As Pope Francis prepares for his 43rd Apostolic Journey abroad, which takes him to Mongolia on 31 August to 4 September, we offer an overview of the Catholic Church in the Asian nation.
Christianity first arrived in Mongolia through Nestorian Christians of ancient Syriac tradition between the 7th-10th century. Over the course of the following centuries, however, the presence of Christianity was discontinuous.
Roman Catholicism was introduced in the 13th century, during the Mongol Empire. According to the testimony of the Italian Franciscan friar Giovanni di Pian del Carpine, who was sent by Pope Innocent IV to the court of the Khan in 1245, the ancient imperial capital Karakorum was a cosmopolitan and multi-religious city, and Nestorians were present there.
The first Catholic missionary allowed to enter the territory was the French Dominican priest Barthélémy de Crèmone, who arrived in Karakorum in 1253 during a diplomatic mission on behalf of the King of France.
Christianity disappeared with the ending of Mongol dominance in the Far East, and reappeared when missionary activity began in China in the mid-19th century.
In 1922, Pope Pius XI erected the Mission “sui iuris” (“Mission in its own right”) of Outer Mongolia. Its territory covered the current Republic of Mongolia, and was taken in part from the territory of the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Mongolia, in China (currently, Diocese of Chongli-Xiwanzi), renamed in 1924 as the Mission “sui iuris” of Urga.
After the establishment, in that same year, of the pro-Soviet Mongolian People’s Republic, all Christian presence was completely eliminated.
Following the end of the Communist regime and Mongolia’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s, religious freedom was established, allowing for the return of Catholic missionaries to the country.
In 1992, the newly-created Republic of Mongolia, born from the Democratic Revolution of 1990, established diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and the Mission sui iuris of Ulan Bator was created and entrusted to the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM, known as Missionaries of Scheut).
The mission was led from the beginning by late Filipino CICM missionary Wenceslao Padilla (who died in 2018), appointed by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2002 as Apostolic Vicar and then Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar in 2003.
When the first three missionaries of the Scheut community arrived in the Mongolian capital in 1992, not even a single Catholic resided in Mongolia, and the work for the “implantatio Ecclesiae” (“establishment of the Church”) had to start from nothing, amidst language and cultural difficulties.
Their apostolic work, and that of the other religious congregations that followed, was supported financially by the Korean Church, and has borne fruit, as indicated by the slow but constant increase of converts to Catholicism in the majority Buddhist country, and by the interest shown by a growing number of young Catholic Mongolians for the priesthood and consecrated life.
In 1995, there were only 14 Mongolian Catholics. The most recent data from 2023 puts the current number of Catholics at around 1,500 distributed in eight parishes and a chapel, out of an overall population of some 3,5 million inhabitants.
They are served by one bishop, 25 priests, including two Mongolians, six seminarians, 30 women religious, five non-priestly religious men, 35 catechists, all belonging to some 30 different nationalities.
As explained by the current Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo of the Consolata Missionaries, the history of the Church in Mongolia in these three decades can be roughly divided into three phases.
The first period, from 1992 to 2002 (when the Mission was elevated by Pope Saint John Paul II to Apostolic Vicariate), was marked by small but significant progress, above all in the field of human development.
The second decade saw the formation of the first local Christian communities, while the third decade was marked by the ordination of the first ethnic Mongolian priest, Father Joseph Enkhee-Baatar, in 2016.
The Church’s missionary work in Mongolia continues to focus on the social, health and education fields.
In 2020, there was a Catholic technical institute, two elementary schools and two nursery schools, a medical clinic that offers treatment and medicines to the destitute, a centre for the disabled and two institutes hosting abandoned and poor elderly people.
Each parish has also started charitable projects that add to those of Caritas Mongolia, by opening soup kitchens and washing facilities and running vocational courses for women.
The Church’s work is appreciated by local authorities and has contributed to consolidating the good relations between Ulaanbataar and the Holy See.
Their good relations were confirmed by an agreement signed by the Mongolian Ambassador to the Holy See and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organisations, to intensify their collaboration in the cultural field by opening the Vatican Secret Archives to Mongolian researchers.
Relations with other religions are also good, in particular with the Buddhist religious authorities, who have a longstanding tradition of tolerance dating back to the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. The first official to the Vatican by a delegation of Mongolian Buddhist officials took place on 28 May 2022, who were accompanied by Cardinal Giorgio Marengo.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, Buddhists make up a little more than half the population, 3 percent of which is Muslim, 3 percent Shaman, and 2 percent Protestant.
In this context, the main pastoral challenge for the Mongolian Church is that of helping the Mongolian faithful to deepen their faith and make it more relevant for their daily lives.
The second challenge is to promote communion and fraternity among the missionaries of the various congregations, and with the other Christian communities in the country, mostly Protestants.
Last but not least, the Church in Mongolia has the challenge to proclaim the Gospel to the Mongolian society, where 40 percent of the population says they are atheist.