The first missionary from Hong Kong to arrive in Mongolia 10 years ago is now helping local people adapt to the modernization of their country.
Despite the hardships, Salesian Father Paul Leung Kon-chiu, 57, has never thought of giving up.
"Honestly, I have never thought of going back to Hong Kong. I feel like a Mongolian now, at least in my point of view," Father Leung said.
In 2006 Father Leung left his home in Hong Kong, telling ucanews.com at the time that he would spend the rest of his life working in Mongolia and had no intention of returning.
Father Leung is now a parish priest at Darkhan, a major city 200 kilometers north of the capital Ulaanbaatar. The area of his missionary station is 25 times the size of Hong Kong and has some 170 Catholics.
However, things haven't always been successful. Father Leung admitted to going through a "period of disappointment" a few years ago when several core members of his parish complained about him.
"We have had some conflicts. They complained that I pushed them to attend Masses and go to confession. They felt pressured," he said.
"It is a very difficult moment for a pastor to be accused by his sheep. These people had been with me from the beginning," he continued.
But Father Leung did not give up. He invited the core members to a dialogue. Finally, they found that their misunderstandings were due to cultural differences. "Since then, we have become closer and understand each other better."
Father Leung works with four other priests and two nuns sisters from the Salesian family.
"We all come from different countries. We have Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. When we sit down to talk, we jokingly say that we are having a United Nations meeting," Father Leung said.
The Salesians of Don Bosco congregation has maintained contact with Bishop Wenceslao Padilla of Ulannbaatar, who entrusted the northern part of the country to their mission work.
Since the Catholic Church began its missionary activity in 1992 after decades of communist rule, it has witnessed much changes in Mongolian society.
Father Leung and his team established the Don Bosco Youth Center, where they celebrate Mass and hold activities and educational programs in Darkhan.
"Ten years ago we could already see that English language skills and computer proficiency would be important in the labor market, with more Western companies starting to invest here. So we offered these courses to the young people. Now even young workers join our program for advanced studies," Father Leung said.
Similar to other developing countries, Father Leung said Mongolia's living standards are improving. "It is true that we can see many new construction projects," he said. However, economic disparity is also becoming serious.
Father Leung's first impression of Mongolia was of a simple, rough but very generous nation. "I visited a ger
— a tent where Mongolians traditionally lived — when I first arrived in Mongolia. They do not close their doors. People just come in and chat or eat and drink something without paying any money," he said.
"They explained to me that everyone should share during an emergency. Someday they might have a similar need," he said.
However, Father Leung believes this generosity that characterizes nomadic life can also lead to a lack of long term planning, especially around money.
Mongolia provides 13 years of free, state education but going to university is expensive for families, especially if they have not prepared financially.
"We saw this problem. So we introduced a scholarship saving plan for kids, so that they can have a certain amount of money saved for them when they are ready to go to university," Father Leung said.
Father Leung set up a foundation for the scholarship program with the help of a generous donor and a local bank that offered good interest rates.
Each year Father Leung invites kids and young people to join his summer program. Upon completion with a good attendance rate, the foundation deposits money into their scholarship bank account.
"I will invite local government officials to join as board members of the foundation later this year. I want to involve the government and let them understand what the church is doing," Father Leung said.
The Mongolian Church is entering a new phase as it welcomes its first native priest on Aug. 28. Enkh Baatar, 25, who studied in South Korea, is now traveling to different churches to meet his fellow Catholics.
"The Mongolian Church is still run by foreign missionaries. We hope in time it can establish its own hierarchy. We have another Mongolian seminarian in South Korea. We hope vocations will be fruitful in the future," Father Leung said.
There are about 900 Catholics among a population of 3.2 million people, half of whom are Buddhists, served by 17 priests, 43 nuns in six parishes.
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