By DAVID McGOVERN
HE may have a gentler approach than the famous Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan, but Bishop Wens Padilla is no less determined to transform the world around him.
As the head of the Church in Mongolia, Bishop Padilla is committed to conquering the hearts and minds of the local population, estimated at three million souls.
It may not happen at the same pace as when Genghis Khan turned the Mongolian empire into the world’s largest, but his passion for sharing the Good News will still change lives.
During Mass at St Peter’s Catholic Church, Rochedale recently, Bishop Padilla shared his hopes for the Church, as it continued to make a spiritual foothold in a country previously dominated by Communism.
Reflecting on his 21 years in the country, Bishop Padilla told St Peter’s parishioners that he and his fellow missionary priests began the Church in a hotel room.
And it was not just the freezing Mongolian weather, where temperatures can reach minus 45 degrees, that gave them the impression that the Church was being given a frosty reception.
Learning the local language and a predominance of other major religions, including Tibetan Buddhism, Shamanism and Muslim caused significant stress and heartache.
“The poverty of the people also is a big challenge, because we don’t have any local income – it’s all coming from outside,” Bishop Padilla said.
The second youngest of five children, Bishop Padilla still returns to visit his mother in the northern part of the Philippines each year.
He once tried to explain to her how cold it could get in Mongolia by encouraging her to place her hand in the freezer.
“It was only minus 18 degrees in the deep freeze and I had to tell her it could get even colder,” he said with a smile.
Born in the Philippines in 1949 and ordained in 1976, Bishop Padilla worked for 15 years as part of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Taiwan.
While completing the end of his second term as a provincial superior, the call for missionaries to Mongolia went out.
“I said, ‘I am also available —let the Spirit blow where it wills’,” he said.
During his first years in Mongolia, Bishop Padilla worked to understand the needs of the people, which led to the establishment of initiatives to help the less fortunate.
These included a care centre for children who were homeless, schools, medical clinics, libraries plus vocational skills and income generation training centres.
The services and programs cater especially for those who are poor or who have little in the way of food, clothing or family.
He said there had been a phenomenal growth in Mongolia from nothing.
“It’s all the work of God. I know he was already there — we just had to hook up where he was working,” he said.
The opportunity for the Church to become established in Mongolia came after the country was liberated from Communist China and Communist Russia, in 1989.
The now-independent nation sought to establish diplomatic relations with, among others, the Holy See.
Although Bishop Padilla was elevated from apostolic prefect to bishop in 2003, he still presides over Ulaanbaatar as an Apostolic Prefecture.
It has not yet reached the requirements to be declared a diocese.
Pope John Paul II was originally scheduled to perform Bishop Padilla’s episcopal ordination, but was unable to due to his declining health.
However, Bishop Padilla was honoured to have met Blessed John Paul II for two ad limina visits.
Ironically, it was a question mark over his credentials as a bishop that prompted some of the biggest laughs during his homily at St Peter’s.
He recounted a time when he was in Germany and a young girl doubted whether he was a real bishop because he did not have the official mitre.
“I had to borrow a cardboard one, that was stored in the attic of the parish where I was celebrating Mass – it has been part of a play about St Nicholas,” Bishop Padilla said.
As well as celebrating Mass at St Peter’s, where he proved to be a big hit with Filipino members of the congregations, the bishop also met with supporters of Catholic Mission and joined with St Stephen’s Cathedral dean Fr David Pascoe, in celebrating noon Mass in the cathedral.
Endorsing the Catholic Mission appeal, for World Mission Month, Bishop Padilla said the focus on the Church’s missionary work in Mongolia was “humbling”.
“I really thank the people who sustain the mission,” he said. “I consider them as partners of the mission, either by donations or prayers.
“They are journeyers with us.”
David McGovern is Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Mission director.