ULAANBAATAR – Missionaries serving in Mongolia, as well as bishops from other places present for Pope Francis’s historic visit to the country this weekend, have voiced excitement over the pontiff’s presence, saying it shows the globality of the Church and voicing hope that it will deepen the roots of the local Church.
Speaking to journalists at the Pope Francis’s meeting with bishops and missionaries in Mongolia Saturday afternoon, Sister Jeanne Fracoise, a Missionary of Charity from Rwanda who has served in Mongolia for 18 years, said that “for us it is a great blessing to have him with us today, being our pastor visiting his sheep.”
“It is a sign of embracing to have him among us,” she said, saying that in nearly 20 years in Mongolia, “I have seen the Church growing, and we are very happy, grateful, to go out for all, bringing to this mission where the Church is still growing, to serve the people of Mongolia.”
Fracoise expressed hope that the pope’s visit will help further the growth of the faith in the country.
Pope Francis is currently on an official visit to Mongolia, the first-ever of a pope to the country, which is home to one of the Catholic Church’s smallest flocks, numbering around 1,450. They are served mostly by foreign missionaries, who arrived in the country again after the fall of Soviet communism in 1992.
Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow of Hong Kong, who will get a red hat from Pope Francis Sept. 30 and remain in Rome for the month-long first part of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October, told journalists Saturday that the Church in Asia generally is “a growing Church.”
It is not growing “as fast as Africa, Africa is growing fast, but the Asian Church also has a very important role to play now in the universal Church,” he said, saying the bishops and cardinals present for the papal trip in Mongolia are “here representing the Asian voice.”
Asked about the role Catholicism can play in terms of promoting peace and freedom, Chow said the Church makes a strong contribution to “peace and reconciliation, and better understanding.”
“I think we need to understand each other more, and that’s why we have more bishops from Asia, and cardinals, is to help the universal Church to understand Asia,” he said.
Speaking of the meaning of the pope’s visit to such a small flock in Mongolia, Chow said that “for us, this is a small Church, and that the pope really makes the trouble to travel here, to tell people, to tell Mongolian Catholics and Mongolian people, is the Church extending to the periphery.”
“The Church is not a Church of Rome, it’s a Church of the world, especially for the margins. I think that’s meaningful,” he said.
Chow, who came with a group of roughly 40 people from the Diocese of Hong Kong, reiterated his hope he has often stated since becoming bishop of Hong Kong that the diocese would serve as a bridge – with Rome, with mainland China, and with the world.
“I just hope that Hong Kong will have a mission of being a bridging Church,” he said Saturday, saying he was “surprised” by his appointment as cardinal and that so far, he does not have any specific instructions from the pope, “but maybe later on he will let me know what special mission he has for me.”
Italian Father Ernesto Viscardi, a Consolata missionary who has been in Mongolia for 19 years, told journalists that the pope’s visit to Mongolia was “unexpected.”
“It was a great surprise that a pope would come to see the smallest Catholic community in the world. It’s Bergoglio’s style, he always speaks of the peripheries, a Church that goes out, and he does it,” he said.
Viscardi noted that Pope John Paul II also had aspirations of visiting Mongolia and Russia, but that in the end it was not possible.
“The first important thing is the figure of the pope, the person, the person as head, pastor, of the whole Catholic Church, who brings us Catholicity,” he said, saying the Church in Mongolia might be small, but with the arrival of Pope Francis, “We look at each other and we say, the pope brings the Church here, and from here he will speak of the Church, imagine!”
There are currently around 76 foreign missionaries serving in Mongolia from several congregations, including Viscardi’s Consolata order, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, the Salesian order, and others.
They lead various initiatives ranging from healthcare and education, projects aimed at caring for the environment and assisting the poor, as well as centers for women suffering domestic violence. They have also been outspoken about the impact of corruption.
Viscardi said the pope’s visit to Mongolia “gives visibility to our Church,” and that explaining the ethos of the Catholic Church, its teachings and its social works, is helpful in a context where Christianity is still largely unfamiliar.
Speaking of the challenges that missionaries in Mongolia face, Viscardi said that religious freedom exists, but “if you want to be here as a religious, you need to have a special permission which must be renewed every year, and this becomes a problem, every year we are subjected to quotas.”
Catholic missionaries are generally only granted short-term visas, with the Church being asked to hire a certain number of local employees for every visa that is granted.
During his speech to national authorities Saturday morning, Pope Francis said a bilateral agreement between Mongolia and the Holy See is being negotiated that would regularize the status of missionaries in the country.
Viscardi said the Church needs to be recognized “as such,” and that currently, “We are not recognized as a Church, we are recognized as an NGO. Officially the Church is a foreign NGO.”
“It’s absurd,” he said, noting that there are diplomatic relations, “but we are here as if nothing.”
Aside from visa difficulties and the Church’s recognition, which he said is only a “secondary challenge,” Viscardi said the biggest obstacle for missionaries is understanding “how to insert ourselves into this cultural fabric that is Mongolia.”
Not only does Mongolia have an ancient tradition, but it is undergoing “a great cultural revolution right now” as it continues to distance itself from its Communist past and forges further ties with the global community.
There is also a question of how to engage young people “who have their phone in their hands” and who “have a completely different mental category, who look ahead with totally different categories” than previous generations.
Missionaries have the task of growing the Church and fostering local vocations, he said, noting that there are two native Mongolian priests in the country, but they would like to see more as they continue their social work and catechesis.
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