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Catholicism in Mongolia: A small Church in the frigid land of Genghis Khan

There are currently about 1,200 native Mongolian Catholics, with six churches, 33 priests, and 44 nuns.

The Cathedral Saints Peter and Paul, which was dedicated in 2003, is located in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. (Image: Torbenbrinker/Wikipedia)

With temperatures often dropping under 40 degrees below zero, Mongolia is not an easy place for anyone. Nor has it been easy for the Catholic Church. The faith arrived in Mongolia in the 1300s, but was soon forced out. The Church resurfaced in 1922 and established a mission, only to see the area soon fall under Communist control and Soviet influence.

Following the 1990 Mongolian Revolution (which ended Communism in Mongolia and established a fledgling democracy), Catholic missionaries came to rebuild the Church. It would be no exaggeration to say they had to start over from nothing. The first Masses were conducted in a hotel.

Communication was difficult: There were no Mongolian Catholics or any Catholic texts in Mongolian. Nor did the new missionaries speak the language. And yet the Church managed to create and maintain some degree of growth.

Still not large enough to qualify for a diocese, the Church in Mongolia is an Apostolic Prefecture. The Vatican has had diplomatic relations here since 1992.

In 2003, Fr. Wenceslao Padilla became the first bishop of Mongolia at a consecration ceremony in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. This domed, tent-shaped cathedral is built like a “ger” (also known as a “yurt”), which is the traditional Mongolian housing unit.

In Aug. 2016, Joseph Enkh Baatar became the first native Mongolian Catholic priest in the modern era.

Bishop Padilla died in Sept. 2018, and Fr. Giorgio Marengo was consecrated bishop in Aug. 2020.

There is no Church presence in most provinces in Mongolia, which, outside of a few urban centers, is one of the world’s most sparsely populated places. And yet urbanization is taking place here at a much faster rate than in other parts of the world. As a result, the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar (the world’s coldest capital city), faces severe overcrowding.

With an infrastructure built to accommodate about 500,000 persons, Ulaanbaatar’s current population is 1.5 million – almost half the nation’s total. And the city’s population keeps rising, as recent brutally cold winters (even by Mongolian standards) have decimated livestock and rendered many traditional nomadic families with no option but to migrate to the capital city and seek shelter in its sprawling makeshift housing communities. Faced with joblessness and loss of identity, these involuntary migrants often encounter serious issues with alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Pollution has also become a severe quality-of-life factor. In order to stay warm in makeshift settlements, the residents must resort to burning coal. This arrangement contributes to Ulaanbaatar having become one of the world’s most polluted cities, where fine particulate matter (also known as PM2.5) can reach an amount 27 times the WHO threshold for safety.

Additionally, Mongolia has contended with homegrown Neo-Nazi groups. Presenting with swastikas, salutes, and chants of “Sieg Heil,” these Mongolian Nazis admire Adolf Hitler and his ideals of ethnic purity. Yet they don’t seem to care for antisemitism. Rather, they tend to focus their hostility on the neighboring Chinese, whom they view as a corrupting and exploitative influence on their nation and culture.

About half of Mongolia is Buddhist (Mongolian Buddhism is closely linked with Tibetan Buddhism). Most of the other half is non-religious. On a much smaller level are Tangerism (a shamanistic religion followed by the great Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan), Islam (most of whose followers are ethnic Kazakhs), and Christianity.

Protestants are far more common in Mongolia than Catholics. As Fr. Jaroslav Vracovský relates, Protestants “started their mission immediately” after Communism ended in 1990 and were “very active” in spreading the Gospel. He adds how Catholic missionaries did not arrive until 1992, at which time they focused mainly on providing social services.

Vracovský, a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Mongolia and a native of the Czech Republic, came to Mongolia in May 2016. He spent the first few years in Darkhan (the country’s third-largest city) and now divides his time between Ulaanbaatar and a village called Shuwuu (home of a small new parish).

According to Vracovský, there are currently about 1,200 native Mongolian Catholics. He adds there are “many foreign Catholics as well,” with the largest groups of them coming from the Philippines and South Korea. A smaller number come from Europe, including lay missionaries from Poland and Scotland.

Mongolia has no Catholic seminaries. According to 2017 statistics, the nation has 33 priests and 44 nuns. There are six Catholic churches, three of them in the capital city. For the most part, Mass is delivered in the Mongolian language. Some services are given in English or Korean.

Though it is true that some Mongolians joined the Church in the hope of obtaining relief from dire poverty, Vracovský says many have strong faith in their adopted religion. He tells of one 87-year-old man who walks two miles to church.

Despite such inspiring examples, Christianity is still often regarded as a foreign religion and a potential threat to Mongolian culture. As a result, some Mongolian Catholic converts, particularly among the younger generation, face harassment from non-Catholic Mongolians. Vracovský tells how such young people often abstain from posting pictures of their religious activities on their Facebook profiles. “Usually they are the only Catholic in their families, and it is very difficult for them,” he says.

Amid these tensions, there remain a considerable number of Mongolians with a favorable view of the Church, largely owing to its emphasis on charity – something that can be especially welcome in such an unforgiving climate.

The Church operates schools, libraries, clinics, programs for alcoholics, and centers for disabled children. Additionally, the Verbist Care Center houses more than 100 children who had previously been eking out a squalid subterranean existence within Ulaanbaatar’s sewer system. And the Salesians also run an orphanage.

Vracovský admits life can be “very challenging” in the Mongolian climate. During the long winters, extending from the end of September to April, it is “difficult to run activities, and heating is so expensive.” However, he adds that even in the dead of winter the missionaries played football (soccer) outside and skated along the river with the natives.

Mongolia was never a land for the fainthearted. But, as Vracovský points out, it is “one of the best places” for missionaries to be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep” and share the same circumstances as their flock.


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About Ray Cavanaugh 16 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

3 Comments

  1. Genghis Khan was tolerant of all religions, and Catholicism had some small presence in Mongolia during his time. It would interest me to learn how Catholicism was “forced out.”

  2. The first group of missionaries who went to Mongolia in 1992 were CICM (Belgian-founded Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) priests and brothers from the Philippines which included Father – and later first Bishop – Wenceslao Padilla.

  3. I am surprised that the article does not mention the Nestorian Church in China and Mongolia and how many Mongol tribes had converted to Christianity much earlier than some European tribe, as as early as 700 A.D., (Latvians for example did not begin to convert to Christianity until the 1200’s). And yet by the 1300’s the Nestorian Church was no more and by the 1500’s its Catholic replacement had also disappeared as European Catholicism faced multiple attacks on its own existence around the same time. As a former Baptist-converted Catholic I find the lesson of having a Pope and united Church relevant and palpable especially in the current times in which we live.

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