Christmas in Mongolia amid signs of consumerism and the memory of Mgr Padilla (photos)
Mongolia’s Catholic community got ready to relive "the great mystery of Incarnation" through a moment of retreat and reconciliation. Consumerism and untrained relationship to money are new dangers.
Arvaiheer (AsiaNews) – Today's Mongolia is a country undergoing great changes. Since we arrived 15 years ago as Consolata missionaries we have seen a rapid transformation. The country has gone from seventy years of communism centred on state atheism and almost total isolation from the rest of the world to the mirage of economic development based on exploiting its huge mineral reserves, managed more or less well by a new ruling class.
In the 1990s, Christmas was unheard of. In December, only New Year’s Eve mattered, a tradition introduced by the Russians in previous years. Until the early 2000s there was no visible sign that 25 December was anything special; in fact, it was a working day like any other.
Today, however, as the Mongolian economy opens up to the world, the commercial trappings of Christmas have arrived, without people understanding them. People exchange gifts wrapped in shiny paper but they don’t know why. It is a paradox that, among other things, favours new forms of consumerism that harm traditional customs in people not used to managing money carefully.
In essence, the End-of-Year celebrations remain more important than the religious event in a country where Christians represent only 2 per cent of the population, including a small number of Catholics. The real New Year is the much-celebrated lunar new year, which falls between the end of January and the middle of February, a timeless tradition linked to nature’s cycle signalling the beginning of the end of winter and the coming new spring.
Still, for Mongolia’s small Catholic community the great mystery of the Incarnation is something they experience with great intensity. The sacramental celebration of that encounter changed their lives, opening up the possibility of a personal relationship with the living God who frees from fears and guarantees true closeness. The pastoral context helps us identify with the events of Bethlehem. We have real shepherds who watch over the flock and easily recognise the surprise caused by a God born in a manger.
We too feel this, together with them. For us missionaries, to relive this is a great gift, together with our Mongolian friends who have opened their doors to Christ for the gift of salvation that comes to meet us. Accompanying and supporting them in faith is also a challenge, given the many trials they have to go through to maintain and strengthen their faith in a very particular context, which often frowns upon their choice of becoming Christian.
This year, Mongolian Catholics celebrated Christmas without the one pioneer who led them for 26 years, the man who was there at the birth of the Church. Mgr Wenceslao Padilla passed away suddenly, one September evening, from a heart attack, extending a veil of sadness on Christmas, yet with the confident hope that God will provide for his people as they wait for a new pastor.
For our part, as Consolata missionaries, we continue to sink our roots deeper in Ulaanbaatar’s northern suburbs, a big and chaotic capital (the coldest in the world). Likewise, we continue to serve the Apostolic Prefecture. In Kharkhorin – the ancient capital of the Mongol empire – we are engaged in interfaith dialogue (especially with our Buddhist friends) and in historical-cultural research.
In Arvaiheer, the small Christian community is a small sprout of the Church, born with us in the past few years, in a place where Catholics were absent. At present, it has rediscovered the peace of forgiveness received and offered. We experienced a moment of retreat and reconciliation, to "shake off" – with the help of Grace – the incrustations that inevitably weigh down our walk in the holiness that is the secret of true happiness. Catechesis and permanent education take a great deal of energy and demand a certain coherence of life from us.
So we celebrated the gift of Emmanuel again with simplicity and intense participation. The world outside may be focused on New Year's Eve, but for us Christians it was Christmas Eve, in which we prayed that the God-with-us may bring so much peace and brotherhood to a country with a rich history and culture, immersed in a present that is uncertain in so many ways.
* Consolata missionary in Arvaiheer