What took you to the great country of Genghis Khan, Mongolia?
During the Plenary of the FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences) in Manila last year, Bishop Wenceslaus Padilla, CICM, of Mongolia asked me whether I could give a few talks to his missionaries and faithful based on my experience in the field. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to visit the legendary land that had controlled the destinies of many nations from the Pacific Coast to Poland, for centuries. In fact, earlier when I was in charge of the FABC Office of Evangelization, we were trying to see how we could be helpful to Mongolia. In those years, there was no known Christian community there, let alone a Church presence of any importance. It looked like a dream come true when Pope John Paul II opened a missio sui iuris at Ulaan Baatar in 1992.
What is this your fascination for Mongolia?
As you know, most communities in northeast India are part of the great Mongol family. Though I do not pretend that they all migrated from today’s Mongolia, they are aware that they have their origins in the heartlands of the Mongol races.
I have often thought that Indian self-understanding is not complete unless we go beyond the Aryan-Dravidian cultural alliance and recognise the strong Mongol composition in our society and contribution to our civilisation. Aside from the Mongol element clearly visible among the northeastern tribes and the sub-Himalayan communities, undoubtedly Mongol blood runs in the veins of a number of ethnic groups in the Eastern regions of India. Many of their concepts have gone into the mainstream thought too. Buddha, Asoka, and several other great figures in the early history of India were of Mongol stock. That is why the religious proposal they made (Buddhism) found wide welcome among the Mongol people of Asia.
However, for me as a missionary, the interest was not merely anthropological and cultural. I keep wondering what great plans God has for the great Mongol family. Seeds have been sown in many places of East Asia through the blood of early Christian martyrs. Those mustard seeds must grow. Can we play a helpful role?
What is the position of the Church in Mongolia today?
The Catholic population is small. It is still less than a thousand. But it is a good start when we realise that Bishop Padilla began his work in 1992 from zero. His missionary team of priests and sisters has grown to over 70. They are enthusiastic and zealous and are opening up missions even in more remote areas, even up to the borders of the Gobi Desert. Most of the country is undulating hills covered with grass, on which horses, camels and sheep graze. The temperature dips 50 degrees below zero and more. It is very challenging for missionaries, especially those from warmer countries. The people are followers of Tibetan Buddhism and are mild in nature. However, they are cautious about proselytising. Having inherited traditions from the Soviet culture, the government does not encourage private institutions, though they do not forbid them altogether. The Church runs a few educational and health services, Mother Teresa’s work among them.
How does the public look at our work?
Having come out of the Soviet system, Mongolia is happy to open relations with other nations and listen to new ideas. In that sense, they are respectful of us and eager to interact with our personnel. Young people in particular are asking questions. A question that most Asian societies are putting to themselves is precisely how to remain true to one’s civilisational/cultural identities and be open to new ideas and possibilities. Those who hold answer to this key question will definitely contribute to the future of the continent.
What possibilities do you see for Mongolia?
Mongolia has a small population of about two and a half million. With the discovery of oil in places, its economic future is hopeful, as long as the leaders adopt intelligent policies. The country has to negotiate its position in the world between the two giants: China and Russia. Though its population is small, its land mass is enormous.
As I said earlier, Mongolia has its own strategic importance for the future of Asia. Genghis Khan remains their national hero. The airport of Ulaan Baatar is dedicated to him. Apart from his harshness during conquests, which was the style in those days for most conquering people, Genghis was forward-looking. He encouraged trade, ensured safe travel, was impartial to various religious groups, and respected women. It is said he had a Christian woman among his wives. The world would have been very different if this woman had succeeded to do what Clotilda did for Clovis. But what continues to be important is that ‘heart must speak to the heart’.
What touched you most in Mongolia?
Would you believe it? Among the Missionaries of Charity in Mongolia, there was a young sister from a village, which I had led to the faith some 32 years ago. She was from Borduria, in the Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh. I am not sure whether I baptised her or not. The entire Diocese of Miao springs from the decision of a ‘local Clovis’ opting for Christ in 1978. And amazingly, that young Church has already sent missionaries to different places, including Mongolia. It was very moving for me to meet that young missionary from one of the youngest communities in northeast India, a young Church evangelising a younger Church. Mother Teresa was personally present in Borduria when we blessed the first church there, preferring to take part in that event rather than the World Youth Day in Denver to which Pope John Paul II had personally invited her. The holy woman from Calcutta knew where to plant the seed. And see what has happened since!
Can such things happen again?
Why not? Everything is possible to the one who believes. I think it was in the 8th century that Padmasambhava took the message of Buddha from the Indian plains to the Tibetan Plateau. It was again a few centuries later that zealous missionaries brought that message to Mongolia. I was amazed to see the vastness of the area within which that local insight from an Indian village had spread.
There is no limit to possibilities when you are certain that the message you carry has something valid to offer. It is bound to make an impact even if it takes time. What the carrier of the Good News has to do is to work according to the rhythms of human nature and the processes of history . . . and wait for the action of the Lord.”