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Mongolian Catholics Celebrate Lunar New Year In The Lenten Spirit

Updated: February 16, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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Mongolians see Pope John Paul II´s Lenten message focusing on the elderly as reflecting the spirit of their Lunar New Year.

This year the first day of the Lunar New Year coincided with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Both fell on Feb. 9.

During Ash Wednesday Mass, Bishop Wenceslao Padilla, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, read out in Mongolian parts of the pope´s message for Lent.

The Filipino Immaculate Heart of Mary bishop had dispensed Catholics from the obligatory fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and also the following Friday, while asking them to celebrate Tsagaan Sar (white month), the Mongolian Lunar New Year, in moderation.

Pope John Paul´s message asks Catholics to reflect during Lent this year on longevity as a God´s gift, "in order to deepen the awareness of the role that the elderly are called to play in society and in the Church, and thus to prepare your hearts for the loving welcome that should always be reserved for them."

Care for the elderly, "above all when they pass through difficult moments, must be of great concern to all the faithful," the message says. "This will allow many elderly not to think of themselves as a burden to the community, and sometimes even to their own families, living in a situation of loneliness that leads to the temptation of isolating themselves or becoming discouraged," adds the 84-year-old pope.

A 28-year-old Catholic named Chuka told UCA News, "This is exactly what our Lunar New Year celebrations are about." She said she kept an "open house" for five days to receive her elderly parents´ guests.

Tsagaan Sar celebrations consist of visiting senior relatives and feasting together. For each visit, the guests greet the senior hosts or hostess with a ceremonial greeting used only on this occasion. The host or hostess in turn offers the guests milk tea with rice pudding and steamed meat dumplings, and fermented mare´s milk or vodka to drink.

Guests might visit up to eight houses in a day, offering their greetings for the new year and feasting each time.

A Catholic named Enktuvshin told UCA News the dispensation from fasting and abstinence "was very nice." He explained that one who does not at least taste the food and drink that is offered commits a terrible offense.

The situation cannot simply be avoided, he added, since not going visiting, especially to one´s parents and closest relatives, is "absolutely unimaginable." Visiting one´s parents and closest relatives is normally reserved for the very first day of Lunar New Year, he added.

Father Patrick Modomobe, head of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Ulaanbaatar, told UCA News, "We thought that many people, especially younger women, would not be able to make it to Mass on Ash Wednesday, as they had to be ready at home to serve their parents´ guests." Nevertheless, Catholics reported good attendance at Ash Wednesday Masses in the three parishes in the capital.

All three, the only parishes in the country, distributed ashes not only on Ash Wednesday but also on the following Sunday.

Since 1992, Tsagaan Sar has been officially included in the Mongolian calendar. The public holiday runs for three days, although people continue to celebrate for a month. During the era of dominance by the Soviet Union, only countryside herders were allowed to celebrate the Lunar New Year.


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