VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 8, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Why a country with a tiny community of Catholics would attract so much interest from the Holy See, is a question put to Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe recently.
In an interview with the Fides agency, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples talked about his Aug. 21-31 trip to Mongolia, as special envoy of John Paul II.
There, the cardinal presided over the ordination of the country’s first bishop, Prefect Apostolic Wenceslaw Padilla, and the consecration of the cathedral of Ulan Bator, the capital.
Q: You have just returned from your second visit to Mongolia. What makes this tiny Church of fewer than 200 Catholics in a vast country of 1.5 million square kilometers so dear to the heart of the Pope and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples?
Cardinal Sepe: Certainly each of the numerous Catholic communities spread all over the world, the oldest, the newest, the most numerous and those consisting of only a few people, is dear to the hearts of the Pope and the prefect of Propaganda Fide, who pray and work and seek to meet all the different needs of these Churches.
However, like a father or a mother with many children, attention goes naturally to the smallest and those most in need of help to grow. So the young Church in Mongolia is a sort of newborn child: After its first cries it needs care and attention to grow strong and learn to stand on its own feet and walk.
My visit as special envoy of the Holy Father — who would have liked to have presided in person over the two historical events of the ordination of the first bishop and the consecration of the first cathedral in Mongolia, as he wrote in a message for the occasion — was meant as a sign of encouragement and solidarity toward this young missionary Church which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is growing rapidly and holds great hope for the future.
Q: In fact, if we look at the history of this country, we note the amazing growth of the Church in a very short time.
Cardinal Sepe: Although Mongolia was first evangelized as early as the seventh century, the Church in that region was born only 11 years ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the atheist Communist regime which used every means to remove all trace of religious sentiment, destroying places of worship and killing thousands of believers.
If we think that only a few years ago there was nothing — no structures, communities or pastoral workers — and today there are 45 missionaries, eight religious institutes, 150 Catholics with a good number of people preparing to be received into the Church, three communities of faithful, various groups and works of apostolate — we cannot fail to see in all this the work of the Lord who guides his people with a steady hand despite the difficulties which in our eyes often appear insurmountable.
In fact, the first three missionaries, one of whom I had the joy of ordaining bishop on Aug. 29, encountered no few obstacles on their path beginning with the language, a particularly difficult economic and social situation, [and] total absence of pastoral reference.
At first, people who came to Mass, which was celebrated in apartments, were only foreigners. Later, they were joined by the first Mongolians and the apostolate among the local people was able to begin. At that time the foundations were being laid for that local Church which today has its bishop, its cathedral, its pastoral structures regularly frequented and active.
Q: What were your impressions of the visit?
Cardinal Sepe: First of all, a deep sentiment of praise to God for this new beginning of the Church in Mongolia. Therefore, deep gratitude to our missionaries and all those in the front line of evangelization.
I saw the people show great interest in the Catholic faith, trust toward its representatives, and a growing desire to play an active part in the Church.
Civil and military authorities were among those present at the liturgies I presided over for the ordination of the bishop and the consecration of the cathedral, as well as representatives of other religions, and hundreds of local people who joined in spirit with songs and prayers in Mongolian. Their faces were shining with joy and awareness of the importance of the event.
One of the most comforting signs I noted is the great thirst for God of these people; their hearts are open and ready to welcome the good news of the Gospel. The long Communist dictatorship which attempted to remove the name of God from the hearts of the people dug a deep void, a void which today the people feel can only be filled by drawing near to Jesus Christ, to the Gospel announced by the Church.
Proof of this is that the churches are crowded and the Christian community is growing, and so is the number of people approaching the Church. Most catechumens preparing for baptism are young people and adults.
Another aspect I would underline is religious tolerance. In fact already in the 13th century the great khans of Mongolia showed singular religious tolerance, accepting all religions. This principle, fundamental for human coexistence, has been handed on to our day. Inserted among other rights in Mongolia’s new Constitution is the basic right of freedom of religion, which today is the subject of so much discussion and debate, at times excruciating, in many parts of the world.
Q: Among the difficulties facing the local Church and the missionaries there is the difficult economic and social situation. Could this hamper evangelization?
Cardinal Sepe: As in other former Soviet Union territories, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mongolia had religious freedom once again. But it paid a high price: Russian troops and technicians went home, a number of factories closed down, wages were reduced considerably; many families live in poverty.
One of the consequences is the tragedy of street children, thousands of them. They live off refuse or join criminal bands.
Of course the missionaries cannot close their eyes to this situation and, engaging also the help of the Catholic community and surrounding persons, they have made every effort to assist the poor, vagabonds, alcoholics and abandoned children. In 1995 one of the missionaries opened a home for children to take them off the streets and save them from life in Ulan Bator’s sewers. The home, a nonreligious institute, is recognized by the government as an NGO [nongovernmental organization], and the workers are Catholics and non-Catholics.
During my visit I was taken to visit a “poor home” in Erdenet, the third largest city in Mongolia, situated in the north central region. I saw about 400 people waiting to receive something to eat. Of course this is but a drop in the ocean, but it is an important undertaking for the local Church which, obedient to the Lord’s command, strives to alleviate the suffering of so many people.
And it is precisely the sight of missionaries and local Catholics dedicated selflessly to assisting the poorest of the poor, considering them brothers and sisters, making no distinction at all, which is often the spark which lights the fire and generate conversions.
Young Mongolians in particular are anxious to help with great willingness and generosity. In his 25 years as Pope, the Holy Father has said repeatedly that young people are the hope of the Church. And I am quite certain that they are the hope of the young Church in Mongolia.