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Hong Kong priest faces challenge of planting Church in Mongolia

HONG KONG (SE): Few people in this day and age have the privilege of being part of planting the Church where it, in effect, did not exist before, but Father Paul Leung Kon-chiu is one of the exceptions.

Although he is not among the very first missionaries to wander into Mongolia (referred to as Outer Mongolia, as distinct from Chinese Inner Mongolia), in 2006 the Hong Kong-born Salesian became a part of a newly-formed team to plant the first Catholic presence in living memory in the city of Darkhan, about a three-hour drive from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

“After six years work, we only have 19 people in our parish,” Father Leung told the Sunday Examiner. “But it began with no one and I think that makes it a successful enterprise in a short time.


However, this year, 20 catechumens are being introduced to our programme.”


Admitting that this represents a big challenge to the tiny community’s resources, he added that he does not think it is the biggest challenge they have faced.


“During our six years we have had to move our Mass centre six times, because of increased numbers,” he explained. “We used to rent small rooms, but then bought an ice cream factory from a company that had gone bankrupt.”


He explained that while the building looks quite big from the outside, he said that its construction reflects the decades the country was under Russian rule, as it is supported by a thick concrete wall right down the centre of the structure.


“This made the useable space quite limited,” he noted, “and as the number of people coming into our centre kept growing, we began to think of putting up our own building.”


This dream materialised in an attractive red brick structure, which features a cross on the wall above the entrance.


“The cross was problematic,” he said, “as local people have a cultural aversion to the crucified body being displayed in public. So we used a plain cross with no figure on it.”


He added that even on the inside they got around the problem by placing the figure of the resurrected Christ above the altar.


“When we opened the church last year, he said that around 500 people came, even though there are only 19 Catholics in the city of around 90,000 people. “The others got to know us through our outreach programmes,” he explained.


Father Leung said that the biggest challenge when setting up a Catholic presence in a city for the first time is to devise programmes that address the real needs of the people. He explained that they got their first break from the principal of the local school.


“He welcomed us to come and run extra-curricular programmes in English and provide some reading materials for the students, as well as introduce some organised games and sport,” he explained.


As these proved popular, when the Salesian Centre was established in a five-story apartment block they had been able to buy, the converted the lower floors became a community centre cum offices and classrooms, and students were invited to come there.


“Today we provide art lessons, as well as teaching computer skills, still relatively new in this part of the world,” he explained, “in addition to the English, which is becoming increasingly important, as the government has replaced Russian with English as the second official language in the country.”


The lessons have since expanded to include music, art and reading, with time for doing homework, as people are mostly poor and live in tiny, noisy and overcrowded homes, usually with poor lighting.


Father Leung understands the dynamics of running a youth club well, as he himself came to embrace the faith by working as a part time volunteer at a Salesian youth centre while he was study electronic engineering at the Polytechnic University.


He explained that it is also a good contact with the parents, as they come to find out exactly what their children are doing and that creates the opportunity for the Salesian team to get to know them and even invite them to prayer.


“We are a multicultural team,” he explained. “Mongolia is actually in the Vietnam province in the Salesian world, so one of our priests is Vietnamese. The other is Korean. We have one brother in the group too and he is from Poland.”


The first missionaries to enter Mongolia after its borders began to open up in the 1990s came from Poland and now, the current bishop in Ulaanbaatar is from The Philippines.


Although the Catholic population of the country today is less than 1,000 among some three million people, Father Leung believes that considering where they are starting from, this is a surprisingly large number.


He explained that the most recent addition to their work has been the opening of a printing room, as they find it necessary to produce their own catechisms and other materials for catechetical instruction.


“As a group of Salesians, we are still struggling with the language,” he noted. “So the back up of the printed word helps us a lot. But since there is free primary and secondary education, the literacy rate among the people is fairly high.”


Father Leung added that there are still many challenges to face in the future. “We do not have a local Catholic edition of the bible,” he said, “so for the time being we are relying on a Protestant one.”


However, he laments that producing a Catholic edition is a huge work and is still far off into the future.


He explained that there is also a long way to go in extending the social services offered by the Salesian Centre. “We have opened a small clinic, but have no doctor, so we are only able to help people with medication after they receive a prescription,” he explained.


As the people are poor, there are many things they cannot afford, but for society to develop, Father Leung believes that health care and education are two areas in which the Salesians can help.


“We are working on providing some sort of scholarship system for students to go to university,” he explained. “Many of them are bright enough to go, but lack of money prevents them, but as the country develops, education is becoming more and more important.”


He was in Hong Kong over the Lunar New Year to raise funds for his fledgling mission, as the centre relies on the work of both volunteers and some paid staff.


“So every time we expand our services,” he noted, “costs go up.”


Nevertheless, he reflected that just as the barren landscape of the countryside appears to be devoid of life during the long frozen winter months, in the short summer it does produce an abundant crop of wheat and vegetables.


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