Ulaanbaatar (AsiaNews) - On 10 July 1992, a Church was born in the steppes of Central Asia. This happened when three missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) set foot on Mongolian soil. It felt like it was an adventure for the three male-religious to spearhead a mission where the Church has no physical structures or members to call her own. From the start, to establish a Church from scratch was a scary endeavor, full of challenges and excitement as well.
Arriving when the Republic of Mongolia has just been liberated from the grip of Soviet Russia, the country was at its first faltering steps to stand on its own. The newly constituted government was trying to address the various problems and needs of the country and the people. It was somewhat chaotic in the public places as a 'hunger strike' was being staged in front of the Parliament/Presidential building asking for the stepping down of the then prime minister. The one leading the demonstration was a fearless and committed advocate of Democracy, in the person of the now incumbent Mongolian President, Mr. Ts. Elbegdorj.
Staying in rented apartments, we slowly found our way into the hearts of the Mongols by trying to be one with them experiencing the hardships and difficulties of life at that time. There was scarcity of food and lack of commodities. Mongolia was a 'hardship country' according to many foreigners whom we met during the first days of our integration. Not long afterwards nonetheless, after having acquired more knowledge of the people and their way of life, and after learning a bit their language, we became more confident in making contacts with the locals.
"Come and See" was then our adopted watchword, for people to feel welcome and comfortable in associating and getting close to us. The curious questions of the people had-Who are these foreigners? . . . What do they do? . . . What are they in Mongolia for? -were slowly answered when we started inviting and gathering people for liturgical celebrations, organizing catechism classes, and doing social action activities.
The first years were periods of survival, adjustment and adaptation to the physical realities of the country and its people. For the trio, they were truly years of discernment, enculturation, and first evangelization . . . the first contacts of the institutional Church with people of other religious beliefs and convictions.
We did not mind so much the challenging difficulties that befell us, like extreme harsh winters, language barrier, lack of commodities, strong religious affiliations of the people to Buddhism, Shamanism, and Islam, presence of other Christian denominations and sects, and the absence of Church structures and local Catholic believers. Personally, I took all of these as positive aspects of mission life. Such conditions offered to us a challenge and an opportunity. We maintained a strong conviction that the God who called and sent us to Mongolia had already been present in the ordinary lives of the Mongolian brothers and sisters even before we arrived.
A quick look at the Church in Mongolia today
Looking back at these first 20 years of the Catholic Church presence in Mongolia, we are glad to repeat with the psalmist, "Indeed He did great things for us; how happy we were. (Ps, 126:3)."
From the three pioneer missionaries, we now have 81 strong, from 22 different nationalities, and from 13 groups/religious congregations. And from the zero Catholic population, around 835 Mongolian brothers and sisters have now joined the Catholic fold through Christian initiation. Many more are being introduced to the Catholic faith and are served through different outreach programs of the missionaries.
With the significant increase of Church personnel (missionaries and local collaborators), pastoral, social, developmental, educational, humanitarian and charitable works keep evolving and continue to flourish. These projects are all geared towards uplifting the plight of the poor people. The mission now prides itself of four parishes and six sub-stations with social outreach services, three street children centers, a home for elderly men, two Montessori kindergartens, two primary schools, a center for handicapped children, a technical school, three libraries with study halls and computer facilities, a lady's dorm for university students, equipped with a study hall and computer/Internet facilities, youth activity centers, two agricultural farms with community building programs, an outpatient clinic with laboratory and much more.
This year, to boost the 20th anniversary of the Catholic Church Mission, one of the parish sub-stations, Mary-Mother of Mercy, will be upgraded to a parish status. The Prefecture's elementary school, whose construction started two years ago, will also be inaugurated.
We too are glad that two Mongolian youngsters are now in one of South Korea's major seminaries, at the Catholic University of Daejeon, pursuing their vocation to the priesthood.
With all these, we are now able to spearhead into the future with much hope and confidence. With patience and determination we are resolved to reach out to more people not only to those who already joined us in faith but also to those who are served in our works, though not yet baptized.
A frustration, however, is creeping into the adolescent Church. Around 23% of the baptized are no longer frequenting the Church liturgies. Some have already given up on the Church. Another 15% are abroad in their pursuit for greener pastures. Hoping that they are still practicing some sort of Christian life anywhere they are.
Looking into the future with its challenges
Twenty years have passed. It is now hard to trace back where we have started. With the metamorphosis/transformations of the country brought about by democracy and market economy, Mongolia spearheads into a future unknown to many a generation of Mongolians. It is now in the limelight and caters to the greed of foreign investors due to its wealth in natural resources. Mining has boomed in the most recent years and is drawing a migration movement from the cities to the countryside. There is also an influx of foreign experts/workers doing the infra structure of the mining industry and initial mining operations.
