless to say, the way forward is for the Mongolian Church to develop its very own local Church, in all its facets, including self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. Remembering that many other Churches around the world took a few centuries to reach that stage, one can only be proud that as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Catholic Church in Mongolia has been making inroads in that direction. It is slowly but surely developing into a local Church, having inculturated significant aspects of the Catholic tradition.
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, built in 2003, is modelled after the traditional ger (nomadic tent), with its circular shape and walls of thick felt. A Mongolian version of the Bible was printed in 2004 which includes common Catholic prayers, all written in the traditional Mongolian script. The six parishes in the country and the 1,300+ baptized natives rejoiced at the ordination of the first native-born priest just a year ago, a young man baptized as a child by Bishop Wens many years ago. There are a few more seminarians currently studying in the seminary in South Korea. They, together with the other native Mongolian Catholics, will be the ones forging the way towards a truly Mongolian Church.
– Edmund Chia and Gemma Cruz