Marengo recalled how a French Catholic missionary who visited what is today Mongolia at the end of the 19th century saw the succession of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and said: “‘One day this country will have to have a Catholic monastery here.’”
Under the Mongolian People’s Republic’s one-party rule, many monasteries were destroyed and closed and about 17,000 Buddhist monks were killed, while many others renounced religious life.
While a movement after the fall of the Soviet Union sought to rebuild destroyed monasteries, roughly 40% of Mongolia’s population remains atheist or without a religion.
Amid the country’s modest religious revival, Marengo shares his missionary predecessor’s dream and thinks that the establishment of the first contemplative Catholic monastery in Mongolia “would be the way to evangelize more effectively.”
“And this is one of the prayers that we ask for that one day we will also have a Catholic monastery where Catholic contemplative prayer is seen, is experienced, is offered. And I think it will make a difference in the evangelization,” he said.
‘Whispering the Gospel’
Marengo, who at 49 is the world’s youngest cardinal, took painstaking efforts to immerse himself in Mongolian culture, including years of intensive language study, before he began his mission.
Now after more than 20 years as a missionary in Mongolia and as the head of the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, which has jurisdiction over the entirety of the country, the cardinal is able to speak to the unique aspects of Mongolian culture that influences how Catholic missionaries approach evangelization.
“It is quite evident that in the Mongolian context, special importance is given to whisper and more generally to speak at a low tone of voice, not only as a part of local etiquette but even as a distinct way of transmitting values — and imagine how difficult for an Italian to speak with a lower tone of voice and not using his hands,” he joked.
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Marengo added that when a baby is born in Mongolia, there is a special naming ritual in which the weeks-old newborn is washed with a mutton broth inside the yurt and the mother takes the baby into her arms and whispers for the first time his or her name three times.
“I have attended this ritual several times and it is very touching,” the cardinal said.
Through his life and work in Mongolia, Marengo has come to understand “whispering the Gospel” as a type of communication that occurs only in the context of a relationship or friendship and with confidentiality and discretion.
“It requires a lot of time to plunge into a culture to the point where this vital relationship has been built. There is already an open channel through which you can share what is most important and precious to you, the Gospel of Jesus,” he said.
Marengo noted that the process of inculturation of the Gospel takes centuries and is a process led by the local people “who have welcomed the faith in Christ and who have reinterpreted their own lives in the light of the Gospel.”
“The Gospel has to be proclaimed because it is an element of empowering cultures and helping them to open to new dimensions. And if evangelization doesn’t reach at the heart of the culture, it is destined to be like superficial paint that cracks and fades away,” he said.