Mongolia, May 2016
Interest for inter-religious dialogue and desire to turn it into a practice of life and of mission have become more concrete since the project of Kharkhorin had started to take form. To be present in the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire has definitely a symbolic value. In the 13th century the Mongolian Khans had distinguished themselves for opening to others and for pacific living together of different religious traditions (among them Nestorian Christianity). They were also ready to welcome the papal envoys Giovanni of Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck (both of them Franciscans). So, now a presence of the Catholic Church indicates an ideal bond with that history and together shows the willingness to proceed along the same lines of dialogue and enriching collaboration. And this is not something to overlook, keeping in mind the present political and social situation marked by strong nationalistic and exclusivist pressures, which are also felt by the mission.
Between May 17 and 19, 2016 we lived two deeply meaningful moments. The first was the official meeting with civil and religious authorities of Kharkhorin, in the presence of the Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar. Mons. Padilla had in fact decided to come personally in order to meet the Mayor of Kharkhorin, considering the many contacts we had already established during the past two years. It was the first time that the representative of the Catholic Church in Mongolia was meeting the first citizen of the old Mongol capital! For our part, we confirmed to him that our style is not to “make noise” in order to attract attention at all costs. It will be our duty to be able to make ourselves accepted for what we are, showing all the sensibility and prudence that this place demands.
Dopo l'incontro in comune facciamo una breve visita al bel museo di Kharkhorin, soprattutto per mostrare al vescovo l'interessante plastico che riproduce l'antica capitale imperiale, compresa la chiesa nestoriana attestata dai diari dell'epoca.
After the meeting, together we briefly visit the beautiful museum of Kharkhorin, especially in order to show to the Bishop the interesting model reproducing the old imperial capital, including the Nestorian church as it is described in the diaries of that time.
Maybe, the most beautiful moment we experience is around a table, in front of a gulash (a stew made with rice and vegetables). Besides the mayor also two Buddhist monks arrive, they are the most influential persons in Kharkhorin. One is the vice-abbot of Erdene Zuu, the big monastery founded in the16th century; the other is responsible for another group of monks, who gather inside the same imposing building, but in a different place of cult. The second monk who is a bit older starts by saying:”When the mayor invited me to come, I happily accepted, but I was asking myself what on earth we could talk about with foreigners of a different religion. But, here we are, sitting around the same table, talking in my mother’s tongue: it’s a wonderful feeling!”
From that opening, conversation goes on easily and pleasantly: we begin by introducing ourselves and explaining why we wanted to meet them. Even if we belong to different religious traditions, we are all under the same sky and desire to be of help to the local people, according to the tradition that makes Kharkhorin an original locality! We explain the position of the Pope and of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), that, also this year, has prepared a message of good wishes on the occasion of the next Vesakh, the great feast celebrating the birth, the illumination and the entering into the nirvana of Buddha. We translated it into Mongol and it is the gift we want to offer for this event.
The mayor himself summarizes in few words the meaning of this fraternal encounter and, talking about cultural promotion, invitingly turns to the elder Lama who removes from a little bag a booklet with technical drawings. They are about a project he has patiently followed for over ten years and concerns the reconstruction of a temple built in the 18th century but demolished during the repressions of the communist regime in the third decade of the 19th century. Finally, the project is almost concluded, and this imposing religious building, still in the finishing phase, can be admired in the centre of Kharkhorin.
When the time to say good-bye arrives, we hand in the message. Then, a group photo is taken in front of the Mongolian flag that stands out on the entrance wall of the restaurant. We shake hands and greet the mayor and the Buddhist monks.
We greet also the Bishop and return to Arvaiheer with Enkh Joseph, the deacon, who in August will become the first Mongol priest of recent history. He will stay with us for a little while in order to acquire some pastoral experience before his ordination.
And with him, on May 19, we go to pay a visit to the executive staff of the Buddhist Monastery in Arvaiheer. Our reason for this visit is to hand in the message of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), just as we did in Kharkhorin. It is also the occasion to form friendship bonds of mutual respect and collaboration. We are accompanied by Mr. Batjargal, the vice-governor of the Uvurkhangai region, to which both Kharkhorin and Arvaiheer belong, who has organized this encounter. He, too, has good recollection of his recent trip to Italy with the mayor of Kharkhorin. The abbot is temporarily absent, but we are welcomed by three monks of the executive staff. We are directed to the second floor of the structure next to the monastery, where in the meantime all monks have gathered to begin the celebration of the Vesakh: during three days they will take turns in a sort of a non-stop choral performance in honor of the great feast. We explain the reason of our visit and present the message, while Mr. Batjargal confirms the seriousness of what he had the occasion to observe during his recent visit.
At the end of our brief visit, it seems that they have enjoyed our presence, and invite us to return when their superior is also present. Probably, it is the first time that such an encounter has taken place in Arvaiheer. Maybe this could be a good opportunity to break some obstacles and try to know and respect one another, better…
We have a guided tour of the principal temple and finally take a photo to remember the day. The wind is still rather cold, but the mild season is arriving. For us, these days were very intense and significantly rich. We wish that also this may mark for the interreligious dialogue a positive and hopeful beginning.