Turkmenistan Oblates Persevere For 25 Years
Twenty-five years ago, a handful of Catholics in Turkmenistan sent a request to Pope John Paul II. They asked the Holy Father to send them some priests because there was no Catholic presence in the entire country.
Pope John Paul was eager to send priests to the country where the Catholic faith had been denied for generations by the Communists. So he asked for volunteers. Vatican officials approached several congregations and got the same answer – no thanks. They asked 38 communities for volunteers, and got rejected by all of them.
On the 39th try, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were asked to go to Turkmenistan. They immediately said yes. And for the past 25 years they have been the only Catholic presence in the entire country.
“When I arrived 25 years ago there were only a handful of Catholic faithful. Over time I saw a community rise before my eyes,” said Fr. Andrzej Madej, OMI, who has been in Turkmenistan the entire 25 years. “Being a witness of this birth was a great grace of God because it means having participated in a birth that was troubled but full of hope. We live the experience of the Apostolic Church, which starts from scratch and is based on the power of the Word of God.”
By the numbers, the Oblate mission in Turkmenistan is rather humble. There are three priests and about 200 faithful. When the Oblates celebrate Mass, there isn’t another Catholic liturgy being celebrated within 1,000 miles in all directions.
“We have a small Catholic community. They attend Mass in Russian and also in English. Our community worships in a rented house. In spite of the lack of space our community maintains its enthusiasm, while the number of people coming continues to grow,” said Fr. Andrzej.
When Fr. Andrzej arrived in Turkmenistan from Poland in 1997, he was joined by another Polish Oblate, Fr. Radoslaw Zmitrowicz, OMI, who had been ministering in Ukraine to victims of the nuclear disaster site of Chernobyl. Father Radoslaw would leave the mission after a couple of years to return to Ukraine, where he is now the Auxiliary Bishop of Kamyanets-Podilskyi.
During those early years, the two Oblates would spend much of their time simply trying to find Catholics. They had some success in finding a few Catholics who were foreign workers, mostly as diplomats. They also had some success simply going through the phone book and finding names that ended with “ski” and “cki” which would indicate Polish and possibly Catholic ancestry.
“It may seem strange, but one of the means that allows us to speak about God to the people of Turkmenistan is a car,” said Fr. Andrzej. “People often ask us for a ride, and this represents a wonderful opportunity to talk to them about God. People listen with interest. Everyone wants to talk about faith, conscience, or religion.”
The Oblates were lucky to get a handful of participants at their liturgies during the early years. Most of the time, nobody showed up. But the Oblates persisted.
The focal point of the Oblate ministry in Turkmenistan is their Chapel of the Transfiguration of the Lord in the capital of Ashgabat. Mass is celebrated in the small chapel daily which can accommodate a few dozen worshippers.
Outside, in the courtyard, the Oblates have built a grotto dedicated to Mary Immaculate. The courtyard is not only used by the handful of Catholics but also by Muslims who go there to pray. There is also an area where children and teenagers can park their bikes and gather, allowing the Oblates to introduce them to the Catholic faith.
A highlight of the Turkmenistan mission came in 2016 when Fr. Anton Litvinov, OMI, was ordained an Oblate priest. He is believed to be the only person born in Turkmenistan to ever be ordained a Catholic priest.
Father Anton grew up in a completely atheistic society. One day the Oblates were visiting his neighborhood, introducing people to the Catholic faith. They talked with Anton’s parents and the youngster was fascinated about what was being discussed. Over time, Anton began to feel a calling to Catholicism and eventually to the priesthood.
Since its beginning in 1997, the Oblates’ Turkmenistan mission has been staffed by Polish priests who speak Russian, which is widely spoken by the population that grew up under Soviet rule. While the mission is entrusted to the Polish Province, the United States Province has also collaborated with the missions since the beginning, primarily by providing financial support.
“The ministry is reminiscent of the early Church, wherein these Oblates reach out in large ways and small – giving rides to doctors and hospitals and providing opportunities for these people to practice their faith and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist,” said Fr. Louis Studer, OMI, Provincial of the U.S. Province. “These Oblates are well prepared to continue their ministry and presence in Turkmenistan for many years to come.”
For Fr. Andrzej and the other Oblates in Turkmenistan, they are following the instructions that the Lord gave to Abram: “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1.
That land is Turkmenistan, which is 82% sand. They are a small speck in the desert, but as Fr. Andrzej points out, “In the desert a single drop of water is like a golden nugget.”