Holy Family Church in Shuwuu, Mongolia Holy Family Church in Shuwuu, Mongolia 

Pope visits Mongolia 'like Jesus who walks on the periphery'

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Visit to Mongolia, where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian, highlights his closeness to every single member of the flock, especially the weakest. A missionary priest on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar talks about the joys and challenges of evangelization in a country in which pastors really smell of the sheep.

By Linda Bordoni

Many observers were surprised to hear of Pope Francis’ decision to visit the East Asian nation of Mongolia, a landlocked country bordered by Russia to the north and China to the South, and where a tiny Church bears witness to a truly extraordinary apostolic zeal and missionary witness.

Salesian Father Jaroslav Vracowsky, originally from the Czech Republic, spoke to Vatican News about the past seven years of his mission in a small parish on the outskirts of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

“This is true mission country,” he says, expressing infinite joy for Pope Francis’s visit during which, he said, as a pastor he will most certainly take in the “smell of the sheep.”

Listen to the interview with Salesian Fr Jaroslav Vracovsky

The parish Fr. Jaroslav works at is in a tiny place called Shuwuu. The three Salesian missionaries that run it are overjoyed to have a real church made of brick and stone in which to celebrate the Lord. Until mid-August, when their new Church of the Holy Family was inaugurated and blessed, liturgical celebrations, catechism and social work, all took place in Mongolian tents called “gers” – the traditional Mongolian dwellings, ideally suited to the nomadic lifestyle of the people, who can quickly assemble, disassemble and transport them according to their needs.

He describes his work as similar to that of a parish priest, fully immersed in a reality in which the faithful “are like first-generation Christians because the Catholic Church [in Mongolia] started in 1992 from zero.”

Fr Jaroslav Vracowsky
Fr Jaroslav Vracowsky

Being Salesians, Fr. Jaroslav points out, the priests are also involved in social services and activities for children, youth, adults and the elderly.

Most of those they serve, he explains, are not Catholics: Shamanism is prevalent throughout most of the country followed by Buddhism, and in the last century, under communist rule, the population was atheist, therefore the majority are atheist, “although they consider themselves a Buddhist nation.”

In Fr. Jaroslav’s own parish, he says that over its 20-year history, there have been about 70 baptized Catholics. Many of them have moved to the city or are nomads and “are on their way.”

“We are in a nomadic country; therefore it is in their nature to move from one place to another.”

Mission country

“Some were old, and have died, some are in the city and some are faithful, but not practicing their faith on a weekly basis. But in general, the majority of the target group in our church are not baptized people, because we are in mission country. Therefore, we are evangelizing,” he explains.

The majority of the people he serves are not Christians, but some of them are thinking of baptism, “they are in preparation, some of them just touching, researching what is going on”.

“We are open for all.”

Describing his mission in Shuwuu, Fr. Jaroslav says “We are blessed! In this village there are around 3000-4000 people and we are blessed because nobody has anything against this Holy Family Parish even though we are different to the traditional religion, we are nicely accepted.”

He explains that even before the Salesians arrived, there was a group of ICM Sisters who were serving the community by providing some basic services.

He says that the Sisters started with a clean water service and the Salesian missionaries took it from there, reaching out to the poorest.

“The people around us, live in ‘gers’ that are tents, Mongolian tents, in very poor conditions. They have no drinking or running water in their houses usually. They carry water from the well.”

The parish has a well that has water for all and today, also a number of activities for children, young people and adults, the missionary says, “Therefore, we are really nicely accepted.”

Celebrating Mass in Shuwuu
Celebrating Mass in Shuwuu

The challenge of the language

The three Salesian missionaries who currently run the parish, Jaroslav, Mario and Crsysztof, take it in turns as one or the other has to be away for passport reasons or poor health. They have recently been joined by Fr. Paulo, a newcomer who is learning the Mongolian language, a truly remarkable feat that all missionaries have to conquer before they can start their work.

The language, Fr. Jaroslav says, is “Very, very difficult really. For the first two years in Mongolia, our main mission is to learn the Mongolian language.”

He says his first two years in the country were in the town of Darkhan, where “I spent thousands and thousands of hours with Mongolian teachers: one student, three teachers!"

“I was blessed because I had a really good possibility to study.”

He explains that there are three main idioms, the one he uses is written with the Cyrillic Russian alphabet, but it was originally written “from up down, and from left to right, therefore, it has nothing to do with Russian.”

This is the most widespread, he adds, because of the nation’s recent communist history, but “there is also the traditional Vertical Mongolian, Cyrillic – and  in social networking - they use even their language in Latin.”

Asked whether a Mongolian Bible exists, Fr. Jaroslav says there is no Mongolian Catholic Bible, but there is an ecumenical Bible that they use and feel blessed for having it.

When I suggested there may be a risk of losing authenticity in translation, Fr. Jaroslav agreed that the challenge is enormous. Many of the missionaries are European and their very vocabulary is based on the European Christian tradition, while in Mongolia, the language is based on Buddhist and Shamanist traditions.

