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By: Agenzia Fides
‘The proclamation of Christ returned to Mongolia 15 years ago, but the Lord has always been with the Mongol people who today receive the Gospel with faith and hope’ – from an interview by Agenzia Fides with Bishop Wenceslao S. Padilla CICM, Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar. Bishop Padilla is both the first bishop ever in Mongolia and the first Filipino to be appointed bishop of a jurisdiction overseas. This interview was published on 9 April and is reproduced with permission. Fides, , is a service of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and is based in the Vatican.
ULAANBAATAR (Agenzia Fides) - In just 15 years of active presence, the small Catholic community of Mongolia has made great progress. With the proclamation of the Gospel and the love of God, made manifest mainly through the testimony and help of their brethren, the number of conversions and baptisms among youth and adults continues to grow. In 2008, there were about 100 baptisms, and with the baptisms scheduled for May, the total number of faithful will reach 547. This is a positive result for the first missionaries who, 15 years ago, began their missionary adventure to re-evangelize Mongolia. Among them was Father Wenceslao Padilla CICM, a Filipino missionary who lead the missio sui iuris (in 1992) and was later appointed Apostolic Vicar of the Holy See (in 2002), and finally, Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar (in 2003). Agenzia Fides has been able to ask him a few questions on the situation and perspectives of the Church in Mongolia.
Bishop Padilla, what are the roots of Christianity in Mongolia?
The first contacts Mongolia had with the Christian faith began in the 7th century, when missionaries arrived, although in sporadic moments. In the 12th and 14th centuries other missionaries came to the area, such as William Rubruck and the Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, who travelled into the heart of Asia, but without being able to perform much active evangelization work. There were also positive influences in Mongolia from the Catholic missions in China, which were led by great missionaries such as Giovanni da Montecorvino and Matteo Ricci. However, in the 20th century, the Communist regime tried all they could to wipe out any sign of religion from society. The true birth of the Church in Mongolia, therefore, was 16 years ago, in 1992, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the atheist Communist regime. The evangelization effort started afresh, as nothing in terms of structures, communities, or pastoral workers had remained.
Can you give us a brief history of the birth of the Church in recent years?
It’s beautiful, the word ‘rebirth’. In 1992, when the three of us arrived as missionaries (myself and two other brothers of the CICM), we never thought about ‘implanting the Church’ ex novo, but we did want to bring the announcement of Christ once again, as we were convinced that the Lord has always been with the Mongol people who today receive the Gospel with faith and hope. We consider ourselves ‘collaborators of the Almighty’, establishing His Kingdom among the Mongolian people. We began a missio sui iuris, with the first activities: Holy Mass, a new Catholic structure, the testimony of the first small-scale social projects. Ten years later, in 2002, when the community had grown, the missio sui iuris became an Apostolic Vicariate, and finally, an Apostolic Prefecture, with autonomous recognition and a growing vitality, with parishes, religious communities, and faithful that form part of a united and thriving ecclesial community. Today, almost 16 years after our arrival, we can say that ‘the Lord has done great things for us’ and has revealed His face in the land of Genghis Khan.
The new Mongolian Constitution of 1992 guarantees religious freedom. Could you tell us what are the necessary steps in reestablishing the Catholic presence?
For us, the part in the Constitution that refers to religious freedom is fundamental. At the beginning, this expression was interpreted in a partly restricted sense and only the larger religions in Mongolia – like Buddhism and Islam – were favored. However, little by little and thanks to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the Holy See (in 1992), the Catholic community began to gain respect and esteem from the authorities and could in this way begin to expand. The missionaries began working with people in the area, but without ignoring the Christian foreigners living in Mongolia (from NGOs or embassies). We have begun to invite the people to liturgical celebrations and we have begun some social service projects. The people have begun to get to know us, and now begin to ask for more information on our faith and we have begun catechesis, and thus our first group of catechumens. That is how the community began and those who were among the first to be baptized are now evangelizers and catechists, as well.
How have the inhabitants responded?
The Christian message has steadily begun to penetrate the hearts of the Mongolian people, who have for some time had a great hunger for God, for love, and for light in their lives that they have been deprived of for so long. The missionaries have also gotten the youth to participate and have worked in the rehabilitation of youth and children on the streets, thus manifesting Catholic work in a visible manner. Father Gilbert Sales CICM, (from the Philippines), went to the gutters of Ulaanbaatar to help the children living on the streets and we have now opened the ‘Verbist Caring Center’ that takes care of over 120 youth. Today, there is a staff of about 30, mostly lay adults and youth of Mongolia. Other activities have also advanced, thanks to the dedication of laity and religious.
Could you offer us some statistics on the current number of Catholics in Mongolia?
We have about 20 priests and two brothers, 40 religious, four lay missionaries, for a total of 66 missionaries from 18 countries and nine different religious congregations. At the end of 2008, the number of baptized will be 547, ten of whom are foreigners. The Catholic community is not only present in the capital: there are four parishes and five non-parish churches, or ‘missionary centers’ in the country. The most recent, begun in 2007, is the parish of Our Lady Help of Christians, in Darhan, the second largest Mongolian city in dimension, with 80,000 inhabitants.
What is the current situation of pastoral ministry?
I can see that it is advancing with great enthusiasm and vitality. The parishes have Masses, liturgies, sacraments, prayer meetings; we put on formation courses for catechumens and for adults and young people. With the youth, we give special attention in offering instruction and formation. The Apostolic Prefecture has adopted a pastoral plan that is centered on the Word of God and the formation of small Ecclesial Base Communities. It is a three-year plan. The theme of the first year (2007-08) is ‘The Bread of the Word’, of the second (2008-2009) ‘The Bread of the Eucharist’, and of the third (2009-2010) ‘The Bread of Charity’. We try to increase awareness of his own baptism and mission in each member of the faithful.
Is there a Mongolian translation of the Bible that you use?
For reading and catechesis we use a Bible in Mongolian that is published by the Christian Bible Society, which is a Protestant organization. There is still no Catholic version, but we are thinking about the possibility of beginning such a long and delicate process of translation. The Word of God certainly touches people’s hearts; it converts and consoles. The faithful truly love the Sacred Scripture.
Could you tell us a bit about the celebrations of this past Easter?
For us, Easter has always been a great opportunity to offer a testimony of the faith. The parishes celebrated the Holy Week services. I visited each one of the parishes, precisely in order to make the faithful feel the closeness of their pastor. However, we must keep in mind that all the days in Holy Week are normal working days in Mongolia, so many were unable to attend the activities. One piece of good news is that we have received 80 newly baptized and another 30 will be entering the Church in May. The Church’s arms are always open, ready to receive new children.
What are your hopes and wishes for the Catholics in Mongolia?
I can tell that the community is growing in number, but also in enthusiasm, as it prepares the various pastoral activities. The spirit of service, dedication, and commitment of the missionaries and lay workers is truly praiseworthy and paves a path for the Church. We certainly hope that the newly baptized remain aware of the value of their faith. May Christ, who rose from the dead, change the darkness into light in the heart of every member of the Mongolian faithful, so that they may always be open to hope.
Some Latin Terms
A missio sui iuris is basically an independent mission. It is sometimes in a very large area where there are very few Catholics, if any, as was the case when the Mongolian mission was started in 1992. At present there are only nine such jurisdictions in the Roman (Latin) Rite of the Catholic Church. Source: www.gcatholic.com
‘Ex novo’ means ‘starting from scratch’.