With the development brought about by this phenomenon, the standard of living of the people is reaching higher levels. The cost of living and the cost of commodities are gaining new standards.
To cope up with this situation, the people are allocated with subsidies from the government that already takes considerable amounts from the investment tendered by the mining companies. As it were, the 'not yet realized gains' from the mining activities are already being used by the political authorities to share with the people. As a consequence, most of the government's dividends from the profits of mining will most likely go back to the investors once the mining operations would be fully developed and profitable.
The Catholic Church is very much affected by the trend of the present times. The challenges we have to encounter as a Church are tremendous. What is happening might be beneficial to the people but at the detriment of the Catholic Church that seeks its support and sustenance from abroad. There is no local income as the Church was entered as a non-profit-making organization. This year's increase of salaries to 53% also adds heavily to the Church's financial burdens. It is most likely that the missionaries have to tighten their belts, slash out a good number of personnel or close down some of their projects.
Along with the above-mentioned difficulty that the Church is struggling with, is the much-lessened foreign grants and donations to sustain its projects. The funding agencies, which are affected by the lingering economic recession, could no longer give as much as in former years. Benefactors who hear or see the advertisements/propaganda about Mongolia's rise to wealth are also giving less. With this new situation, the Church has to hurdle greater obstacles for her to survive.
Another condition that the Church has to put up with is the revival of Shamanism, the culture-based religion of the people, propagating the worship of nature . . . Tengerism (worship of the Blue Skies). People are again going back to the resurgence of their ancient cultural customs and traditional beliefs.
Finally, due to the need of numbers to run the mining operations, I surmise that with this new situation, there ought to be a shift in Church/mission strategies to help address the pressing needs of the people ushered by the expected reverse migration from urban to rural presences as well.
Role of the Church: What can the Church offer to Mongolia today?
To be relevant, the Church has to look harder into the future adapting to the fast changing society propelled by democracy, market-economy, materialism, and consumerism. From a nomadic pasturing community to settlers in the cities and mining sites, with augmented sedentary form of existence, the Church has to adopt new avenues of apostolate/ministries to do her evangelizing mission . . . the spread of the Gospel. The thriving Church to be needed has to concentrate on helping the people in preserving or acquiring values of civilized living. This can be achieved, I believe, in inculcating human and Christian values and the disciplines that go along with them.
We are crossing a threshold where the Church has concentrated her efforts, in bygone years, to social-developmental-humanitarian works. They still remain as involvements since many of the people especially those in the countryside and the newly arrived migrants in the cities are still struggling with their social and economic life due to lack of social ethics and the bloated price of commodities. However, strengthening the pastoral and educative role of Church has come to age.
I see Education in its varied ramifications has to be embraced. I believe that in whatever direction Mongolia and its people are going to, a change in mentality from nomadic/rural to sedentary/civilized way of life has to take place. This can only happen with right attitudes and ways of behavior to be ushered by proper learning. The Church can help in this respect by strengthening its educative commitments and endeavors.
Meanwhile, the Church has to maintain its reputation as a welcoming Church and the defender of the poor, offering moral strength to the needy. The life witness of her constituents, to be credible and trustworthy agents of evangelization, must be consistent in their preaching and Christian way of life . . . witnessing to the Gospel and its values in words and deeds.
By way of conclusion
I believe that this Church thrives with God's Spirit leading it. She survived the earlier and more difficult years of her existence by the dedication and commitment of the missionaries and their lay collaborators, and I know that it persists to grow with the ongoing commitment of her pastoral agents and cooperators coupled by the generosity of philanthropic individuals and groups of other particular Churches all over the world. To our benefactors, we are indebted, indeed! A grateful note of thanks to our supporters! Thanks and God Bless!
Moreover, a strong spirit of collaboration and organization like integrating our different congregational charisma in a common effort and vision is very much needed. The spirit of unity and communion among the missionaries is a must, as it is the best testimony we can offer/transmit to our Mongolian people. Also, the personal life of each of the pastoral agents is a powerful way to testify to the Gospel. The words of Pope Paul VI are the truer in our situation, "Men and women today listen more gladly to the witnesses than to the masters, and if they listen to masters, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, § 41).
The Mongolian Mission moves onwards into the future, fully mindful of the "We" of the Church, the "We" of the apostolic faith. Each one has a different task in the field of the Lord, but we are all God's fellow workers. This is valid for us today and in the future . . . for every Christian. We are all humble ministers of Jesus. We serve the Gospel in the measure that we can, according to our gifts, and we ask God to make His Good News and His Church Community develop today and in the times to come through Us.
And so, beyond fulfilling our functions effectively, is the real challenge of being true missionaries called upon to help transform the lives of those we come in contact with, especially the poor and needy, in our missionary endeavors and ministries.