Church’s Youngest Cardinal Hopeful for Papal Visit to Mongolia

An Interview With Cardinal Giorgio Marengo

Cardinal Giorgio Marengo
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo (photo: Couresy of Cardinal Giorgio Marengo)

On his return to Rome from South Sudan in February, Pope Francis offered the possibility of a visit to Mongolia this September. It would be the first papal pilgrimage to the country. Register senior international correspondent Victor Gaetan contacted Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to learn more. The interview began last October in Bangkok, Thailand, where Gaetan and Cardinal Marengo met at the monthlong Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. 

The Church in Mongolia is sometimes called the newest in the world because missionaries started from nothing in 1992, following the fall of communism. The entire country is a missionary jurisdiction, with nine parishes serving 1,450 faithful. Cardinal Marengo, who will turn 49 next month, was ordained a Consolata missionary in 2001. He first went to Mongolia in 2003.

Mongolia map
Mongolia is the world’s largest landlocked country, with a population of just 3.3 million people. According to a 2020 national census, 52% of the nation is Buddhist, 41% consider themselves ‘nonreligious,’ 3.2% are Muslim, and 1.3% are Christian.(Photo: Public domain, Wikimedia)


Your Eminence, there’s no reference to a papal visit on Mongolia’s main Catholic website, although Pope Francis clearly stated his hope to visit. Are you getting ready?

Technically not yet, because we must get instructions from Rome; but, of course, since Pope Francis mentioned it on his flight back from Africa, and again during his general audience a few days later, we are in the “being ready” mode but not yet technically starting the preparations.


How important would this visit be?

It will be a very historic visit, with a great impact on bilateral relations between the Holy See and Mongolia, as well as a great joy for the small Catholic community in Mongolia.


Protocol requires an invitation from the president of the country and religious leaders. Has that occurred? 

Oh, yes! An invitation from the president is the fundamental requirement for a papal visit to any country. Last summer, Aug. 24, just a few days before the consistory, a delegation from the Mongolian government, including a former president, went to Rome and handed Francis an official invitation from the current president.


How is communication between the Catholic community and the dominant religious group in Mongolia, the Buddhists? 

We have very good relations that have grown throughout the years. Dialogue with those who represent the majority has been a priority from the very beginning. The majority religion is Mongolian Buddhism. Buddhism came to Mongolia at different moments of its history and mainly from Tibet. So the roots of Mongolian Buddhism are in Tibet, but in recent years people have started referring to “Mongolian Buddhism” because it has become a particular form of Buddhism. That’s why, last May 28, we were received by the Holy Father


I remember reading about that meeting … and you were there, too. Wonderful!

Yes. There were some contacts in the past between Buddhist monks and the Holy Father, but this was the first-ever audience granted to a delegation of Mongolian Buddhist monks with him.


And the next day, on May 29, Pope Francis announced 21 new cardinals, and you were among them. That seemed to be a very high level of diplomacy: You visited the Holy Father with a delegation of Mongolian monks; then you were immediately elevated. How did you read that?

It was, of course, a great surprise for me. I don’t know if it was planned in such a way as it happened, but we know how important interreligious dialogue is for Pope Francis. 


Was there a celebration?

That very day was a Sunday, so I went to Sunday Mass with two Mongolian Catholic priests who were traveling with me, together with a Buddhist monk. We went to visit a community of Consolata Missionary sisters outside Rome. We had a nice meeting, and, meanwhile, the announcement was given at the Angelus. We got the news only after. And the Buddhist abbot was the first to congratulate me for the appointment!


How does your elevation to the College of Cardinals further enhance your ability to represent the Catholic Church in Asia and in Mongolia?

I am obviously very grateful to Pope Francis for having thought of a cardinal from Mongolia, thus promoting the image of his small Church. We trust that this choice can indeed contribute to intensifying official relations on a further level. On the other hand, since the Catholic tradition is still little known in Mongolia, we still need to work hard in introducing the Church into the real social fabric. 