“Therefore to find even the vocabulary for the liturgy, how to translate, how to express the basic things, the Sacraments, how to say it, etc. It's challenging and it's not fully settled yet,” he says.

It’s almost like a new language, the Czech missionary continues, and in order to make sure people understand, “slowly, slowly, we are using somehow a new vocabulary."

The New Testament in Mongolian
The New Testament in Mongolian

Christianity interrupted

But he points out that it is based on history, because, although for generations faith was not allowed, Mongolian history goes back centuries and during Chinggis Khan’s empire and even before Chinggis Khan, there was Christianity in Mongolia.

“Somehow in history, it was interrupted and we are refreshing, restarting this mission,” Fr. Jaroslav says.

Evangelisation in a nomadic culture

The missionaries also face the challenge of evangelizing a traditionally nomadic people. Fr Jaroslav says that out of over 3 million Mongolians about 50 percent of them are “still moving with their gers, and with their animals.”

This, he explains is because in a country mainly consisting in desert, semi-desert or steppes, there is not enough water, resources and grass to keep animals alive throughout the year therefore the nomads move for the good of the animals and of the land that is constantly renewed.

But the other 50 percent of the population, he continues, is moving to Ulaanbaatar, which is exponentially growing, with around more than 1.5 million people.

In Shuwuu, which is like a periphery of Ulaanbaatar, and in many other areas around the city, the people are somehow settled, but live in their traditional gers.

However, he says “When I go out of the city, if I go by bicycle to the countryside, I see the people with their animals, thousands and thousands of animals, and with their tents - gers - moving.”

Gers in the Mongolian landscape
Gers in the Mongolian landscape

Church of the Holy Family

As mentioned earlier, in mid-August the community was gifted with a real church building in brick and stone. It’s Shuwuu’s Catholic Church of the Holy Family and until then all activities had taken place in Mongolian tents.

The new church building is built in the shape of the traditional ger but it is much bigger and can host 100 people.

“As our confederate superior said, the people need and deserve to have proper place for worshipping. If you will be here, you will be welcome,” Fr Jaroslav says.

The Church of the Holy Family in Shuwuu
The Church of the Holy Family in Shuwuu

The smell of the sheep

“Why?” – I asked Fr. Jaroslav – “do you think Pope Francis has chosen to visit Mongolia?” His answer is as beautiful as it is disarming:

“I think that many times he mentioned the good shepherd should have the smell of sheep,” he says, with a chuckle.

“Where to get this smell from sheep better than in country where is 10 or 20 times more animals than people?”

On the one hand, he adds, “he wants to touch this beautiful country, nomadic country, and mainly the weakest church in the world.”

The good shepherd he says, takes stock of his flock by observing the weakest in its midst. Pope Francis, he continues, is aware of how the Church is going around the world, and maybe he considers the Mongolian Church one of the weakest.

“We know that God works through the weakest. And this is the mystery that Pope Francis is showing us. Like St. Francis he knows that God walks on the periphery. And this is one of the reasons Pope Francis, I think, would like to be here.

“We know that God works through the weakest. And this is the mystery that Pope Francis is showing us.”

Sure, he says there are many other reasons as well, “better to ask directly to him,” but it is clear he desires “to support the weakest, and touch the periphery,” to share his faith and closeness with us.

This, Fr. Jaroslav adds, is possibly the reason he chose to make Giorgio Marengo, the apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar a cardinal who will bring the voice of the voiceless from this remote country to the universal church.

Hopes and horizons

Asked about the expectations of the Pope’s visit in his community, Fr. Jaroslav says his parishioners are happy. They are generally simple and uneducated, he explains, and many don’t really know who the roman pontiff is, but the missionaries are mentioning Pope Francis’ name every day and they are well aware he is coming to visit them.

“He is coming here, eager to see you, to talk with you, to bless you.”

This, he says, is the place for evangelization, for widening the horizons, because the poverty of the people means their attention is on what “they will eat today, what they will eat tomorrow,” how to send their children to school and so many difficulties.

“Therefore, for them, it is somehow out of their horizons,” he explains, “while for us, it's a challenge, an occasion. A blessing that we can use this possibility to widen their horizons and to prepare something that they can finally touch.”

Sharing Pope Francis’ passion for mission

Father Jaroslav Vracowsky concludes with a reflection on how his mission springs from Pope Francis’ own passion for mission.

“I am in mission because of Pope Francis.”

By accident, he says, he happened upon the Pope’s encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium in Czech language even before its official translation.

He was so touched and moved by the encyclical and its call to mission that when his Superiors launched an appeal for volunteers he immediately responded.

“So without Pope Francis I would not be here. Therefore, I am grateful and I consider him like my personal spiritual guide,” he says, adding that he is “eager to meet him, to listen to him, to discover what he is going to share with us.”

The Catholics here in Mongolia, he says, are generally simple and perhaps not fully ready for such a visit, but it will be “from heart to heart,” and Pope Francis will welcomed with “the simplicity and the fragility of our faith, and conditions we are living in.”

Sheep in the Mongolian steppes
Sheep in the Mongolian steppes

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31 August 2023, 16:03