Christianity has historically reached China through the ancient "Silk Road" the 2,000 mile long silk trading route through central Asia. Nestorian missionaries reached central Asia in the 8th century and Catholic friars in the 13th century. The Keirats, a Mongol tribe, numbered 200,000 believers in AD 1007 before they were decimated bwhile there were about 30,000 Mongol Catholics recorded in China by 1368. Kublai Kahn asked Marco Polo for 100 missionaries but only two friars ever set out.
Over and over again, the fledging Christian communities were always wiped out by new invasions and the decisions of their leaders to embrace another faith.
In the 20th century, Christianity is establishing a foothold in Mongolia again. As John Allen writes today "The church arrived in Mongolia only in 1992, and to date claims just 415 Catholics. They’re served by 65 foreign missionaries, including 20 priests and one bishop. The Mongolian church, described by its bishop as a “baby church,” is just now on the cusp of producing its very first seminarian.
Since Allen is writing for a English speaking Catholic audience, I supposed it is inevitable that he looks at this development through the eyes of our western debates: Catholic identity and liturgy. Allen heard Mongolia's Bishop, Wenceslao Selga Padilla, 58, a Filipino who has been in charge of the mission in Mongolia since its birth, speak in Rome Tuesday night.
Padilla said that when he conducts interviews with Mongolian converts to understand what attracted them and made them decide to join the church, most will say they first came into contact with Catholicism through one of its social programs – a school, soup kitchen, or relief center. What “hooked” them, however, was the liturgy.
“They say it’s the singing, the liturgy,” Padilla told an audience at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita in Rome. “They say it’s more worthwhile than what they experience in the Buddhist temple. They’re active in the prayers and in the singing, It’s not just the monks doing all the singing.”
Padilla said that even though the four parishes in Mongolia (and four parochial sub-stations) use largely Western liturgical music, it’s translated into the vernacular, and most of the liturgy now is also said using the Mongol language. That, too, he said, is a major point of entry for new converts, most of whom are young and from the middle class or below.
“We cater mostly to the young and to the very poor,” Padilla said.
I don't mean to be dismissive of Allen, whose reporting I admire, but to anyone with a background in missions, this is so not a surprise. Of course, peoples with no Christian background or history respond very differently than we do to different aspects of the faith.
In global terms, the debates that dominate St. Blog's are extremely parochial. They rise up out of European history, European cultural issues and questions - of the trauma of the Reformation and a century of religious wars(at a time when 90% of Christians in the world were European), the enlightenment and revolution, and of Vatican II.
The upheavals of Vatican II that long established Christian peoples (which would include centuries old communities like China) experienced (and not all - for instance, Poland has had a vernacular liturgy since the 1940's) don't resonant at all in other cultures where Catholicism is new. When we asked members of our Indonesian teaching team, what their memories of the changes after Vatican II were, they just looked at us. Many were converts - including from Islam - and most had no memories of the Church before Vatican II. For a variety of reasons, it was a non-issue.
As Allen noted:
"Even the fact of serving coffee, tea and cookies after Mass, Padilla said, is a departure from the normal Mongolian religious experience, and it’s an important point of initial contact for many Mongolians who attend Catholic liturgies or events for the first time."
Recently, Padilla was able to open a cathedral for the fledging Catholic community in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Called Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, it’s built in the shape of a “ger,” which is a traditional Mongolian residence. It’s the first time such a structure has been put up in the country for religious purposes, Padilla said. The stained glass windows inside the cathedral were crafted by a brother from the ecumenical community of Taizé.
The good Bishop is very much aware of the need to deepen his fledging Catholics' new faith. In brief comments after his presentation, Padilla conceded that the attractiveness of the music and other forms of active participation in the liturgy may be what brings people in the church’s door, but it won’t suffice over the long term.
“We have to give them a deeper catechism and formation,” he said. For example, Padilla said, it’s important to press Mongolians towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of the personal nature of the Christian God, as opposed to the rather impersonal and abstract deity of Buddhist spirituality.
Check out this Asia News article about a new Catholic parish outside Ulaanbaatar (also known as Ulan Bator) established by the Salesians. In January of 2007, they had 22 members and 23 catechumens who would be received at Easter.
Of course, the evangelicals are there in force. (The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates a total of 39,000 Christians in Mongolia, 13,500 Independents, 16,500 Protestants, 800 Orthodox, and 500 Catholics, and 7,300 "marginals" - that is Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.)
If you are interested in the complex and fascinating history of Catholicism (non-Catholic Christianity in China is hardly dealt with) in China, Ignatius Press has published an excellent translation of Jean-Pierre Charbonnier's Christians in China. I picked it up at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception bookstore and it has made for a great and inspiring read.