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How priests on horseback built the Mongolian church from scratch

Good news from an unexpected and little known quarter of the Universal Church: the first native Mongolian priest is shortly to be ordained.

Congratulations to the Reverend Joseph Enkh. May he be the first of many Mongolians to be ordained, and may his ministry bring joy and consolation to God’s faithful people in Mongolia.  Fides carries the storyhere. It also reports that there are about 1,000 faithful in Mongolia, which is remarkable, as the Church has only been functioning in the country since 1992.

There is more information on the local church in Mongolia from the ever-useful Wikipedia, which can be found here.

I have something of an interest in the Mongolian Church as one of my former students from Africa, a Consolata Missionary, was sent there on ordination. He was an Italian, and the third priest to go there, if memory serves, and thus something of a pioneer. Setting up a church from scratch is quite a task, and it was entrusted to, among others, priests trained in Africa, because they would be familiar with just how this is done.

How missions are started is quite instructive, particularly for people like us, who live in England many centuries after St Augustine first landed in Kent. In Mongolia, there were some resident foreign Catholics, working in embassies and for aid organisations, and thus at the beginning there was a congregation for the missionaries to say Mass for.

But apart from this, the first missionaries to arrive back in 1992, when the country opened up to the world, would have been regarded as very strange, almost like visitors from another world.

The most important thing for any mission is to establish a way into the culture of the country it aims to evangelise. This means in the very first place learning the language, which can be quite hard. It also means trying to understand the mindset of the people whose language you learn. Mongolia presents particular challenges. There are cities, but much of the population is very thinly spread out over the vast territory, which consists of wide grasslands.

The Mongols are of course, historically, a nomadic people, and superb horsemen. Missionaries from Africa know about pastoralist cultures, and would very soon cotton on to the necessity of learning to ride. Given that the population is in many places not sedentary, it makes little sense building churches outside the main cities. The priest and the catechist, as in the territory of the Maasai, need to be on the move, with the people they aim to evangelise, so where the people are, they can be too.

One favoured strategy of missionaries in this situation is to open not a church, but to a bore hole and water trough to which people from miles around will bring their animals to drink, and when waiting to water them, will engage with the missionaries.  Once a trough is built, it will become a focal point for the pastoralists. After the trough come other useful institutions such as clinics, and sometimes schools.

No doubt these are the sorts of things that the small band of Catholic clergy in Mongolia will be familiar. And when Fr Joseph Enkh is ordained, he will, doubtless, spend many an hour on horseback riding across those vast empty spaces in search of his countrymen, eager, I am sure, to tell them the Good News. May he be granted many receptive listeners, thorough the grace of God.

Does this have any lessons for England today? Well, yes. At a time when not so many come to church, we need to move from sedentary to mobile, and, rather than waiting for people to come to us, go to where they are to be found. Water troughs will not be appropriate, but there may well be some similar strategy more fitted to contemporary Britain.

by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith


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