1993-03-04 00:00:00

What do Catholic missioners do in a country with no church building and no Catholics in the local population?

Three missioners of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scheut Fathers) asked themselves that when they first arrived in Ulaan-Bataar (Ulan-Bator), Mongolia, July 10, 1992. But they have kept busy, according to one of the priests, who spoke to UCA News Feb. 26 during a trip through Hong Kong.

Schuet Father Gilbert Sales, a Filipino, said the first months were tough.

"In the beginning, I found it difficult to be there, with no church and no faithful at all," Father Sales says, "especially coming from the Philippines where churches are always full and people so enthusiastic about their faith."

"It was quite a shock. We have to accept the reality that we have to start from zero. But the foreign community has been very friendly to us," he adds.

The Mongolian communist government shifted to democracy in May 1991, after 70 years of control by the Soviet Army, during which there was continuous religious persecution, including the killing of thousands of Buddhist monks.

Mongolia established diplomatic relations with the Vatican on April 4, 1992. The local Ministry of Education asked for missioners to help reorganize the education system.

Scheut Fathers Sales, Wenceslao Padilla, also from the Philippines, and Robert Boessens, from Belgium, were the first Catholic missioners allowed to settle in Ulaan-Bataar, Mongolia´s capital.

Some 2.5 million people live in the 1.55-million-square-kilometer country. About 10 people from United Nations and embassy staffs attend Sunday Mass with the missioners. Protestant missioners arrived two years ago, and now about 200 Christians live in Ulaan Bataar.

The three priests are spending their first year studying the Mongolian language. "This is one of the most important things," Father Sales told UCA News. "But it´s difficult. Grammar and pronunciation are complicated."

They have set their sights on three humanitarian projects. The first one is to take over a local orphanage in a joint venture with the government.

"So many babies are thrown in the streets," Father Sales said. "And the orphanage is about to close because of a lack of funding. It has 100 babies."

"Not only is the morality very low," he said, "but life is very difficult now in Mongolia. Parents cannot afford to feed their children sometimes." He added, "Food is scarce now. Babies are not always given milk, but sometimes the water from boiled rice instead."

Prices rose a lot in the last few months. "Last July, a liter of milk would cost eight tugriks. Now, it costs 60 to 70," Father Sales explains.

The second project would deal with youth. "We have no concrete plans yet. Unemployment is high, and many young people hang out on the streets or drink."

The third project is a language school. "Foreign languages are nonexistent," he explains. "We have no teachers yet but we want to start with ourselves. We can teach Chinese, English, Flemish, French, German and Spanish."

"Religion is not allowed to be taught in schools, so we want to get in touch with people through social activities," he says. The missioners are trying to find a place to start their work. Every Wednesday they go out to prospect and see what they could do.

"We don´t do direct evangelization," says Father Sales. "We first want to establish relationships with local people. Then we will announce the good news of salvation. We already have some good friends."

"Two young men and a woman were so enthusiastic and eager to learn about God that they wanted to have catechism classes on Saturdays. Because of their insistence, we started a class with an interpreter. This is very encouraging."

The first relatively free legislative elections were held in July last year, and the first presidential elections will be held June 6 this year.

Other priests of the Belgian congregation are expected to come in the next months. Some sisters might begin work in 1994. Two are scheduled to come in April to check out prospects.

Other congregations are expected to arrive in Mongolia as well. On Feb. 28, the Central Committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops´ Conferences accepted Mongolia as an associate member, like Hong Kong, Macau and Nepal.


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