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Toronto pastor remembers mission life in Mongolia

Family dinner in a yurt in Mongolia

Mehendra_art | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 08/30/23

Fr. Peter Turrone hopes Pope Francis gets glimpse of same spirit he did in East Asian country.

Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia is significant because it can help the people there see that as Christians “we’re not there to take anything away” but to offer life and salvation in Christ, said a former Canadian missionary who spent three years in the East Asian country. 

Francis is set to become the first Catholic pope to visit Mongolia when he touches down in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, on Thursday. 

Fr. Peter Turrone arrived in Mongolia in 2010 as a member of the Consolata Missionaries. He is now a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto and a pastor there. One of his colleagues when he was in Mongolia was Fr. Giorgio Marengo, whom Pope Francis named a cardinal last year. Cardinal Marengo, 49, a Consolata Missionary, is Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar — and the Church’s youngest cardinal.

“The fact that Pope Francis chose Giorgio to be a cardinal is significant,” Fr. Turrone said in an interview. “It gives a sign of the universality of the Church. … You really are at the peripheries when you’re in the Gobi Desert.”

Francis’ emphasis that everyone is welcome in the Church is also very relevant to the very welcoming Mongolian culture, Fr. Turrone said – “like the idea that the Lord came for every tribe and nation, so every tribe and nation, every language, every people is called to come to fellowship with the Lord,” he said, “to come to know the Father’s love through his son Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. Pope Francis has said that he’s going as a brother to all, so he’s going there to reach out.”

Mystical experience

Fr. Turrone recalls when he first arrived in Mongolia, touching down on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2010. 

“It’s mystical to see the steppe and then to not have any cars outside of the city but only have traffic consist of, like, horses and sheep,” he said.

His mission church, Mother of Mercy, was and still is in a tent in Arvaikheer, about a seven-hour drive southwest of the capital, in the Gobi Desert. There, priests and Consolata Missionary Sisters minister to a population that is poor materially but has a great spiritual wealth. 

“We had Mass publicly, adoration for a few hours; we prayed the Rosary with the people,” he said. “We lived a somewhat semi-monastic type of lifestyle, so a lot of the time is spent in prayer and active service of the poor, and then helping people with medical conditions.”

“And then just be a presence,” he added.

Canadian missionary in Mongolia
Fr. Peter Turrone with members of his flock.

Christianity is still a novelty in the country, which has a large Buddhist population but also significant atheism. 

“We were met with curiosity; we were met with kindness; we were met with a desire to want to know more about us,” he said. “And we were also met with a bit of healthy suspicion, and it was completely understandable, because they were used to having everything under Soviet [influence]. And so their view of the outside world perhaps wasn’t always positive. It’s understandable that they were trying to figure out why we were there because … many foreigners are there to take advantage of the natural resources.”

But, he said, “We weren’t there to take anything from anyone; we’re only there to bring Christ to the people. We’re not there to impose anything on anyone but we’re there to present Jesus Christ to the people and that they know the deep love that he has for them and the fellowship that he invites them into.”

It is that attitude, he hopes, that will accompany Pope Francis’ historic visit.

MissionaryMongoliaPope FrancisPriest
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