The leader of the Catholic Church in Kyrgyzstan was in Mongolia, where Pope Francis said that the littleness of the local churches is not a limitation, but a resource for the universal Church.
The Jesuit Fr Anthony Corcoran is the Apostolic Administrator for the few hundred Catholics who live in Kyrgyzstan. During a visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for the papal visit, he sat down for a talk with Maria Lozano, director of Press for Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN).
What has your impression of this papal visit to Mongolia been?
My impression has been one of joy, just at the level and the depth of sharing that happened here. Sharing from the Holy Father, certainly, but sharing also amongst the people who came as pilgrims, amongst the bishops and the people, amongst people of different nationalities. What a true Catholic gathering! Although I should have expected that, still, when you experience it, it is very striking.
Did you come with a group from Kyrgyzstan?
No, I came alone. But already I have heard such joyful reactions from Catholics in Kyrgyzstan. They are certainly following the visit.
What did this trip to Mongolia mean to them?
Every human is related, and the Pope has used the word “communion” repeatedly, and this communion is more than just an act, it is really a way of being. You talk about the Church as being a communion, and so of course, whenever something touches a part of the Church it touches all of us. Pope Francis also referred to that from the other angle, of also meaning that the people of Mongolia should feel the connection with the universal Church, so from below and from above, that’s how God works.
Of course, every country has its own culture, history and people, but there are also similarities throughout history among the countries in this region. The profile of the Church in Mongolia and the Church in Kyrgyzstan, and some other local Churches, for example, is similar in that they are so tiny. And this is another message that the Pope brought and brings always: the greatness that God instils through the smallness, that we should not pay attention just to “small numbers, limited success or apparent irrelevance”. In the case of Mary, for example, her littleness is greater than the heavens, so littleness is not to be seen just as a limitation, but as a resource. And we can certainly feel that in Kyrgyzstan.
Is that the message you are taking back to your community?
It is one of them. Because God cares through his Church, and his Church cares through presence, including in places where it is small. And the Church cares in this concrete instance too, with the Pope coming to us. He is the shepherd that cares for his flock where they are.
Do Catholics feel integrated in these countries, or do they feel they are foreign elements?
As the Pope pointed out, Christianity is not something new in this region, it has been here from the early centuries of Christianity, along the Silk Road. The Church is not something new or foreign to any society, the Church isn’t something that has as its main goal to bring a different culture and impose it, it is something that comes from God, but that at the same time, comes up from within.
At the same time, the Church seems to act with caution in this part of the world. When asked about the papal visit, Cardinal Marengo, Apostolic Prefect for Mongolia, said Francis was coming to “whisper the Gospel”.
If you whisper the Gospel – and now this is my interpretation of his words – you must know the language quite well, you must have the trust of the person, you must be close to them, you must be clear in what you are saying, I think that this is inculturation, or as we would say, the incarnation of the Church.
Both Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, as well as many other countries in this region, were under Communist dictatorships for decades. Are the challenges for the Church related to this past?
Certainly, because the Church is within society, so that history definitely plays a role in everything. Having lived in Russia, and in Kyrgyzstan, of course the legacy of atheistic Communism has played its role, and at the same time God’s providence always wins out, because the fact is that in this region through persecution the Church received new life from the Catholics being sent there. That is how God’s providence works, God always brings in the Church that special grace which inflames the hearts of some of the faithful, even though the persecutions that were, those that are ongoing and the ones still to come, in many places in the world. So, of course, the legacy somehow unites us too. It is not the most important part of our being in communion with each other, but certainly it is visible.
What fruits do you expect of this visit, both for Mongolia and for Central Asia? Will this emotion and enthusiasm last?
When the Pope spoke to the pastoral workers, he mentioned that the joy of the Gospel is the source of why one would give their life for the Gospel, and the joy of the Gospel is something that lasts and gives true fruit. A word that always comes to mind is consolation, that the Pope’s presence is marked by consolation, and true consolation doesn’t come from a human being; consolation that lasts, gives life and encouragement, comes from only one source. True consolation is not just some spiritualised floating thing, it is very practical, because it reminds us who we are.
Was there any experience over these past three days that really struck you?
There were many. Especially seeing how the Pope interacted with people, to see how he is so alive when he is with the people, and they are too. And that is something that can’t be explained by the fact that the boss, or the chief, or even the head priest has come to visit; there is something there. No matter how many times I saw it, it was so touching, whether it was from those people who came from different places and were so overjoyed to see him, or the conversations we were able to have amongst each other.
Do you think this could also be an example for Christians in Europe where the faith seems to be going through a crisis?
Jesus doesn’t have crises, and so every crisis in the Church is always temporary and localised, because it is Jesus Christ’s Church. And so, wherever the gaze on Jesus Christ is, that is where the encouragement, the hope and the Gospel is. And we notice in the Gospel that everyone who receives something from Jesus has in common the fact that they are willing to be inconvenienced. And so, speaking as someone who serves in Central Asia, who is so thankful to be here, but is from the West, the challenge is that we ask ourselves: are we willing to be inconvenienced? And then: where is our gaze?