Catholics in Mongolia: Steady Growth in Difficult Territory

Children in front of a chapel in the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (© ACN)

Children in front of a chapel in the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (© ACN)

According to a local Catholic leader, the Catholic Church is growing steadily in Mongolia, despite all the obstacles it faces.

The Apostolic Administrator of Ulaanbaatar, Bishop Wenceslao Selga Padilla, made his comments while visiting international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Bishop Wenceslao, originally from the Philippines, has headed the Apostolic Prefecture in this central Asian country since it was set up in 2002.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Mongolia allowed for a new beginning, which included a growing interest in the Catholic faith. The post-communist, democratically elected government invited the Catholic Church into the country and established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1992.

Wenceslao Selga Padilla came with two priests belonging to the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM).

“We started from scratch. The first Holy Masses were read in a hotel. After that we rented apartments and forged initial links with believers through international organizations and the embassies,” Bishop Wenceslao explained.

The living conditions in Mongolia are unusual: the country is about as big as Alaska, but it only has a population of 2.8 million. In the winter, temperatures drop to as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, while in the summer they rise to as much as 86 degrees.

Around 55 per cent of the population are professing Buddhists and the proportion of Christians is about 2 per cent; the majority of these belong to the Protestant Church.

The number of Catholics is negligibly small, yet it is growing slowly but steadily. According to Bishop Wenceslao, there are at present around 960 adherents. 49 nuns, 20 priests and 2 monks are working in the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar.

Today the Catholic Church has four parishes, as well as schools and social facilities, which are expressly desired by the state. When the Vatican set up the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar in 2002, there were about 114 Catholics living in Mongolia.

At the end of August, 2003, the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral was consecrated in the capital. The building is reminiscent of a yurt, the traditional tent used by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia.

The predominant religion in Mongolia is Buddhism. Like all religious convictions it was fought fiercely in the Soviet period. With the fall of communism the tide turned. Today many see Buddhism as part of the national identity.

On the other hand, other religions, including Christianity, are regarded as foreign. Profession of Christian faith is therefore only permitted within Church premises.

Young people under 16 may only take part in catechesis with the written consent of their parents, and priests may not be identifiable as such in public.

The interest in the Catholic Church is nevertheless unbroken, even if Bishop Wenceslao observes a certain fluctuation among Catholics.

“Mongolia is in a state of upheaval. People are becoming settled and no longer live as nomads. Then there is a growing materialism; many are turning away again from the faith.”

For the Bishop, however, this is no reason to neglect pastoral initiatives, which are also supported by ACN. On the contrary, “Since the end of communist rule, people have basically opened up to the faith.”

And, he added, “Certainly a lot depends on the dedication of the missionaries, but evangelization has many facets.”

“Whatever we do, social work, education, humanitarian aid, it all has an impact on society.”

Directly under the Holy Father, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity - helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action. Founded in 1947 by Father Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity,” the organization is now at work in over 145 countries throughout the world. The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 43 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide. For more information contact Michael Varenne at michael@churchinneed.org or call 718-609-0939 or fax718-609-0938. Aid to the Church in Need, 725 Leonard Street, PO Box 220384, Brooklyn, NY 11222-0384. www.churchinneed.org
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