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This Christmas, one of the readings at Mass will be the famous “Prologue” of the Gospel According to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” its opening line declares. A bit later we hear the very familiar, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
This year, several months after Pope Francis made a historic journey to Mongolia, the Christmas reading will surely bring back memories for one priest.
Fr. Peter Turrone, now a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Canada, read those very lines in the central Asian country 11 years ago. It was his first Christmas as a newly ordained priest, and he was still striving to learn the Mongolian language and become acclimated to the extreme cold.
And yet, the young missionary had experiences in the remote outpost that deepened and enriched the faith he thought he already knew so well.
Church in a tent
Fr. Turrone first arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, on the feast of the Assumption in 2010. He had grown up with dreams of evangelizing the Native Peoples of Canada and instead found himself in a faraway desert in central Asia. He had studied theology at a seminary in Rome but came to Mongolia to have an experience in ministry, as part of preparations for ordination as a priest of the Consolata Missionaries.
“Most of my time was spent ministering to the people in the desert,” Fr. Turrone said in a recent interview from his parish in Toronto. “Our church was in a tent, and it still is. It’s called Mother of Mercy.”
The “tent” is the same kind of structure that many Mongolians live in. Mongolians call it a “ger,” though some people refer to it as a “yurt.”
The first one to be evangelized
Fr. Turrone was deeply affected by the raw beauty of Mongolia, a place where animals such as cows, sheep, and horses far outnumber humans. Outside of the capital, there was hardly any motorized traffic. The vast expanse of the steppe and the desert was humbling.
A hermit priest he met there told him not to be surprised if he someday realizes that God led him to Mongolia so that “he could first evangelize you.”
Not everything was beautiful, though. People lived in poverty and struggled with various problems, including alcoholism. Air pollution, which existed in part because people would burn anything they could find to keep warm – including plastic – could be overwhelming.
But Fr. Turrone found the spirit of the people to be uplifting. No one complained about material wants or sufferings. Kids were happy, even if the only thing they had to play with was an old soccer ball that had been patched several times.
As was much noted during Pope Francis’ voyage, there are barely more than 1,500 Catholics in the country. Buddhism, shamanism, and atheism claim the vast majority of the people.
But Fr. Turrone found that among Mongolians there is a “spiritual richness.”
His first mission, Mother of Mercy Church, was on the outskirts of Arvaikheer when he arrived. But in time, locals built their homes – their gers – around it.
Fr. Turrone couldn’t help but see a spiritual lesson in that. His seminary professor of Greek taught that that line from the Prologue of St. John could literally be translated as “And the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.”
“So the presence of Christ in the tabernacle is Christ in the living flesh as he is in heaven,” Fr. Turrone said. “He’s pitched his tent. He’s physically present in the desert, in the midst of all the people, many of whom don’t even know that God – Jesus Christ – is there.”
As anyone who is aware of the decline of Catholic belief in the West, Fr. Turrone noted that not all Catholics understand that Christ is present in the Eucharist.
“But in this case, God was in their midst, in the flesh,” he said of his Mongolian church. “And then, when they come to discover that, slowly, it is life changing. It gives meaning, purpose, understanding that life has value, life has meaning, that I’m not suffering because of a past life, because … there’s no such thing as reincarnation.”
That Christmas Eve, Fr. Turrone had a chance to explain more about the Incarnation.
“As St. John says, God has pitched his tent among us,” he said in his homily. “What is also incredible is the way in which he chose to do so. Jesus could have chosen to be born in a grand palace with a bed made out of the finest linens and precious metals. He deserves it. He is the King of the Universe. But he didn’t. He chose to lie in the same place where animals came to eat. And even that place did not belong to him.”
Unexpectedly, a number of men who were not members of the parish dropped into the yurt-church, taking shelter on an exceptionally cold night.
They were Mongolian shepherds.
“They were people that I had never seen before. They had come in during the Mass right at the beginning,” Fr. Turrone recalled. “And they were curious; they were looking around, looking at the Nativity scene that was handcrafted by a Mongolian local artist.”
Fr. Turrone felt that he was with a people who “best understood what it would have been like” in Bethlehem on the first Christmas.
“That was probably one of the most moving experiences of my life as a priest.”