Mongolia clergy
Mongolia is considered mission territory, governed by an apostolic prefecture comprising nine parishes, served by 28 priests, including two local Mongolian priests. Here, they are shown with Cardinal Marengo and the Holy See’s nuncio (ambassador) to Mongolia, Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, who is based in Seoul, South Korea. Archbishop Xuereb was born in Malta. (Photo: Courtesy of Cardinal Giorgio Marengo)

Are there restrictions on evangelization or conversion in Mongolia?

Mongolia’s constitution grants a fundamental right to practice or not practice religious belief so religious freedom is included in the fundamental rights that Mongolia recognizes for its citizens. This fundamental right is protected so legislation allows the practice of different religious traditions.


Is the Catholic Church recognized by the country’s constitution?

Mongolia welcomes all kinds of religious groups, but, of course, in the implementation of this fundamental right, the government has a set of rules and regulations according to which the different religious groups have to register and be acknowledged officially. The rules are there, and we have to follow procedures. Based on that, religious freedom is guaranteed.


Will other Buddhist leaders from around Asia come to Mongolia if the Pope visits?

That I really don’t know. It is beyond my knowledge. I don’t know how the Buddhist world will react to this visit, but, for sure, there will be a meeting of the Holy Father with the other religious traditions, not just Buddhism. Here in Mongolia, we have good relations with leaders of all religions: There are active communities of Muslims believers, followers of Shamanism, Hindu, the Baha’i and then the Christian denominations.


You have been in Mongolia as a missionary for 20 years. How difficult was the missionary work for you at the beginning and throughout the years?

Well, it took me — and us — because I went with a group of my own society, the Consolata Missionaries, both priests and sisters — a long time for our insertion into the new reality. This is something we were aware of, belonging to a missionary congregation, aimed at providing missionary energies to wherever there is a need, especially where the Church is not well established or even absent. We all knew it would take us a long time, and it did take a long time. 

That’s a very delicate and crucial moment in the life of any missionary: to spend time, quality time, learning; first the language, then the history, culture, traditions, politics, economy of the country where one is sent. 

So we spent the first three years just learning the language in Ulaanbaatar. In the third year, we started doing some little services for the local community in Ulaanbaatar. And in dialogue with the first apostolic prefect, Msgr. [Wenceslao] Padilla — the first pioneer priest, with CICM, an international missionary congregation — in dialogue with him, we offered our services to establish the presence of the Church in a part of the country where it had never been.


Where was that? 

We embarked on this very interesting adventure. We established a tiny community, in a region called Arvaikheer, 450 kilometers southwest of Ulaanbaatar. It is exactly in the geographical center of the country, where the initial capital city of the Mongolian empire was established. 

It was more adventurous because there were no other missionaries, not even Catholics there, so it was really a matter of inserting ourselves, again, into this new reality. It was a grace for me, a great grace, and opportunity to know more about the history, culture and religions of Mongolia; because living in the countryside offered more in this regard than in the capital city. 

There, I spent 14 years, and a small community was eventually established, with a few friends from the neighborhood who started being interested. With all the due permissions of the government, we established a small church and some social projects. 

I arrived in Mongolia in 2003. In 2006, we moved to this new area, and I spent the rest of my time there, until two years ago, when I was appointed apostolic prefect.


The gulf is so wide between the poverty and isolation you have witnessed in Mongolia and the privilege and convenience so many Catholics in the West live among. What lessons of faith and Christ’s love have you learned in Mongolia that you might not have gained, had you stayed in an Italian parish?

Taking everything for granted is a very common risk when living in more affluent conditions. The richness of having lived for 14 years in a rural area of Mongolia, in direct contact with the ancestral rhythms of the seasons and of human life stretched to the limit, is a grace I would not want to let go of. From people who live their faith in simplicity at 40 degrees below zero, braving blizzards and stray dogs to come to Mass every morning in the middle of winter, I am led to give thanks every day for the great gift of faith. It is these people, mysteriously touched by grace, who encourage me to offer them the best, through a human and spiritual journey of continuous growth in faith.


In the beginning, how many Consolata missionaries were there with you?

We were two priests and three sisters. I was the only Italian among the priests. First, I was with an Argentinian priest, two Italian sisters and one from Colombia; then, eventually, the Argentinian left, and another Italian priest came.


Were the people welcoming?

