ULAANBAATAR – One of the world’s smallest Catholic flocks is growing in number, as the Mongolian Church added three native women to its ranks on Christmas Eve, nearly four months after Pope Francis’s visit earlier this year.
There’s no other country on earth where the addition of just three converts would represent an 0.2 percent spike in the Catholic community, but given that there are only an estimated 1,450 Catholics out of Mongolia’s overall population of 3.3 million, here such a small bump is especially meaningful.
Frigid temperatures and a broken internal heating system did not prevent faithful from filling up Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar on Christmas Eve, most of whom wore heavy winter gear throughout the nearly two-hour liturgy.
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, an Italian Consolata missionary who has lived and ministered in Mongolia since 2003, presided over the liturgy, delivering a homily in fluent Mongolian focusing on the joy of Jesus’ birth and the light he brings to a dark world, and offering a brief summary in English, before baptizing the women.
Each of the three women, who preferred not to give their names, were Mongolian, two of whom are siblings and the third is a student who lives at a hostel run by missionary nuns in Ulaanbaatar.
The siblings reportedly saw their neighbor attending Mass at Saint Mary’s Catholic parish in Ulaanbaatar and became curious about Catholicism.
They began making inquiries about the church and the Catholic faith, and eventually met with the pastor of Saints Peter and Paul cathedral at the time, the late Father Kim Stephano, who is now deceased.
Stephano invited the siblings to start attending Mass and soon after they asked to join the Catholic Church and to receive the sacraments. They underwent two years of catechetical instruction prior to their baptism Sunday night.
The third woman, the student who lives at the hostel run by missionary nuns in Mongolia, would join them for Mass often during the week, and would attend Mass with them on Sundays. Her interest in the Catholic Church grew over time, culminating with her request to become a full member.
Marengo baptized them during the cathedral’s Christmas Eve Mass, and he also presided over Christmas morning Mass the next day, offering attendees a translation into Mongolian of Pope Francis’s own homily from the vigil Mass, which centered on the littleness and humility of Jesus, as opposed to the strong and powerful messiah many had expected.
He also noted that Christmas is a working day in Mongolia – a Buddhist nation where Catholics number less than 1,500 – and said the silence of Jesus’s birth amid the chaos of everyday life is a chance to reflect on how his grace penetrates without making a scene, and to imitate his smallness and humility.
Prior to Christmas, some 400 children and youth from Mongolia’s small Catholic community gathered in the cathedral’s parish hall, where they put on a Christmas play.
The vibrancy of Mongolia’s small church is due in large part to the presence and work of foreign missionaries, who come from all over the world, including Italy, Rwanda, Cameroon, India, and beyond.
Religion in Mongolia is only beginning to regain its footprint following 70 years of Soviet communism, with Catholic missionaries returning in the mid-90s.
Pope Francis became the first-ever pontiff to visit Mongolia when he traveled to Ulaanbaatar from Aug. 31-Sept. 4, meeting with Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsük and Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, as well as representatives of the country’s various religious traditions, including Buddhism, Islam, Shamanism, Evangelical Christians, and others.
His visit was the culmination of 800 years of correspondence, as the Holy See and Mongolia have had diplomatic contact since the 13th century, when Pope Innocent IV in 1246 sent a delegate to Mongolia to establish ties with the Han emperors.
Italian Archbishop Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, a papal diplomat and explorer, became one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1246 bearing a letter from Innocent IV, beginning an exchange of correspondence which to this day is preserved in the Vatican Archives.
Several missionaries spoke to media ahead of Pope Francis’s visit, saying it was a unique opportunity to educate locals about the Catholic faith, as most are unfamiliar with the pope, and with the Church generally.
Throughout his visit this summer, Francis praised the work of local missionaries and touted the benefits of the Catholic Church’s charitable social projects, while also offering assurances to political leaders still suspicious about religion that the church is not a threat but is a benefit through its service to the poor and needy.
While Christmas is not a nationally recognized holiday in Mongolia, Christmas trees and ice sculptures adorn the city and traditional holiday songs can be heard in malls and shopping centers, and various stores throughout the city center.
Following the Christmas events, Marengo is taking a few days of spiritual retreat before returning for the New Year’s liturgies, which include a prayer vigil on New Year’s Eve, and Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1.
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