ROME – Religion, like politics, is basically local. Faith isn’t forged in the HQs of spiritual bureaucracies and their political battles, however riveting those conflicts may be for journalists, bloggers and posters on social media.
Belief instead is won or lost in the trenches, one person, one heart and mind, at a time.
In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that my wife, Elise, and I experienced the Christmas season this year in an ideal setting to taste the local nature of the faith, almost entirely untainted by ecclesiastical politics – literally on the other side of the world, in the tiny mission church of Mongolia, with a total Catholic flock of roughly 1,450 souls.
On Christmas Eve, we witnessed the baptisms of three new Mongolian converts to the faith, all women. There is simply no place else on earth where the addition of a mere three members would actually represent a statistically significant 0.2 percent jump in the national Catholic population, but there it was.
Ironically, we ended up in Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital city, despite my stated aim of spending the holidays somewhere warm.
As it happens, however, the frigid temperatures of the Mongolian capital stood in stark contrast to the warmth of the emerging Catholic culture there, under the leadership of Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo and an improbable band of missionaries from across the Catholic spectrum, from Cameroon to India and points beyond.
Herewith, four random musings on this remarkable missionary church – which, taken together, perhaps drive home the point that while Rome may be great theater, the real drama of Catholic life is unfolding almost everywhere else.
While Mongolia may be about as far away from Rome as a Catholic can get in existential terms, there’s a curious way in which the two places do share something in common: They are both remarkably priest-rich.
Globally speaking, there’s roughly one priest for every 3,373 Catholics in the world, although that ratio masks serious regional discrepancies. In the United States, for example, there’s one priest for every 1,300 Catholics, whereas in Africa it’s 1-5,500 and in Latin America it’s closer to 1-7,000.
One would never know there’s a priest shortage in Rome, however, and ironically, the same is true of Mongolia.
While there may be only 1,450 believers in the country, there are 25 priests plus the cardinal, which works out to a ratio of one cleric for every 56 ordinary Catholics. In addition, there are also six seminarians, 30 women religious, five religious brothers and 35 catechists hailing from 30 different countries.
All in, therefore, there are 102 ecclesiastical personnel in Mongolia, representing a ratio of one pastoral worker for every 14 believers – a stunning figure likely unmatched anywhere else on the planet. At the New Years Eve Mass this year, Marengo was joined by a robust total of 15 concelebrants, making the altar area in the cathedral almost as crowded as downtown Ulaanbaatar traffic.
Here’s the basic difference, however, between the saturation of priests in Rome and in Mongolia.
In the Eternal City, the draw often is being close to the flame. In other words, priests gravitate to Rome to make a career, because it’s the best possible place to get noticed. Pretty much the opposite is true of Mongolia – on its vast steppes, you could be the Curé d’Ars and probably only about 14 people would ever know it, none of whom run Vatican dicasteries or post influential blogs.
In other words, the preponderance of personnel in such a remote setting is a reflection of basic missionary zeal, a desire to serve a young church without fanfare or reward. It’s proof that Catholicism is still capable of generating remarkable numbers of people eager to bring the Gospel to the most remote corners of the earth … which, arguably, suggests there’s some gas left in the church’s tanks after all.
Preaching without Words
One of the striking things about a missionary church is that almost everything about it is a form of catechesis, since people there haven’t grown up in Christian culture and everything is a journey into the unknown. As a result, people pay very careful attention, not just to what’s said but also to what’s done.
A classic example came during Sunday Mass on Dec. 31 at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, during the distribution of communion. At one point someone accidentally dropped a host to the floor, at which point Marengo fell to his knees and began carefully picking up the crumbs from the consecrated host and putting them to his lips.
This went on a few moments, with great seriousness, until one of the missionary nuns arrived to take over so that Marengo could resume distributing communion. (Actually, it was mildly amusing to watch this elderly nun essentially muscle the 49-year-old cardinal aside, pointing brusquely for him to get back to work while she dealt with the remains of the host, whereupon Marengo immediately obeyed.)
Eventually an altar server arrived with a purifier, and, under the nun’s direction and Marengo’s watchful eye, the last remains of the host were retrieved and the area cleaned.
The whole episode probably took about 10 minutes, and, from my own observation, I can report that virtually every set of eyes in the cathedral was riveted on the scene. In the end, Marengo, the sister and the server delivered a powerful lesson on Catholic reverence for the Eucharist, and they did it without uttering a single word.
