By Robin Gomes
The tiny Catholic community in Mongolia is living a strong spiritual communion as it approaches Easter despite the restrictions of the Covid -19 pandemic.
“There is sadness but also a lot of hope. The people are united and ready to face difficulties,” said Italian Bishop Giorgio Marengo, the Prefect Apostolic of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the vast central Asian country. In order to catechize and be in close contact with his flock, he and his missionaries resort to social media.
Innovating to stay in contact
Although the pandemic has forced the closure of places of worship and the total suspension of religious meetings, the 46-year old bishop said the faithful will still experience an Easter full of love and hope.
This was clearly noticeable in the tone of his voice when he explained to Vatican News that there is a bit of sadness among the faithful but at the same time, they understand well the emergency and know how to be united and face the difficulties with “a spirit of cohesion”.
The Consolata missionary bishop said they have been streaming Holy Masses live to offset the difficulties caused by the restrictions. Besides, “we go to visit families in their homes and sometimes we celebrate the Eucharist there. It becomes a domestic Mass,” Bishop Marengo said.
The Catholic Church of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar is made up of only 1,300 Catholics, who live in 8 parishes, 5 of which are in the capital and the rest outside.
The vast nation, five times the size of Italy, is inhabited by only a little over 3 million people. Despite the small number, Bishop Marengo said it is not easy for priests and missionaries to look after the little flock. “With creativity,” he said, “new systems have been put in place to stay close to every faithful.”
“We have given life to some catecheses that are better suited to emergency situations such as the current one.” The prefecture apostolic has organized groups of five people, the maximum number permitted under the Covid-19 restrictions. Catechists equipped with literature and videos go out and minister to these groups.
Like the early Christian community
It is only 29 years ago that the Church in Mongolia has been able to resume its evangelization openly. Prior to that, the country was under a harsh communist regime for 7 decades.
The first Catholics who came into contact with the new missionaries literally founded the first Catholic communities.
Bishop Marengo said, “We feel like we are in the situations described by the Acts of the Apostles precisely because we are still at the beginning, at the stage of the first proclamation of the Gospel, in a social structure that has other religious references.”
Despite the challenges, he said, they are fascinating. “Given the small numbers, it is truly fascinating to be able to personally accompany these faithful in the discovery of the Gospel, of the Lord. It is the immense joy of being able to discover oneself as brothers in Christ,” he said.
Catholicism was reportedly introduced in Mongolia in the 13th century during the Mongol empire but died out with the fall of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. New missionary activity started after the Second Opium War in the mid-19th century. A mission was founded for Outer Mongolia, giving Mongolia its first Catholic jurisdiction, but it ceased to function within a year when a Communist regime came to power.
A resurging Church
With the introduction of democracy in 1991, Catholic missionaries began returning to rebuild the Church from scratch.
With the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Mongolia on April 4, 1992, Archbishop John Bulaitis was appointed the first Apostolic Nuncio to the country on 8 September that year.
The Vatican entrusted the new mission of Mongolia to the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM, popularly known as 'Scheut Missionaries'). Filipino priest Father Wenceslao Padilla led 2 fellow missionaries to start the mission in 1992.
By 1996, Father Padilla and 150 parishioners were present at the dedication of the first Catholic church in Mongolia. He was consecrated as the first Bishop of Mongolia on 29 August 2003 in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Ulaanbaatar.
Bishop Padilla died on September 25, 2018. On April 2, 2020, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Marengo to head the Prefecture Apostolic of Ulaanbaatar. On April 26, 2018, Pope Francis appointed Maltese Archbishop Alfred Xuereb as Apostolic Nuncio to Mongolia and South Korea.