The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Make Disciples of All Nations

Back in my grade school days, my favorite subject was geography. By the time I was ten years old, I had an extensive collection of maps. Some of these I had purchased, but most had been liberated from my father's National Geographic magazines. I found our strange and varied world to be a fascinating place: the continents, the oceans and seas, the rivers that stretched for thousands of miles, the deserts and mountain ranges, and all those countries and cities with the unpronounceable names. It all captivated me. I would pore over those maps for hours, studying them and trying to visualize the distant places represented by the names and markings before me.

In those days, my New England family had already moved to New York, lived in the rural Florida panhandle for a year, spent another year in Europe, and traveled extensively throughout the eastern U. S. And everywhere we went my maps were my companions. Later on, in my teens, I gravitated to ham radio, a hobby that allowed me to reach out and figuratively touch people from around the globe. And before entering the Naval Academy at Annapolis, I studied for a year at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. It would seem I was destined to travel.

I suspect this interest in things geographical was partly hereditary, the result of a geographic gene shared with my late father, John McCarthy. Indeed, one long wall of the family room in his Cape Cod home was completely covered by a huge map of the world, and a two-foot diameter globe was displayed prominently in the living room. But Dad was no armchair traveler; he truly enjoyed seeing the world and meeting its people, and did so frequently. I think the only thing he enjoyed more was returning home. I am much the same.

I've traveled extensively over the course of my life, much of it thanks to the United States Navy and my subsequent business activity. I have no idea how many countries I've visited over the years, but adding to the list is not important to me. I can accept that there are many places I've yet to see and will likely never see. My future plans are not guided by any "bucket list", but are formed largely by happenstance.

All of this came to mind last evening when I stumbled across an article about the Catholic Church in Mongolia, a place I have never visited and surely never will. Mongolia is one of those ultra-exotic locales reminiscent of the old Terry and the Pirates comic strip I read religiously as a boy. (If you're under 60, you won't know what I'm talking about.) Just the name of the place conjures up what I suppose is a stereotypical image in my mind's eye: fierce descendents of Genghis Khan, mounted on their horses and galloping across the vast Asian steppe. And a country with a capital named Ulan Bator by definition must be exotic.

Rural Mongolia hasn't changed much
Of course, those images don't reflect much of today's Mongolia, which is moving rapidly into the 21st century. Although it's a fairly large country, about the same size as Alaska, Mongolia is also the most sparsely populated country in the world, with nearly half of its population living in the capital city. The rest live in its vast rural areas. While the country suffered under the totalitarian and atheistic rule of the Communist Party for almost 60 years, like many other formerly communist nations, it experienced its own democratic transformation in the early 1990s. Not only did this lead to the development of a market economy, but it also offered a degree of religious freedom to the people.

The first Catholic mission to Mongolia opened in 1992 when the apostolic nuncio to Korea arrived with two brothers of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Today, twenty years later, there are 64 Catholic missionaries from 18 countries in Mongolia. The Church has already set up a technical training center and this month a Korean priest is opening a medical clinic for the poor outside Ulan Bator. Happily, one Mongolian has already been ordained a priest and there are two Mongolian men studying for the priesthood in a seminary in Korea.

Today there are less than 1,000 Catholics in the country, served by three churches, all in Ulan Bator. One of these is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul which provides a spiritual home for Mongolia's only bishop. Click here for more info: Catholic Church in Mongolia.

Faces of young Catholic girls of Mongolia

How many other nations in the world are like Mongolia, where Jesus Christ is unknown to the vast majority of the people and the Word of God has hardly been preached? Probably more than we would guess. In the early 1970s, while visiting Taiwan, I met a young Taiwanese university student at a small restaurant. Excited about being able to practice his English, he asked if we could share a table while we ate lunch. I agreed and we talked for over an hour on a variety of topics. At one point, after I had brought up religion, he said he was an atheist. When I asked if he knew anything about Jesus Christ, he stated he had never heard of him. "Who was he?", he asked. I told him and before we separated gave him the pocket New Testament I used to carry with me. "It will help you with your English," I explained. Just that morning I had been reading Matthew's Gospel and had underlined its final verses, Jesus' great commission to His disciples. I've often wondered if that young student read those versus and thought about them in light of our brief time together:

"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” [Mt 28:18-20] 

Since the Lord wants us to "make disciples of all nations", I've always thought He'll probably hold off on His Second Coming until after we've preached the Good News to all those nations. After all, if He tells us to do something, but then doesn't give us time to finish the job...well, that just doesn't seem very God-like. Of course, like everyone else, I don't know the mind of God, nor do I know any more about His plan for salvation that what He's already revealed to us. So it probably behooves us not to waste a lot of time as we do all that disciple-making throughout the world. God might actually permit us to determine the exact timing of "the end of the age" based on the scope of our evangelizing activity. In other words, we should get out the maps and get to work.

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