As we look forward with joy to the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to Mongolia, Missio reflects on the Catholic Church’s youngest missionary territory and how a true spirit of encounter is bringing more people to Christ.
Fewer than 20,000 people live in Arvajhėėr, a small town 400km south of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. But in missionary terms, this tiny rural settlement holds huge significance.
The mustard seeds of mission
This mission in Arvajhėėr began just twenty years ago. Before then, there was no trace of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic Church generally has only had presence in Mongolia for around 30 years. It was after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 that the country opened back up, allowing Monsignor Wenceslao Padilla, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to begin his mission in Mongolia.
Originally from the Philippines, ‘Bishop Wens’ as he became, was appointed Apostolic Prefect of Mongolia in 2002. He featured in our 2015 World Mission Sunday campaign, and supporters in England and Wales raised £540,967 to support mission projects in Mongolia and throughout the world. Our good friend, Bishop Wens, continued to live out his mission in Mongolia until his death in 2018.
Celebrating the first Mongolian Priest
In 2016 we celebrated the ordination to the Priesthood of the first Mongolian-born Priest, Fr Joseph Enkh. This was a specially wonderful occasion for us, as the Catholic community in England and Wales had supported Fr Joseph’s formation and ordination, financially and spiritually, through Missio. At the time Bishop Wens told Fides News:
‘Having a young Mongolian ordained to priesthood for the local Church is like giving birth: she is a young mother who gives birth to her first child. Let us pray and trust that Fr Joseph Enkh is faithful to his vocation, takes up his cross daily, and follows Christ always, in every circumstance of his life.’
Fr Joseph’s ordination was a key moment in the life of Mongolia’s Church and a product of Bishop Wens’ missionary vision. And whilst Bishop Wens is dearly missed, his legacy of love and care continues on through the seeds of faith he planted in Mongolia.
‘The frontline of mission’
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, missionary of the Consolata and current Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, was there from the beginning of the mission in Arvajhėėr with Bishop Wens. He remembers the mission’s early days, in a new film created for Fides News:
‘We sometimes start out with preconceived ideas, models that we carry within us’, explains the Cardinal. But when he first arrived as a missionary in Mongolia 20 years ago, he and his fellow missionaries soon realised that:
‘It is also important to be open to changes in plans; to be humble and to listen to the Spirit, who speaks through reality.
‘Arvajhėėr was truly the frontline mission for me…the reality of the capital is one thing, the province, the countryside, is another. So, they were for us really very interesting years, we were leaving behind that little bit of certainty we had acquired in the first three years in Mongolia, to open ourselves up again to total newness.’
Looking back, the Cardinal recognises ‘how the hand of the Lord guided us even through experiences that were not easy’; when ‘we did not know what could have happened’.
Setting up a Church from scratch was a delicate mission. The missionaries worked with great care and respect to gain trust and mutual understanding with the local authorities and people. But gradually the team were able to get to work, obtain the permits they needed, and set about building a parish in Arvajhėėr.
A Mission of Trust
Today the parish is small, but thriving. And as the missionaries currently in Arvajhėėr explain, authenticity and careful listening are still key. Fr James explains:
‘Here, evangelisation starts with social works. You have to connect with people by doing something; a project, something social; getting to know the people, the culture. We have our small church and parish, but before we even get to the parish, there are so many other things we do. We have the kindergarten, women’s project; we have people who come to use the shower facilities. We have so many little things that help us connect with people. For us that is key.’
Meeting Christ in the ger
For the parishioners of Arvajhėėr, encountering Christ has been life changing. Perlima and Rencin have been parishioners since 2008. Rencin shares:
‘It really inspires me to go to church. I feel so happy when I go. Every Sunday we go to church together, and all the things [the missionaries] do impress me a lot. I went to Church for the first time in 2008, because my wife told me about it. And now, all the members of my family believe in God.’
‘In the 1990s, we didn’t have food every day, because I didn’t have a job at the time. We had four children, and life was very difficult. As a society we were depressed. Food was scarce, and people were discriminated against. But since we found belief in God our life has changed a lot. Even when we didn’t always have enough to eat, we recognised that we were rich in Christ’s love.’
The couple are grateful for the difference the Sisters have made to their family and community. They share:
‘They always take care of our children and play with them by singing and dancing.’
Sharing heart with heart
The Holy Father calls on us to build a ‘culture of encounter’. But living within the realm of ‘encounter’ is not just a question of teaching or preaching. When we encounter others in the spirit of mission, it takes time, patience and a certain vulnerability to build fruitful encounter. Missionary Sister, Theodora, echoes this:
‘There’s nothing big about what we do; only our relationship with them, our friendship. And the little things we can do with them. You know, culture is a huge thing. We can’t wrap it up in a day, but by chatting with them like this, we get more into reality… It’s not just what we study in books, but what we feel is something real – something that has life! Sharing heart with heart helps us so much.’
The visit of Pope Francis in Mongolia from 31 August – 4 September is greatly significant and bears the motto ‘Hoping Together’. The international network of Missio has been supporting the Church in Mongolia since it first began – providing prayerful and financial support to the youngest Catholic Church in the world.
Featured image: A religious sister walks with children outside the Our Mother of Mercy Mission church near Arvaikheer, Mongolia © Vatican Media.
Featured Film: Mongolia, the frontline Mission short film © Agenzia Fides