The Catholic Church in Mongolia is the youngest church in the world: a mere 20 years old. The apostolic prefect of Ulaanbataar, Mgr. Wenceslao Padilla, tells the story and highlights the challenges of this young community.
The story starts with three missionaries from the Congregation of the immaculate heart of Mary (CICM Missionaries) who set foot in Mongolia twenty years ago. It seemed like an adventure: establishing a mission where the church had no structures nor members it could call its own. Since the beginning, the idea of making a church from nothing seemed an operation of titanic proportions, full of challenges. Exciting. The missionaries arrived when the Republic of Mongolia had just been freed from Russia’s influence and the nation was taking its first steps on its own. The first years were those of survival, adaptation, and adjustment to the reality of the country and of its people. They were years of true discernment, enculturation, and initial evangelisation.
The priests were not worried about the hurdles and challenges. These included hard winters, language problems, lack of comforts, a wide acceptance of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Islam, the existence of other Christian denominations and sects, the complete lack of Catholic believers and churches. This condition was a challenge and an opportunity.
The Church in Mongolia, today
Looking back on the first twenty years of Catholic presence in Mongolia, we can see how the number of missionaries grew from 3, the ‘pioneers’, to 81 of 22 different nationalities, belonging to 13 different religious congregations. Beginning with a Catholic population equal to zero, Baptised Mongolians are now 835. Many more have been introduced to the Catholic faith and are following different catechetical programs with the missionaries.
Thanks to the relevant increase in personnel – missionaries and local collaborators – also the pastoral, social, humanitarian, charity, and development activities are evolving. All projects aim at improving the conditions of the poor.
The mission now has five parishes with extensive social services. These include two centres for street children, a care home for the aged, two kindergartens, two primary schools, a centre for disabled children, a technical school, three libraries, a female hostel for university students, youth centres, two farmers’ cooperatives, a health centre, the Mostaert research centre, language programmes …
Caritas Mongolia is digging deep wells, repairing and building homes for the destitute, fostering sustainable agriculture, food security, services, and assistance in rural areas, and contrasting human trafficking. Moreover, a centre for spiritual retreats was built, in addition to centres with poverty reduction programmes where scholarships are given to poor but worthy students from the cities and the countryside. Furthermore, two young Mongolians are currently in a South Korean seminary annexed to the Catholic University of Daejeon, preparing to become priests. Now we look to the future with more trust and hope. Patiently but resolutely, the Church aims to reach those who did not receive Baptism.
Looking to the future
The country’s transformation following the introduction of democracy and the market economy put Mongolia on the road to a future that was unimaginable for many. Now the country is in the spotlight – foreign investors are attracted by its natural resources. The mining industry has boomed in recent years and is drawing a migratory movement away from the cities. There is also an influx of foreign experts and engineers who are developing infrastructures and carrying out the first digging operations.
Thanks to the development brought by this phenomenon, the living standard of the Mongolian population is increasing, as is the cost of living and of basic goods. To deal with this, people receive State subsidies: the government is already receiving large amounts of money from the mining companies’ investments. The State is already using the profits – yet to materialise – of the mining sector to keep prices of basic goods low. A frequent question is, how long can it last? We know the largest part of State revenue from the mining sector will probably go back into investors’ pockets once the activities are fully developed and begin to create profit. One of the greatest challenges for the Catholic Church is financial support. Nowadays, the Church depends entirely on foreign aid. With the current economic crisis it has been forced to reduce the scope of many activities.
Another challenge is the rebirth of Shamanism, a religion with deep cultural roots. It involves worshipping natural elements, like the sky (it is also called tengerism). People are going back to ancestral cultural habits and traditional beliefs. The last challenge is the growing need of mineworkers: the Church is increasingly involved in the migratory flows from the cities to the countryside.
What can the Church offer Mongolia today?
We are convinced that the Church must look to the future and adjust itself to the needs of a society which is changing under the influx of democracy, the market economy, materialism, and consumerism. It is shifting from a nomadic community of shepherds to a society based on residents in cities and in mining sites. With the growth of a sedentary form of life, a new kind of service and apostolate has to be adopted, in order to fulfil the mission of announcing and spreading the Gospel. The moment has come to strengthen the Church’s educational and pastoral role. Education, in all its aspects has to be a priority. At the same time, the Church must preserve its reputation as a shelter and a guardian for the poor. A strong cooperative spirit is needed to organize and integrate the different charismas of the religious congregations in a common vision and a shared effort. The spirit of unity and communion among missionaries is compulsory. It is the best testimony they can give to the Mongolian people. The mission in Mongolia is going forward, bearing well in mind the ‘us’ represented by the Church and the apostolic faith. This is the real challenge of being true missionaries, called to help and transform the lives of those it meets, particularly the poorest and those most in need.