Cardinal’s mission to Mongolia

Cardinal Giorgio Marengo. Photo: Supplied

When Cardinal Giorgio Marengo arrived in Mongolia as a young missionary soon after his 2001 ordination, there were barely any Catholics in the country. 

Nearly 20 years later the 50-year-old knows every one of the 1500 Catholics attending its nine parishes. 

Mongolians are getting to know Catholics too, through their good works. 

Christianity has a centuries-long history in the former Tibetan Buddhist stronghold, but when communism collapsed there in the early 1990s, there were fewer than a dozen non-Mongolian Catholics in Mongolia. 

Today, just over half of the population of its 3.4 million people today is Buddhist, 40 per cent declare themselves non-religious and of the tiny Christian contingent, less than 1 per cent are Catholics. 

In this nascent church with only 30 years of official history, Cardinal Marengo says discipleship is about making genuine friendships in service of the common good. 

It’s forming strong partnerships with civil authorities and other faith leaders to fight widespread poverty. 

Cardinal Giorgio Marengo - The Catholic weekly
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo with Fr Don Richardson, dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, following Mass on 23 June. Photo: Catholic Mission

The apostolic prefect of Ulaanbataar, Mongolia’s capital, became the world’s youngest cardinal in 2022 and is visiting Australia as a guest of Catholic Mission. 

He says Christianity is still little-known in Mongolia, but those who know the church regard it well because the faith of this first generation of Catholics is becoming known by their good works. 

“It is a very small minority but has a good reputation in terms of being very much involved in the many social development projects it runs,” Cardinal Marengo says. 

The need is great in Mongolia and especially Ulaanbaatar, as around 27 per cent of the population lives in poverty. 

Cardinal Marengo says most of the church’s activities are directed to providing education, health and other essential services. 

He says the first ever papal visit to the country by Pope Francis last September was “a miracle.”  

The pope raised the profile of the church’s new House of Mercy in Ulaanbaatar—a social services hub providing refuge and care for the homeless, people with a disability or suffering from addictions, new migrants, and women and children fleeing domestic violence. 

“I envision the Catholic Church in Mongolia as tiny seeds in the Mongolian steppes, aiding society’s development and growth,” the cardinal says. 

“Interfaith dialogue is an essential part of its work, as we are a tiny minority, and so it’s the only way for us to be present there. 

“But we see in that an evangelical way to be present in the society, to share the Gospel values and to also promote an understanding of religious traditions as protagonists in building up a better society. 

Cardinal Marengo – The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Supplied.

“That’s very important in Mongolia, where we have an experience of state atheism imposed during the communist regime that created a suspicion of religious traditions.” 

New Mongolian Catholics are often the first among their family and friends to embrace Christ and so naturally become evangelists. 

He says the most profound statement of faith he heard over the years came from the House of Mercy’s coordinator, Lucy Otgongerel, who herself has a disability. 

“The night she was baptised, at Easter, I accompanied her and one of her family members to the church and I overheard her relative whisper, ‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?’ 

“And Lucy said, ‘You can be happy for me. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing in this religion has to do with fear. I decided to become a Catholic because I found peace in Christ.’ 

“That reference to not having fear really struck me at the time and still inspires me today.” 

Cardinal Marengo will celebrate the high Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on 30 June at 10:30am. 

For more information about his work in Mongolia, see Catholic Mission. 

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