ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — For the past 10 years, the Consolata Missionaries have been the sisters of the steppe, evangelizing a people searching for God and helping improve their lives in Mongolia, where more than 20% live on less than $1.25 a day.
“People here naturally have been searching for God and looking for meaning to their way of life,” Sister Sandra Garay, an Argentine member of the Consolata Missionaries serving in Mongolia, told Catholic News Agency. The community is celebrating a decade of their presence in Mongolia, bringing the consolation of Mary to those in spiritual and material need.
The ancient homeland of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde of centuries past, Mongolia more recently was a satellite state of the Soviet Union until its collapse. Mongolia’s non-religious population stands at 39%.
Sister Sandra said the Consolata Missionaries have a “fervor of evangelization” and that their mission in Mongolia “started from scratch.”
The Consolata community is one of religious priests and sisters consecrated to God for the evangelization of peoples, especially wherever the Gospel is not yet known. It was founded in 1901 by Blessed Giuseppe Allamano.
“It’s a new beginning in the pastoral mission of Mongolia,” Sister Sandra said.
The Consolata Missionaries are meeting a 700-year-old request for Catholic missionaries to Mongolia. Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, had personally asked the pope in 1271, through Italian adventurer Marco Polo, to send 100 missionaries to convert his people to Christianity. Khan made his request after the first Catholic mission to Mongolia set up by Franciscan friar John of Pian of Carpine in 1245 ended in failure.
Sadly, Pope Gregory X only sent two Dominican friars, who never completed the journey, and so missed the chance to bring the Mongol Empire into the Catholic faith.
The first modern mission to Mongolia was the establishment of a mission in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, in 1922, entrusted to the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
But the People’s Republic was set up two years later under Soviet influence, and religious expression was suppressed until the communist government’s fall in 1992.
A little over half the population is Buddhist, and most of the remainder is non-religious. Islam, shamanism and Christianity have mere footholds among the people.
“It is a difficult terrain, but God works wonders. And the Year of Faith encourages a hope for our people,” Sister Sandra said.
In 2002, the Ulaanbaatar mission was elevated to an apostolic prefecture. The prefecture covers the entire country, and the mission’s superior, Father Wenceslao Padilla, a priest of the Immaculate Heart Congregation, was appointed prefect.
He was consecrated a bishop in 2003. Bishop Padilla oversees the 13 religious congregations that have more than 80 missionaries serving in Mongolia.
Sister Sandra said the nation of 2.9 million has about 1,200 Catholics, 870 of whom are native Mongolians.
The Church encounters tremendous challenges in a nation covered by steppes, which experience frigid winters. Nearly half of the country’s people live in Ulaanbaatar, and many of the rest are nomadic.
“Naturally, coming from a different climate, culture, language and topography, initially it was tough,” Sister Sandra explained.
“But as a missionary, God takes control, and we get adapted.”
With the first 10 years behind them, Sister Sandra said the Consolata Missionaries have confidence for the future.
She said, “We shall continue the pastoral plan of evangelization in welcoming people searching for God and empowering them with education and fostering basic needs.”