MONGOLIA     'Young' Parish Presents Opportunities, Challenges

ULAANBAATAR (UCAN) -- Start by sending half-a-dozen altar boys to the river early to prepare a place for Mass. Add parishioners packed into vehicles and transported to the site. After Mass cook three fat sheep in a big metal pot and play games. Then bring the exhausted but happy group back to the city.

This recipe is just one of the specialties Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar serves up for its mostly young community members, whom the parish priest is trying to form into an extended family.

The parish, largest of the three in Ulaanbaatar, the only parishes in Mongolia, covers half the capital. Approximately half-a-million people live in its territory. About 300 people make up the parish community, split almost evenly between catechumens and baptized Catholics.

Besides a few people in their early 20s and a handful of older adults, the community comprises children and teenagers, except for the fluctuating number of expatriates, sometimes more than 50, few of whom speak Mongolian. Only five married couples in which husband and wife are Catholics belong to the parish.

"Does this sound like your average parish?" asks Father Serge-Patrick Mondomobe, the pastor. The Immaculate Heart of Mary missioner from Cameroon, in west-central Africa, told UCA News he aims to create a "family" out of this group.

"The special potential in this parish is that almost all members are young or children, as opposed to grown-up people with families. They have a lot more free time to spend together in the parish, and they are willing to do so," he explained. Moreover, his young parishioners "learn a lot and dedicate a lot of their time to their faith, their Christian growth."

The flip side to this, however, is that they have few people to look to as exemplars of Catholic family life. The children and youths all come from non-Christian homes.

One of the baptized youths, Enkh-Baatar, does not see this as a problem. "I am thinking about becoming a priest myself, so I asked my parents to let me live with the Fathers and learn from them," he told UCA News. Enkh-Baatar, whose Christian name is Joseph, studies biochemistry at Mongolia International University and spends most of his free time helping Father Mondomobe.

The parish also has groups, such as for altar boys, that serve as vehicles for formation. "I believe being an altar boy is a great opportunity for them to learn to behave as upright men ought to in Mongolian society," the parish priest said.

Meanwhile the parish runs two Bible-sharing groups, five Sunday school classes, four catechism classes for local people and an English-language catechism class for foreigners. For music lovers there is a choir that is developing into a music school. Those more inclined to hands-on art can join the handicrafts group, and those who want to learn English or Korean can do so at classes taught by volunteers.

Young people also go with Sister Margarita Jeong, a Korean missioner who works at the parish, to visit poor families, pray for them and, when possible, offer material assistance. "We sometimes see that they need some clothes, or some food or medicine," said Enkhee, a 20-year-old man who regularly accompanies the nun on these visits.

Sometimes the youths find things people need at the parish clinic or in donations they collect from parishioners. "When people see that we want to help needy people, they are surprised and become interested in how Christians live and pray," he pointed out.

As a male, Enkhee is a minority member of the parish community, more than two-thirds of whom are females. Sister Jeong says she is concerned about the "education" of the majority.

The Congregation of Jesus nun explained that girls in Mongolia today are trained and encouraged to study, be smart, and follow a career -- "to compete with men." Most often they are better performers at school and at work than their male counterparts, she said, but she added that such girls do not learn the feminine skills of being a wife, mother or homemaker. "They get married and have babies without any preparation at all," she lamented.

The parish plans to train its young girls in "womanly" skills by organizing seminars and workshops for them. "It is necessary," agreed Father Mondomobe.

Although several laypeople take an active role in the life of the parish, it is still the missioners who function as facilitators for almost all activities. While acknowledging this fact, Father Mondomobe is hopeful that "in a few years' time," the missioners will have the help they will need. "There is a generation of dedicated young people who will take over many of the functions the sisters I and are doing now," he said.

Finances still trouble him, however, since he estimates that 80 percent of the donations that support the parish come from abroad and almost all the rest from the expatriate community. In view of this dependency, he said, "we are teaching the Mongolian youth to give and share."

Ulaanbaatar apostolic prefecture, covering all Mongolia, was established in 2002, the 10th anniversary of the Catholic mission in the country.