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Mongolia through the eyes of a new priest

ULAANBAATAR (UCAN): The ordination in Ulaanbaatar of 29-year-old Reverend Joseph Enkh Baatar as the first local person recorded as becoming a priest in 1,000 years in the Catholic Church in Mongolia on August 28 was a historic moment.

“I hope Father Enkh will be a Good Samaritan to the people of Mongolia,” Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, from the diocese of Daejeon in South Korea, where Father Enkh had done his formation, said.

While the Catholic presence in Mongolia is tiny, with its 1,000 people representing only 0.04 per cent of the population, the newly-ordained priest is undeterred, saying, “Jesus said that the harvest is big and the workers are few. If you are serving God and his people wholeheartedly, it does not matter which nationality or congregation you are. You are a big help in the evangelisation not only of Mongolia, but the whole world.”

Father Enkh said the claim that he is the first Mongolian priest in a millennium is an exaggeration. “Actually the first missionaries to come to the Mongol Empire were the Nestorians in the seventh century and they converted many tribes. The first Catholic missionaries arrived in the 13th century, during the Yuan Dynasty, and some historical accounts claim there were about 30,000 Catholics back then, so there was probably plenty of clergy… so I don’t consider myself the first indigenous priest.”

The fall of the Yuan Dynasty, combined with the emergence of the Ming Dynasty eradicated Catholicism in Mongolia for centuries. “There are many reasons why there is such a big gap between the first proclamation of the gospel in Mongolia and the Church’s new beginning today,” Father Enkh said.

“The rise of Muslims in the Middle East blocked missionaries, because Mongolia is a landlocked country and then, starting from the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism arrived and eventually became the national religion.

“Mongolia then became a Communist country in 1924 and the Catholic Church ceased the small amount of evangelisation that was happening at that time. It was only after the fall of Communism that the first three missionaries came to Mongolia in 1992,” he explained.

After long years of Communism, during which religious belief was suppressed, the new missionaries had to start from scratch. They first sought to help locals struggling with poverty.

The missionaries began by propping up a near-bankrupt orphanage, teaching foreign languages to students and founding programmes to deal with the rampant alcoholism.

The Catholic Herald reported Father Enkh as explaining that one strategy they used was to drill bores to provide water holes for the animals of nomadic tribes, engaging the herders when they brought their animals to drink.

“The Catholic Church in Mongolia is only 24-years-old and will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year,” the newly-ordained priest said.

“It really takes time and effort to evangelise, because Mongolia has deep roots in Tengerism (a shamanistic religion) and Buddhism. People still look at Christianity as a foreign religion and even a threat to their culture,” he added.

Father Enkh has a degree in biotechnology from the International Mongolian University. He then went to the seminary South Korea where he studied for eight years.

“We need more Mongolian priests because they will know how to better apply the teaching of Christ and the Church to our country,” he said after his ordination. “Only then will the Mongols understand that Catholicism is not just a foreign religion, but something that is close to their tradition, culture and way of life.”

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