The guesthouse of the Scheut Missionaries in Kinshasa is a hive of activity where missionaries of every stripe and colour make an appearance often 'on their way to somewhere'. Today at lunch I had a long chat with a group of young scientists who were on their way to Djolu, a place situated in the diocese of Basankusu, to conduct specialised research in the depths of the rainforest on pygmy chimps, the so-called Bonobos.
But on Monday evening when I arrived here after a long flight from Brussels and a tiring wait in a gigantic traffic jam on the highway from the airport I was dying for a glass of cold Primus (local brand of beer). That's how I met this young Congolese missionary, Prosper Mbumba, in the house bar. He had an extraordinary tale to tell: the beginnings of the mission to Mongolia. (Fons Eppink mhm)
Here it is in his own words:
The story of a new church in Mongolia
Mongolia is the youngest Catholic community in the world. The first missionaries arrived in this country of Genghis Khan in 1992. This was made possible by the dawn of a democratic era, following the collapse of the Soviet block. Now, 25 years later, the Catholic Church in Mongolia has grown to more than 1,300 baptized believers and many catechumens, disseminated in 2 quasi-parishes and 7 parishes.
The newest of these parishes is Divine Mercy. Located in the city of Erdenet (380 kilometres North of Ulaanbaatar the capital city), Divine Mercy Parish is run by the Scheut Missionaries (CICM). It is dedicated to the Divine Mercy, because its official launching coincided with the jubilee year of Mercy, in 2016.
Scheut and Erdenet
The pioneers who laid the foundations of the church in Mongolia in 1992 are Scheut Missionaries, 2 Filippinos and one Belgian. They first reached Erdenet in 2002. There they started a kindergarten (My Home Kindergarten, hereafter MHK) in the outskirts of the city, to give a chance to children from very poor families who could not afford preschool education. Since then close to 1,000 underprivileged children have been privileged to get Montessori formation, free of charge.
The Scheut missionaries who supervised the MHK had always lived in Ulaanbaatar, and visited the kindergarten on a monthly basis. The congregation did not have enough members to team up and make up a community to live in, in Erdenet. For this reason, no pastoral work could be undertaken either. However, we were always consoled knowing that whatever we did for one of the least of these brothers (…), we did for the Lord (Mt 25, 40).
Meeting the small Catholic community of Erdenet
In Erdenet lived, at least for the past 7 years, 3 baptized adult Catholics. During holy days of obligation they often attended mass in Mary Auxilium Parish in Darkhan (about 170 kms away).
After my ordination to the priesthood in 2012, I was appointed in charge of MHK. Since I had no pastoral duties in Ulaanbaatar (where I lived then), I made it a point to celebrate the Holy Eucharist for the three Catholics every time I was in the city – so as not to leave them like sheep without a shepherd. At least once a month we had mass in one of the families. When I was not around, they gathered every Sunday for Bible sharing.
Such initiative, with sporadic gatherings, needed a daring courage. Once, when some CICM Superiors were visiting from Taiwan, Rome, and Ulaanbaatar, we celebrated the Holy Eucharist in a family. We were more priests concelebrating than participants attending the mass. I recall also Christmas 2013 when, on the eve, we were only 3 for the whole celebration. During the morning mass we were five, and one joined us after mass – the only time she could be excused from work – because it was a working day… Recalling the words of the Lord “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18, 20) comforted us though. And the group was growing, as the 3 Catholics started bringing in friends and relatives.
Scheut in Erdenet and the birth of Divine Mercy
And He sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town… (Lk 10, 1).
The membership of Scheut in Mongolia increased with the coming of new missionaries in 2014. It was finally possible to erect a religious community in Erdenet. In June 2015 Brother Leonard (now a priest) and I made up this new community. Pastoral work was a priority in our agenda. We started gathering people every Sunday, taking turns from home to home, but more often in our own house.
As the number of attendants slowly increased, we thought it timely to apply for an official permission from the local government. In Mongolia, church activities have to be approved by the government. The procedure can be complicated and slow, taking even years, as experience has shown in other cities.
After numerous consultations, meetings and preparations, our application was ready by January 2016. We rented a place for worship, because a precise place of worship with address location is one of the requisites to start with. Our first place was a pizzeria, rented for three months, just the time to get an answer from the office in charge of our application. We then entrusted our undertaking to the Lord through a Novena to the Divine Mercy. We finished our Novena prayer on February 1st, 2016, and submitted our application the following day. In the process we got a call from the local Intelligence Bureau. A hearing lasting more than an hour took place, with questions ranging from doctrine to sources of income and, most sensitive, wether any foreigner was behind the church activities…
“When they lead you away and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say. But say whatever will be given to you at that hour. For it will not be you who are speaking but the Holy Spirit” (Mk 13, 11).
After many ups and downs, such as having to change our place of worship (because we were in a residential building), we were granted a legal permit on June 10, 2016. The permit was for three years, renewable. Finally we could freely celebrate our sacraments in this second largest city of Mongolia. To God be the glory.
Why Divine Mercy
As we were starting our activities in an official way during this jubilee year of Mercy, we dedicated our Christian community to the Mercy of God. But there is yet another reason for this choice: the devotion to the Divine Mercy is special to me, because I was ordained Deacon on a Divine Mercy Sunday (April 15, 2012).
Erdenet, the underground church
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28, 19)
There was indeed an “underground” church in Erdenet these past years. Apart from the Eucharist, other sacraments were already celebrated prior to the acquisition of our official permit. On August 18, 2014 Henry De Solages, a Frenchman living in Erdenet, and his Mongolian wife Delgermörön were united through the sacrament of matrimony. This was the couple that attended the Christmas eve’s mass in December 2013. Their first son Ивээл ([Iveel], meaning Grace) was then received into the church by the sacrament of baptism on July 12, 2015. These were the first marriage and the first baptism ever celebrated in the city of Erdenet, but also the first ones at which I officiated – after respectively two and three years of priesthood.
Divine Mercy was canonically erected as a parish on June 11, 2017. We now have 1 matrimony, 6 baptisms, and 1 confirmation recorded in our registers. We have about 50 members in our Christian community, with an average Sunday attendance of 20.
Humbled by the challenge ahead
Obtaining the church’s official permit and canonical institution is one thing. Building up a community of believers is another. This is the next challenge that lies ahead of us. We hope to instill the faith in our newcomers, by our way of life first of all, and by catechizing them. We are humbled by this undertaking, and rely on God’s mercy. Our hopes are high, because the city of Erdenet is known for its numerous flourishing Christian communities, especially Protestant denominations.
The other challenge comes with legal requirements that imply financial costs. As a foreigner employed in a church organization (this is the way it is understood here), I will have to pay monthly fees to the government, in compensation for the salary that a Mongolian citizen would be getting in my place. Moreover, quota requirements will be applied – that is, a regulation requiring a number of Mongolian citizens to be employed by an organization wherein one or more foreigners are employed.
As the number of people is increasing, we need a bigger space for worship, and one that we own would be the ideal. As of now we are renting part of the 2nd floor of a business center. We count on people of goodwill to help us build the foundation of this new church, for the greater glory of God.
Divine Mercy, source of miracles and wonders, I trust in You.
Fr Mbumba Prosper-B cicm