In general, Mongolians are known to be very welcoming. The nomadic attitude is very hospitable. On the other hand, we have to remember that Mongolia was very isolated for 70 years, as a communist country, without being a member of the Soviet Union, but it was one of the first countries that embraced “real socialism.” Because of that, we were cautious and attentive, especially when we talked about religious matters. 

But then, thanks to the relationships we built out of human respect and collaboration, I would say that we were welcomed and accepted there. Especially now, after so many years, we have very good relations with government officials, and we collaborate in many aspects for the good of the society.


As you are a European, do you find a keener sense of the transcendent in Asia than in Italy or Western Europe at this time in history?

Indeed, I do find it here. I’ve devoted some studies to this topic, especially while preparing my Ph.D. research in missiology. Since the age of Enlightenment, a break has occurred in the West between faith and reason, or, if you like, between religious and scientific attitudes. This is not the case for Asia. While, in some respects, the introduction of a greater critical sense might be useful in Asia, I believe that in the West there is much to be learned from the wise attitude that knows how to treasure the fundamental elements of religions in society.


When you engage in dialogue with officials, what language do you speak?

Usually I relate to them in Mongolian because I can handle the language. But, of course, some of the high-ranked monks or abbots do speak English or non-Mongolian languages like Russian. But I feel at home with Mongolian, so we usually use Mongolian.

Mongolia monks
Last May, Carinal Giorgio Marengo traveled to Rome accompanied by two Mongolian monks. Together, they comprised the first official Mongolian Buddhist delegation to meet with the Holy Father. On Cardinal Marengo’s left is Ven. Ch. Dambajav, Ph.D., abbot of Dashchoilin Monastery; to his right is Ven. Ts. Altankhuu, monk of the Dashchoilin Monastery. The monks are shown giving the cardinal a statue of Maitreya Buddha, a replica of the one they used to inaugurate a Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Strengthening interfaith relations is a papal priority, and Christian-Buddhist exchanges have quietly increased over the last 10 years.(Photo: Courtesy of Cardinal Giorgio Marengo)


Fantastic. Have you also explored the life of Buddhism in neighboring countries such as Thailand?

Well, I attended two of the Buddhist-Christian colloquia, an initiative of the Vatican going back to the 1990s. These meetings are prepared for two to three years, and they rotate between different Asian countries. 

This has given me a great opportunity to know more about the Buddhist world. I attended the 2015 edition in India. It was really an eye-opener to the wider Buddhist work because, in Mongolia, I knew only the reality of Mongolian Buddhism. Then, in 2017, at the edition in Taiwan, which was again, a fruitful initiative, I asked the organizers to invite one Buddhist monk from Mongolia because they have not been present before. This monk who attended is also a well-known abbot of a big monastery in Mongolia. So these occasions gave me an opportunity to know more about Buddhism in general, and they are also an experience of friendship. 


Tell me about the Catholic religious serving Mongolia today.

We have two local Mongolian priests, 26 foreign missionary priests, and more than 40 sisters, all from other countries. 


Mongolia religious
Catholic sisters, brothers and religious priests serving in Mongolia celebrated a Day of Consecrated Life earlier this year in the country’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, where the apostolic prefecture is based. More than 40 religious women serve in Mongolia, together with 26 foreign missionary priests and two Mongolian local priests.(Photo: Courtesy of Cardinal Giorgio Marengo)

From what other countries? 

We have a very big variety: from 22 different countries and belonging to 10 religious societies and congregations. Our priests are from Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cameroon, Congo, elsewhere … Indonesia, Philippines, one French priest, one priest from East Timor, one from Czech Republic, one from Colombia, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

The biggest group is represented by CICM missionaries, who were pioneers in Mongolia. My predecessor, Bishop [Wenceslao] Padilla, was the CICM superior. It’s a missionary congregation originally from Belgium, founded in the 19th century. Also present are a group of diocesan priests from South Korea, the Salesians of Don Bosco, and my community, Consolata missionaries.


In what language is Mass given?

In Mongolian, always; every day in daily Mass. At the cathedral we have a service for the international community, and I appointed one priest to be chaplain for the international community, so there is also a Mass in English.


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