Jesuit Father Anthony Corcoran is the Apostolic Administrator for the few hundred Catholics who live in Kyrgyzstan. During a trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to attend the papal visit, he sat down for a talk with Maria Lozano, director of media for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
What has been your impression of the papal visit?
My impression is one of joy, due to the kind of sharing that is happening here. Sharing from the Holy Father, certainly, but sharing among the bishops and the people who came as pilgrims, too. What a true Catholic gathering! I should have expected that, but when you experience it, it is very striking.
Did you come with a group from Kyrgyzstan?
No, I came alone. But I have already heard positive reactions from the Catholics in Kyrgyzstan. They were certainly following the visit.
What did this trip to Mongolia mean to them?
Every human being is related to others, and the Pope has used the word “communion” repeatedly. This communion is more than just an act; it is really a way of being. And whenever something touches a part of the Church, it touches all of us. Pope Francis also referred to that from another angle, meaning that the people of Mongolia should feel a connection with the universal Church. So, from below and 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: God instills greatness in the smallness, so we should not think that our small numbers mean limited success, or irrelevance. In the case of Mary, her littleness is greater than the heavens, so littleness is not to be seen as a limitation, but 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 its presence, even 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 who cares for his flock, wherever 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, nor does the Church aim to bring a different culture and impose it. It is something that comes from God and 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 that Francis was coming to “whisper the Gospel.”
If you whisper the Gospel – and 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, suffered under Communist dictatorships for decades. Are the challenges for the Church related to this past?
Certainly, because the Church exists in society, so history plays a role in everything. Having lived in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, of course, I can see that the legacy of atheistic Communism has a role in Catholic life. But, 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 sent here. That is how God’s providence works. God always brings in the Church that special grace which inflames the hearts of the faithful in the face of persecution. So, of course, the legacy somehow unites us, too. It is not the most important part of our communion with each other, but it certainly is visible.
What fruits do you expect of this visit, both for Mongolia and for Central Asia as a whole? Will this enthusiasm last?
When the Pope spoke to the pastoral workers, he mentioned that the joy of the Gospel is why someone would give their life for it, 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. And it is not just some spiritualized floating thing, either. It is very practical, because it reminds us of 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 seeing those people who came from different places and were so overjoyed to see him, or the conversations we were able to have with each other.
Do you think this could also be an example for Christians in Europe, where the faith seems to be in crisis?
Jesus doesn’t have crises, and so every crisis in the Church is always temporary and localized, 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 are. 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 is from the West but serves in Central Asia and is so thankful to be here, the challenge is that we ask ourselves this: are we willing to be inconvenienced? And then, where is our gaze?