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Reportage from a Country of brave women and pioneers

Catholics in Mongolia

 Cattoliche in Mongolia  DCM-008
02 September 2023

When the sun rises over the small church in Arvayheer, it is like the beginning of a dream. The cross on top of the gher, which is the traditional round Mongolian tent typical of nomadic life, suddenly has its arms extended by the rays of light. In the background, behind a palisade, the steppe takes on all shades of khaki and brown as the star rises into the blue sky. A boundless immensity, sometimes veiled by a cloud blown away by the wind. This is the hour when, in the entire city of 29,000 inhabitants, in the capital of the province of Ôvôrhangaj, in the centre of the country, women get up. During the cold season, which lasts about six months of the year (from October to April), with their eyelashes still frozen they throw fuel into the stove in the form of wood chips, logs or horse dung. When the family wakes up, the homemakers cross the threshold - without ever stepping on it because this has been the unspoken rule for centuries - and leave the gher. Then they throw the milk towards the sky, “as a blessing and reverence to the invisible world”.

Lucia Bortolomasi, an Italian, born in Susa, in the province of Turin, who has lived in Mongolia 14 years, was recently elected superior general of the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Consolata. She tells me, “From my experience, I can say that women play a very important role in Mongolian society. They occupy the most important positions in their traditions, be that in the family or workplace. It is always the woman who hands the guest of honour a cup of milk wrapped in a blue scarf to welcome them, with honour and respect. It is also the women who first whisper the name in their baby's ear, during a ceremony held at the end of the first month, in front of the assembled family”.

Just before dawn, in the missionaries’ house, the two priests and four nuns are busy warming up the church, because at 7.30 the first parishioners arrive to pray the rosary. They arrive gradually until the hour of mass, and depending on the day, they are more or less numerous, like the beads of the rosary. They recite the Hail Mary and the Our Father, which sounds so slight in the Mongolian language. Once again, the women arrive first. Norgim is often one of the first to enter. The septuagenarian, who chose Agatha as her first name about ten years ago, leads today’s prayers. Her crystal clear and determined voice, as well as her beautiful face where two intense eyes shine like embers, reflect a determined personality. Widowed a few years ago, she sells animal skins at the market. It is a difficult trade, but she is a real businesswoman. A tough one.

In her home, where she lives alone, she greets us with a steaming plate of buuz, which is a delicious ravioli of thin dough filled with mutton and seasoned with onions and spices. The prayer corner occupies a place of honour in the dining room. On a lacquered wooden cabinet, decorated with fruit and flowers, are her baptismal candle, a sprig planted in a white plastic vase, an empty honey jar recycled as a holy water bottle and the Bible. The copy, bound in brown imitation leather, is not a decorative object, as the creased pages reveal regular reading. Norgim reads while at the market and her favorite is the Gospel of St Matthew and the psalms, especially “The Lord is my shepherd”.

For her, the market is where the adventure began. “In 2000, I was talking to a customer when Don Giorgio came by”, she says, referring to the man who was created cardinal by Pope Francis on August 27, 2022. This is Monsignor Giorgio Marengo, a missionary, and who has been the apostolic prefect in Ulan Bator, for more than 20 years in Mongolia. “The person I was talking to told me, ‘see these people, they are wonderful for the sick, they help them, they are good people’. Since my husband was paralyzed, I decided to follow them”. Determined, she followed the missionaries, deliberately crossing their path to greet them. When she heard them answer in her own Mongolian language, which is so difficult to learn, she said to herself, “It is God who is provoking this encounter”. Therefore, she decided to stay with them. This was the first time in her life that she set foot in an unknown land; in a church.

“At first I didn’t understand anything”, she recalls.  Agatha grew up in the Buddhist culture, tinged with shamanism, which is religion with the largest number in the country. However, like the man in the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew’s Gospel, she felt in the depths of her being that she had just laid her hands on something so precious that she decided to do all she could to preserve it. With perseverance, she returned regularly to Mass. She was one of the first to be baptized, along with Perlima, another pillar of the parish, who too is a beautiful septuagenarian with eyes outlined in black pencil and auburn hair. Other women arrived after spending some time in the embroidery workshop, a social project created by the missionaries and now run by Sister Tireza, an Ethiopian nun. Sometimes people are surprised that she left her country to live so far from home, without a salary and without being married. Then she explains. “The women here are very strong”, she says, as she tells us about her life as a missionary, “They are the ones who come first”.

Among these pioneers there is also Perlima, known as Rita as her first name. Like Norgim, she is a character who seems straight out of the Acts of the Apostles. In her gher, with its colorful orange furniture and pictures of her children and grandchildren, she has prepared a real feast. In Mongolia, hospitality is a serious matter and here too, women are in charge. On the table at the back of the tent, in the place of honour, i.e. in front of the door, and behind the altar, Lunar New Year bread fried in sheep fat and garnished with sweets and dried fruit, buuz in broth and the inevitable salted tea, with lots of milk. While her niece, a parish altar girl, taps on her smartphone, she tells us her story under the watchful eye of her husband Renchen - Augustin. “Before I became a Catholic, I lived in a northern village where there is a mine, Erdenet, and I drove a crane”, she tells us bluntly, recounting that she was trained in Russia during the Soviet era. “I didn’t believe in anything. In the 1990s, I started attending different evangelical churches and that is how I discovered Jesus”.

Back in Arvayheer, she heard about the church in the gher. Like Norgim, she was a little bewildered at first. “The first time I went in, the thing that caught my attention the most was seeing all these religious men and women from other places, working hard to learn our language and preach in our language. Why make such a great effort? It made a great impression on me”. Rita speaks non-stop, with barely enough time to catch her breath. “It is difficult to explain, but the fact that they were foreigners gave me confidence. The fact that these people have come from so far away and have worked so hard is a sign of authenticity, because they themselves have given up something to be here, and their lives reveal the qualities of people of faith. For example, their kindness, their humility. When I saw them, I too wanted to be like that, it attracted me”. She adds proudly, “I am godmother to ten people in the Church and five people, including my husband, have been baptized in my family”. One of her sisters has become a Christian; the other two are Buddhists and speak often about faith. Death, in particular, is one of Perlima's main concerns. She is also passionate about the Bible, which she reads with her husband and has given to her son, who is currently in prison. “What attracts me most”, she murmurs under her breath, “is the resurrection of the flesh. I find it wonderful. I have stopped being afraid and angry”. We ask her niece; what about young people? She looks up from her smartphone: “At school, my teachers and friends ask me questions about the Church and what we do”. Some of them bring friends, but this is even more common in Ulan Bator, the capital and place of the student exodus.

Thus, as they light the stove in the morning and tend to it during the day, the women are often the first to light the twigs of faith in their homes and keep the fire burning, despite the difficult living conditions. During the conversation, Perlima casually mentions the weight of the water canisters that neither she nor her husband are able to lift, a vital problem since the gher have no running water.  “I have always been struck by the strength of mind of the Mongolian women”, says Sister Lucia Bortolomasi. “On the faces of many of them you can read a spirit of great endurance and unfailing patience. They are courageous women who do not let themselves be frightened by the freezing Mongolian winter, who do not let themselves be discouraged by social injustices and the many daily difficulties they have to face in order to support their families with dignity”. On the steppe with the endless horizon, mothers train their children’s eyes by asking them to count sheep until they are as invisible as pinheads. They teach them to look faraway. Without fear.

By Marie-Lucile Kubacki
Journalist, permanent special correspondent for “La Vie” in Rome