Fr Giorgio Marengo is a Consolata missionary who has been in Mongolia for 14 years. In 1992 the Asian nation opened up to the presence of the Catholic Church. Today it has seven parishes, 77 missionaries, a native-born priest, and 1,255 baptised locals. For the clergyman, "here we are living as in the Acts of the Apostles”.
Arvaiheer (AsiaNews) – The Church in Mongolia is a young Church, only 25 years old, but with a distinctive feature, the "freshness" of the proclamation of the Gospel, this according to Fr Giorgio Marengo, a Consolata missionary in Mongolia since 2003.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the clergyman took stock of the Catholic Church’s first quarter century in the Asian country. Starting with the first three missionaries who arrived in 1992 when Mongolia established diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the Church has grown into seven parishes and three missionary centres.
Catholics have done a lot, according to Fr Marengo, "especially in the social field. Yet there is still more to do" in terms of the relationship between the universal and the local Church, the "discretion" needed to get in touch with the local population, and the need to bear witness to the faith using plain language.
Pr Giorgio, what has been done to celebrate the first 25 years of the Catholic Church in Mongolia?
There were two very important initiatives. The first one was the Eucharistic celebration of 19 July, a great Mass in the cathedral of Ulaanbaatar, presided by Mgr Wenceslao Padilla, our apostolic prefect. There were many guests, including the auxiliary bishop of Daejeon in Korea (the local Church has excellent relations with its South Korean counterpart), Mgr Marco Sprizzi, acting chargé d'affaires of the nunciature, and two missionaries, a Filipino and a Belgian, who arrived in 1992 as pioneers of the Catholic Church in Mongolia.
The second event took place from 23 to 26 November, and had a more reflective character. A general assembly, a subtler version of a local synod, was convened to reflect upon these 25 years, on the current situation, and on how to project ourselves into the future. Various missionary groups and parish representatives participated in the meeting. Discussions also focused on a document with the guidelines for the next five years, which the bishop will promulgate in the coming months.
Let us take stock of this quarter of a century of Catholic presence in the country. Since the first three missionaries arrived in 1992, what is the situation today? What are the main challenges, the areas of action in which the work of Catholics still falls short?
Broadly speaking, 25 years is not a lot of time, but enough to think back. We would like to become more rooted in people's faith, and try to reach the strata of society where we are still outsiders. Until a few months ago, we had 1,255 baptised people, a tiny number (out of a population of three million). Greater presence means having a greater impact in society. At the same time, it means taking root in families, in adults who can start to pass on their faith to their children.
At the same time, we must focus on the issue of inculturation, i.e. evangelisation with an understanding of the local cultural and historical identity so that people can express their faith in a form that is close to them, in accordance with their values and symbols.
What have been, and still are the main actions undertaken by the Church?
The main activity is social work. The "great investment" of the early years, which continues today, focused on human promotion, care for the poor with various projects. It is about education, health care, abandoned children. For the past few years we can have counted on the collaboration of Caritas Mongolia. And each parish can develop its own projects, which range from support for agriculture to outreach for women, scholarships, employment.
In Arvaiheer Parish, we have involved in various activities. We have an after-school programme, a sort of educational and recreational centre where we help children do their homework and "spend" time playing with them in leisure-recreational activities, such as teaching English and music. We also have an informal nursery school with 27 children aged two to five.
Another project involves 30 women coping with difficulties who learn sewing and needlework and make bags. Our mission provides them with the material and design, and buys their products to sell to friends. We also have a free public showers service twice a week for health emergency. There is also a "charity group" composed of parishioners, who interact with the poor to know their needs and hand out aid.
For the past two years we have hosted an Alcoholics Anonymous group because alcoholism is a real social scourge. The group is not big – just seven or eight people who attend meetings on an irregular basis. But the good news is that people with addictions feel that it has proven its worth, which gives them a clear point of reference and helps them boost their will power and find truth in their lives.
How many Catholic are there?
Overall, the country has seven parishes and three missionary centres, which are a kind of sub-parishes. In addition to the first Mongolian diocesan priest ordained last year, there are 77 missionaries from ten congregations: 26 priests (21 religious, four diocesan fidei donum and the Mongol priest), 45 nuns, and a lay woman volunteer. We also had two lay missionaries, but they returned to Poland due to health problems. The missionaries come from 22 countries, which makes us very international.
How have Mongolians reacted to you? What are the difficulties and the satisfactions?
It is a totalising experience. Mongolia has its own great identity, a history and a culture with deep roots. Coming here made me enthusiastic and grateful. It was important to make a lowkey entry into a place like this in order to learn, appreciate and interact. It is hard to love something you do not know and to love something or someone we have to know it, starting with language, history and religious identities, especially Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. Even today, after 14 years, I consider myself a student, and knowledge is a never-ending process.
I was well accepted, but as a foreigner I am under a magnifying glass. This is why it is essential to form relationships of trust and mutual respect. It is a real school of humility, which requires us to come down from our pedestal and humbly put ourselves at the service of people, learning every day from the mistakes we make.
Pope Francis often calls upon us to "go out into the peripheries" to proclaim the Gospel. How can we bear witness to Christ in such a small Church, amid a people that are so proud of their traditions?
There are no ready-made recipes, but some basic attitudes can help in human promotion, in developing projects and achieving closeness. Above all we need "discretion" in order to get in touch with and feel empathy for the people one lives with, knowing one’s limits and being aware that we are seen as black swans. It takes discretion and willingness to answer questions, but also authenticity, coming as close as possible to people whilst respecting their tempo. People move away when we insist too much, and there is an instinctive refusal when they feel pressed. So one has to be willing to work on the long term, and accept people as individuals.
When the conditions allow it, we must try to go to the heart of things and not get lost in fancy words. We must go to the core of our faith and try to bear witness to it with simplicity. This is why it is important to pay attention to the liturgy, the catechesis, the preaching. The Gospel’s message gets through more this way than with slogans and loud campaigns.
How does such a small Church feel part of the universal Church? At the same time, how can it enrich the Church of Rome?
Such a small, new and recent Church can give a lot in terms of "freshness". Every day we see how the proclamation of the Gospel generates new believers who in turn form the community and become small lights in society. Compared to Churches that are centuries old, we are personal witnesses to the freshness and newness of the Gospel, of the scandal of preaching that leads to conversion. This is the beauty of a Church that is being born, one that tries to find its place in society, and of what the Spirit can stir that no one can plan ahead. The encounter between the Gospel and a culture that has always been far from it is something beautiful, upsetting and fascinating.
All this reminds the universal Church that here we are living as in the Acts of the Apostles: some roads that open and others that close. At the same time, Mongolian Catholics feel in communion with the Church as a whole, in particular with the pope. They feel part of a family that is much bigger than the one they see.