With a ger as a church, waiting for Pope Francis in Ulaanbaatar
by Chiara Zappa

Discovering Mongolia’s small Catholic community ahead of the pontiff’s arrival on 31 August shows how the country is rebuilding its identity after 70 years of communism and the difficult transition to democracy. The small local Catholic community has been a work in progress for the past 30 years. Fr Peter Sanjajav is one of the first two local priests. “Today my story helps me serve as a bridge between different cultures and experiences, alongside those who are searching,” he said.

Ulaanbaatar (AsiaNews) – On a bus stuck in traffic on Chinggis Avenue, central Ulaanbaatar, crossing the city, Father Ernesto was joking around with a child sitting next to his grandfather.

In 30 years, the Mongolian capital has seen its population triple to 1.7 million, new buildings going up non-stop.

Born in 1951, Fr Ernesto Viscardi points to the neighbourhoods that run by the window, which will welcome Pope Francis from 31 August to 4 September during his historic visit to a young and small Church. The Italian priest knows the place very well.

He arrived in Mongolia in 2004 to join a small group of Consolata missionaries who had arrived the previous year in a land of extremes, starting with the weather, seeking a new identity after the transition to democracy that followed 70 years of communism.

For Fr Ernesto, “This identity is being rebuilt around some key elements: the land, the Buddhist tradition, and the myth of the great leader Genghis Khan (who in the early 1200s united rebellious Mongol tribes into an army that conquered an area that stretched from Korea to Poland).”

During the long embrace by the Soviet giant, spirituality was forcibly banned from everyday life. Following purges that began in 1937, thousands of temples were destroyed, Buddhist monasteries seized, and at least 15,000 lamas (spiritual masters) slaughtered.

The bus crosses the Peace Bridge built in the 1950s by China, Mongolia’s other cumbersome neighbour, and heads towards the central square, the seat of government, where people, fed up with corruption and the rising cost of living, periodically stage protests.

About two thirds of the people experience some form of poverty. Beyond the downtown skyscrapers, the hills surrounding the capital are home to most of the poor, white spots dotting the rising slopes.

As the bus makes its way up the less busy roads, it becomes clear that the spots are gers (yurts), the traditional tents of nomadic herders.

“In recent years, more and more families from the steppes have moved to the capital in search of a less harsh lifestyle or as a result of the loss of livestock due to particularly harsh winters", the missionary explains. But "Very few can afford a flat.”

Most pitch their tent where they find a piece of vacant land. More than half of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in so-called  the ger districts, without sewers or running water.

The Catholic mission in modern-day Mongolia also had its origin in such traditional tents, small spaces meticulously organised according to the symbols of shamanic culture after Christianity, which had arrived with the Nestorian Church in the 8th century, disappeared for hundreds of years.

In 1992, a few months after a new constitution was approved, guaranteeing freedom of expression and religion, three missionaries from the Belgian congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, settled in Ulaanbaatar.

One of them was Fr Wenceslao Padilla, a Philippine priest, appointed superior of the missio sui iuris (raised to apostolic prefecture in 2002). He immediately dedicated himself to helping the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, but especially street kids, who were roaming the city’s streets in large numbers, a consequence of the harsh economic crisis that followed the fall of communism.

A few years later, work began on the cathedral, styled after a ger with a round shape, a low conical dome, and a wooden radial ceiling. Today it stands next to the St Mary clinic for the poor.

For over 20 years, a real tent served as the first facility, set up by the Salesians, who today run a large vocational centre with some 200 students.

"For those who come from the countryside without professional skills, life in the capital can be very difficult", this according to Fr Paul Leung, a Salesian originally from Hong Kong who runs the school. “Thanks to our courses, young people have no difficulty finding a job.”

Some have become educators, teaching at the Don Bosco School, while a few have chosen to be baptised.

“Talking about religion is banned in school, but we convey Christian values in everyday life, or in the traditional Salesian practice of 'good morning'. Some decide to go further, attending catechism class in one of the parishes,” Fr Paul explained.

In three decades of missionary presence, six parishes were established in Ulaanbaatar. More were created in Erdenet, Darkhan and Arvaikheer (where gers still serve as churches).

A small Church has emerged out of the first proclamation, with 77 priests, consecrated brothers, nuns, and lay people, and about 1,500 baptised members, many of whom are active as catechists, educators, members of choirs, and volunteers in charitable work.

Since last year, by the will of Pope Francis, this small community also has a cardinal, Apostolic Prefect Giorgio Marengo, also a missionary of the Consolata.

In recent years, by osmosis, the first two local vocations flourished: Fr Joseph Enkh-Baatar was ordained a priest in 2016, followed two years ago by Fr Peter Sanjajav, now 38 (pictured).

“When, as a child, I arrived from Arvaikheer with my mother, brother and sister, it was the Sisters of Mother Teresa who welcomed us," he said. "We came from a very poor background and I had never studied. But, thanks to their dedication, at 15 I learnt to read and write.”

Subsequently, Fr Kim Stephano Seon Hyeon, a South Korean fidei donum who died suddenly in May, took care of him for years.

"One day I asked him point-blank: ‘Who makes you do it? To come here, far from your country, in this cold, to take care of us?’ He responded showing me the crucifix.”

On that day, a seed was planted in Peter's heart. Over time, it blossomed into years of seminary in South Korea, hard studies in an unknown language, "but I did not throw in the towel, as the sisters had taught me,” he said.

“When I became a priest, all my family, even the Buddhist, were happy for me, because they saw my joy. Today my story helps me serve as a bridge between different cultures and experiences, alongside those who are searching". From steppes to skyscrapers.