As the saying often erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes, “Preach the Gospel always, and, when necessary, use words.” The line may be apocryphal, but as the Mongolian example proves, the sentiment definitely isn’t.
Controversy and Context
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar on Dec. 24, meaning on Christmas Eve, and returned to Rome Jan. 2, right after the New Year’s Holiday. As a result, we were in town just as the furor over Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican’s Dec. 18 declaration regarding the non-liturgical blessing of same-sex unions, was reaching a crescendo.
On Dec. 30, Elise and I sat down with Marengo over coffee at the small pastor center in Ulaanbaatar, which gave me the opportunity to confirm a hunch: To wit, according to Marengo, Fiducia Supplicans had been in circulation for 12 days by that point, making headlines all over the world, but not a single person in Mongolia had asked him about it or, for that matter, even seemed aware of its existence.
That’s not to say there aren’t tensions over LGBTQ+ issues in Mongolian society, just like everyplace else. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 and the country adopted a law covering hate crimes in 2015, with protected groups including sexual orientation and gender identity, although Mongolian law does not recognize same-sex relationships and activists claim discrimination remains widespread.
However, the tiny Catholic community here simply doesn’t have the bandwidth yet to engage such issues, since its challenges tend to be more existential.
When you’re still trying to explain the difference between a blessing with an image of the Holy Family and the magic practiced by indigenous shamans, for example, debating the fine points of who can get such blessings just doesn’t seem a towering priority.
(Marengo delivered just such a mini-catechesis on that point on New Year’s Eve when he offered a blessing with an icon of the Holy Family, the patron of the church in Mongolia, which had been painted and offered as a gift by a Polish artist.)
In other words, a missionary church returns the faith to the essentials, offering a reminder that much of what we argue about back home, however important it may seem in the moment, actually is terribly secondary.
Curiosity, not Contempt
Another refreshing thing about a missionary church is that locals tend to approach the faith not with the world-weary contempt of, say, Europe and Latin America, weighed down by centuries of experience of Catholic culture.
Instead, people tend to react with genuine curiosity and even enthusiasm, charmed by the idea that somebody finds them important enough to reach out. In that context, pretty much anyone who represents this beguiling “other” becomes a de facto missionary.
For example, Elise and I spent some time in the company of a young Mongolian man named Dorjsuren, who cheerfully informed us we should call him “Doogie.” (He was, by the way, a big, hulking guy one could easily imagine as part of Gengis Khan’s conquering hordes, not at all reminiscent of the TV character “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” but he embraced the name anyway.)
Doogie works for the car rental company we used, and, as it turns out, in Mongolia you don’t just go the rental counter at the airport and pick up your vehicle. Instead, an employee meets your flight and drives you into town, concluding the contract only at your hotel, and then drives you back to the airport when you’re done.
As a result, we had two pretty good chunks of time in the car with Doogie, and, when he found out we were connected to the Vatican, it was off to the races. Especially in light of the papal visit to Mongolia in September, which had aroused his curiosity, he was full of questions, which we did our best to answer.
My favorite query came when he asked about who actually lives in the Vatican: Are they, he wanted to know, politicians or holy men? After choking back as much laughter as I possibly could, I tried to explain that the best answer is “both,” with the ratio between political ambition and sanctity of life depending on the individual.
Once we explained what a cardinal is in the Catholic system, Doogie was alternately amazed to learn Mongolia has one, not so surprised that he turned out to be an Italian, and utterly stunned to discover that this Italian actually speaks fluent Mongolian.
Honestly, I make it even money that within a year or so, Doogie will be in an RCIA program and we may actually see him baptized on our next visit.
By the way, Doogie was not an isolated case.
One highlight of our trip was the opportunity to interview members of the Mongolian folk metal band The HU, whose pulsating music and epic videos are just about the coolest thing I’ve experienced in a long time, and they too seemed genuinely intrigued by the pope and the Church. For them, Catholicism is not a system of power and wealth, because they’ve never experienced the institutional dimension of it all. Instead, Catholicism comes off as a cluster of convictions about the spiritual nature and destiny of the human family which they find genuinely inspiring, despite the fact that they’re ardent devotees of Mongolia’s indigenous worship of the eternal blue sky.
That, too, is part of the joy of a missionary church: You get to watch people encounter the faith for the first time, without preconceptions or prejudices, and their general fascination is a reminder of why, over the centuries, Christianity has struck such a wide swath of the human population as good news – however much the experience of individual Christians, alas, can sometimes be more of a mixed bag.