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Sister Nirmala Rani

Pope comes to visit a 'mustard seed' in global Church

For over two decades, Sister Nirmala Rani, an Indian nun belonging to the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) has been a missionary in Mongolia.

Her journey started with a focus on aiding mentally challenged children. Currently, she works with the youth, particularly those in Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral parish which is based in Ulaanbaatar, the national capital.

In the following interview, Sister Rani speaks about the challenges to the mission in the country and the preparations for Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia in the first week of September. Sister Rani is also a media coordinator for the first papal visit to the country.

What challenges do you face in your everyday work?

Our missionary visa itself is a big challenge. Though I have been working in Mongolia for 21 years, every year I have to renew it. That makes the missionaries less enthusiastic about what we do. In the face of materialism’s allure, bringing people into a spiritual journey is a constant challenge, especially for young people. Another challenge is the harsh winter, and the high altitude is a challenge for our missionaries who have to cope with constant health problems.

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How much religious freedom do Christians in Mongolia enjoy, considering the historical ban on Christianity and the current demographics?

The constitution of the country provides for freedom of religion. Since ancient times, Mongolia has been pursuing a multi-faceted religious policy; there are very few historical sources where there were no sectarian divisions and religious conflicts. Since many religions coexist in our country, Christians do not feel pressured. Christianity in Mongolia is a minority religion. In 2020, Christians made up a mere 1.94 percent of the population. Most Christians in Mongolia changed their religion after the Mongolian Revolution of 1990.

How do Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists in Mongolia perceive the Christians?

There is religious tolerance among these groups. The Buddhists (who form 52 percent of the 3.35 million population) in particular mingle freely with the Christians, especially the Catholics. 

What are the restrictions on religious practices in Mongolia despite the freedom to practice religion?

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his/her choice and the freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his/her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.

No one shall be subject to coercion that would impair his/her freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his/her choice. However, despite these established legal means of protecting religious freedom, government practices make it difficult for religious organizations to obtain legal registration. For example, proselytization is criminalized. Catholic groups in particular face burdensome bureaucratic requirements and lengthy delays when they seek registration.

How do local Catholics in Mongolia view Pope Francis and his upcoming visit?

It is a matter of great honor for the state and for the people of Mongolia, especially Catholics. What a joy for this small flock of 1,500 baptized people to celebrate the presence of Pope Francis! Can you imagine? The head of the entire Catholic Church decides to come and visit our little Church, ‘a mustard seed' in the Kingdom of God. Can you imagine that?

I hope this visit will nourish the wisdom and faith of the people of Mongolia and the people of the whole world. I strongly believe that, as a person of God, Pope Francis will bring us a God experience.

The Mongols are proud of Genghis Khan, the 'red hero' of the Mongol Empire. I see the role of Pope Francis not as an emperor but as a humble instrument of God. Mongolia is a land of green pastures, and the role of Pope Francis is that of a good shepherd who leads the flock in God’s ways.

What is the significance of Pope Francis' visit to Mongolia, do you feel his message is easily understood?

The visit of Pope Francis to Mongolia will greatly contribute to the development of Catholicism in Mongolia. It will be an event that is shaping the future of Catholicism and accelerating local vocations. As a missionary, I feel Pope Francis’ visit to this country, with a tiny minority of Catholics, will manifest the care for every person. Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with all sections of people--politicians and civic leaders, ecumenical and inter-faith leaders. He will also meet with local priests and church workers.

Although not explicitly mentioned, he will also open a care center named House of Mercy,  to serve the destitute and the needy. So, in my opinion, all sorts of people are given importance during his apostolic visit. Of course, it is certain that the people outside of the Church may not have the same understanding as we Catholics do. There can be different expressions and understandings. 

In what ways have Mongolian Christians incorporated Christianity into their culture? How has the process of 'inculturation' taken place?

During the time of the Mongol Empire (13th–14th centuries), they were primarily shamans and had a substantial minority of Christians, many of whom were in positions of considerable power. The Mongols had primarily a nomadic culture, and their practice of Christianity was different from what might have been recognized by most Western Christians.

The ancient Mongol Christians had no churches or monasteries but claimed a set of beliefs that descended from the Apostle Thomas. The nomadic culture is very much intertwined with the faith in general. I can see that those who embraced the Christian faith in our churches easily moved away without leaving many traces. Even in the present moment, the influence of Christianity is not very visible in the culture. I feel very few people have a real sense of God, faith, or the practice of religious piety.


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