On Catholic identity (and the missionary uses of vodka) in Mongolia

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

No preoccupation looms larger on the global Catholic stage today than Catholic identity, meaning how to identify and to reinforce what makes the church distinctive from the surrounding culture. Surprisingly enough, there may be important lessons to be learned on this subject in one of the most historically non-Catholic places on earth: the rugged steppes of Mongolia.

It is, admittedly, an improbable setting. The church arrived in Mongolia only in 1992, and to date claims just 415 Catholics. They’re served by 65 foreign missionaries, including 20 priests and one bishop. The Mongolian church, described by its bishop as a “baby church,” is just now on the cusp of producing its very first seminarian.

It could, therefore, seem a bit premature to look to Mongolia for larger Catholic lessons.

Yet listening to Bishop Wenceslao Selga Padilla, 58, a Filipino who has been in charge of the mission in Mongolia since its birth, speak in Rome Tuesday night, it seemed possible that Mongolia may be able to offer a unique perspective on broader Catholic debate about identity and evangelization: For a culture encountering Catholicism for the first time, what seems distinctive about the church to them? What is it that attracts them and impels them to dig deeper, eventually making the decision to convert?

In other words, for a population that doesn’t carry the weight of centuries of Christian history and intra-ecclesiastical debates, what is it about Catholicism that stands out and wins hearts?

For anyone accustomed to the contours of Catholic debate after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the answers from Mongolia may seem counter-intuitive: according to Padilla, it's liturgy, specifically the post-Vatican II style of liturgy in the vernacular and based on broad participation by the laity; and social service, especially education and relief programs aimed at the new urban poor.

Padilla said that when he conducts interviews with Mongolian converts to understand what attracted them and made them decide to join the church, most will say they first came into contact with Catholicism through one of its social programs – a school, soup kitchen, or relief center. What “hooked” them, however, was the liturgy.

“They say it’s the singing, the liturgy,” Padilla told an audience at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita in Rome. “They say it’s more worthwhile than what they experience in the Buddhist temple. They’re active in the prayers and in the singing, It’s not just the monks doing all the singing.”

Padilla said that even though the four parishes in Mongolia (and four parochial sub-stations) use largely Western liturgical music, it’s translated into the vernacular, and most of the liturgy now is also said using the Mongol language. That, too, he said, is a major point of entry for new converts, most of whom are young and from the middle class or below.

“We cater mostly to the young and to the very poor,” Padilla said.

In the terms of Western Catholic debate, those results may well seem counter-intuitive. Over the last quarter-century, those forces concerned with Catholic identity have sometimes argued that the church has placed too much emphasis on social service, which can be delivered by humanitarian groups without any reference to the gospel, and on liturgical reform, which has made the Catholic Mass too much like worship services of other Christian denominations. According to this view, the priority should be to cover the distinctively Catholic elements of the church’s life and spiritual mission.

What the Mongolian experience may suggest, however, is that what counts as “distinctively Catholic” is to some extent culturally relative. For Mongolians without much experience of what Vatican II called the “full, conscious and active participation” of laity in the liturgy, the reformed Catholic Mass in the vernacular language may in fact seem remarkably distinctive.

Even the fact of serving coffee, tea and cookies after Mass, Padilla said, is a departure from the normal Mongolian religious experience, and it’s an important point of initial contact for many Mongolians who attend Catholic liturgies or events for the first time.

This emphasis on participation and community may also give Catholicism an evangelizing edge over other competitors on the religious landscape. Padilla said that today there are some 70 Christian denominations operating in Mongolia, including several Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, even though Mongolia has a population of just 2.9 million, one that’s traditionally overwhelmingly Buddhist.

This welter of Christian missionaries in the country, he said, has produced a certain wariness among the Mongolian authorities.

“It can give the impression that we’re after the population on all sides,” he said. “They worry that we’re not unifying the people, but dispersing them. It’s one of the reasons the government has been suspicious.”

For that reason, Padilla said, he has repeatedly assured Mongolian officials that the Catholic church is not out to coerce people into joining the church, or to fuel social tensions. The church’s social programs and development projects, he said, which serve a largely non-Catholic population, have helped reassure leaders in the country. Catholic efforts to launch inter-faith dialogue, especially with the Buddhists, have also helped. Padilla said the Catholic community in Mongolia seeks “cordial, friendly relations” with other religions.

Nevertheless, Padilla was also clear that the ultimate motive for those projects is to bear witness to the gospel.

“All the things we do are part and parcel of evangelization,” he said.

In brief comments after his presentation, Padilla conceded that the attractiveness of the music and other forms of active participation in the liturgy may be what brings people in the church’s door, but it won’t suffice over the long term.

“We have to give them a deeper catechism and formation,” he said. For example, Padilla said, it’s important to press Mongolians towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of the personal nature of the Christian God, as opposed to the rather impersonal and abstract deity of Buddhist spirituality.

Padilla, a member of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, told the story of how he got the church off the ground in Mongolia in the early 1990s – one of the few places left on earth where the Catholic presence literally has to be built from the ground up.

When he and two other missionaries from his congregation arrived in 1992, he said, they began by celebrating a weekly Mass in a hotel room, inviting foreign diplomats, staffers from NGOs, and private sector personnel to take part. Over time, he said, some of these foreigners would bring their Mongolian friends, and that’s how the first contacts with the local population began to evolve. (Some, he conceded, showed up merely to practice their English, since that remains the lingua franca among the missionaries. Over time, he said, those who came back were drawn deeper into the Catholic experience.)

In the meantime, he said, the swelling band of missionaries (which today includes 65 men and women from 19 countries and 10 congregations) began working to open schools, shelters, soup kitchens, and other humanitarian programs. Gradually, those centers also began to introduce Mongolians to the church.

Recently, Padilla was able to open a cathedral for the fledging Catholic community in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Called Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, it’s built in the shape of a “ger,” which is a traditional Mongolian residence. It’s the first time such a structure has been put up in the country for religious purposes, Padilla said. The stained glass windows inside the cathedral were crafted by a brother from the ecumenical community of Taizé.

The process of securing permission to build the cathedral and other facilities of the church, Padilla explained, was not an easy one. Initially, he said, he ran into a brick wall of delay and suspicion from government officials.

“Some officials said that we don’t need Catholics here, that we are Buddhists,” he explained. Trying to resolve these concerns through official channels initially proved fruitless.

It was then, Padilla said, that a Belgian missionary who had served in Inner Mongolia explained to him how to get things done.

“He told me that when you’re in difficulty, the thing to do is to invite these officials to dinner and get them drinking, especially vodka,” he said.

“It worked, but it was rough. At one point, I was drunk at least once or twice a week. One time I had to leave my car behind because I was too drunk to drive … but God will forgive, and anyway I wasn’t a bishop yet!”

Over time, through such informal contacts, Padilla said, the suspiciousness about him and the church began to dissolve, and permits started to come.

In 2003, there were plans for John Paul II to visit Mongolia, which were scrubbed when a hoped-for stopover in Kazan, Russia, to return to the icon of the Madonna to Kazan to the Patriarch of Moscow did not materialize. Though to date there’s been no talk about Benedict XVI going to Mongolia, Padilla said he has a message for the pope.

“I will tell him that the baby church in Mongolia is growing up,” Padilla said.


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