(Vatican Radio) Catholic faithful in Turkmenistan make up only a tiny proportion of the central Asian country's predominately Muslim population, of which most are diplomats or descendants of Polish immigrants.
The Holy See in 1997 entrusted the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) with the Church's mission to Turkmenistan, creating an Apostolic Nunciature in the capital city, Ashgabat, and nominating Fr. Andrzej Madej, OMI, its Chargé d'Affaires. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan.
Fr. Louis Lougen, Superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, recently visited the Oblate mission in Turkmenistan. He spoke to Devin Watkins about his experience of the small but vibrant Church there.
Listen to the interview:
"Going to Turkmenistan was like living or being in the church of the Acts of the Apostles." Fr. Lougen said, "It's a church of signs and wonders. It is amazing. We've been there 18 years. When we first went, there were a few Catholics in the country, and some of them were descendants of Polish families who had gone there, I think, before World War II. The memory of being Catholic was in their families."
Turkmenistan's government greatly restricts the establishment of religious groups so in 1997 Fr. Andrzej Madej, OMI, and Fr. Radoslaw Zmitrowicz, OMI, entered the country as diplomatic representatives of the Holy See. These two Oblates were the first Catholic presence in Turkmenistan since the Catholic churches were destroyed by Russian revolutionaries almost 100 years ago.
Fr. Lougen recalled the humble beginnings of the Church's mission in Turkmenistan. "The first Oblate who went there, with the help of a layman, got together all these families that were Catholic... Some were families that had been Catholic but with Communism had lost the opportunity to practice. [Fr. Andrzej] got them together - I think that was about 15 or 20 people - and began to catechize, invite them to RCIA faith formation."
From that small beginning, the Holy See/Oblate mission to Turkmenistan has grown considerably, with Mass and Eucharistic Adoration being celebrated daily by 3 priests serving the community.
"Today I would say we have 200 Catholics in 3 different communities. Many of them are Muslims who've embraced the faith, Orthodox, and people who had no religion," Fr. Lougen said.
During his visit, Fr. Lougen had the opportunity to have breakfast with a group of Muslim families that had become Catholic. "We were sharing, and they were telling me about their lives. So at one point I asked Fr. Andrzej to ask them why they became Christian, why did they ask for baptism."
"One of the ladies - I could see her face went on like a light, filled with joy and a smile - and he translated for me. And she was saying, 'It's Jesus. We discovered a God of love, compassion, and mercy, and we never knew this kind of a God before.' You could just feel the joy bubbling out of her heart."
As the woman shared, Fr. Lougen said there was a man in the back, sitting quietly, just watching. At a certain point, he raised his hand and asked Fr. Andrzej if he could say something. The man said, "I'm not Christian; I'm a Muslim, but could I say something? Father, I know that this Christian religion is really good and really changes people because my wife's tongue used to be this long and now she keeps it in her mouth!"
Everyone laughed but Fr. Andrzej later told Fr. Lougen that this man was making a journey to become a Catholic.
"At this little chapel at our house, even though the Church is such a small minority, all day long, all day long, people are coming to pray. [...] People are looking for somebody to talk to; they're looking for confession; they want to know about the faith. And you just feel something very good is going on there."
Fr. Lougen also told of 2 evangelical pastors whom Fr. Andrzej had him meet. "When they came over, we were in the chapel doing [the Chaplet of] Divine Mercy in Russian language. So they joined in. [...] Afterwards we went up for tea, and they said, 'Father General, you're the successor of St. Eugene [de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate]! We want to know, how do we evangelize the poor in Turkmenistan today? The government is watching us; they won't let us in the prisons. We want to get in the prisons and evangelized. What can we do?' We had a long discussion."
At the end of their hour and a half discussion, Fr. Lougen asked them if he could say a prayer with St. Eugene's own cross which he had with him. The ministers expressed surprise, at which point "One of the ministers grabbed it, and he raised it up, and said, 'I claim Turkmenistan for Jesus Christ, with the intercession of St. Eugene de Mazenod.' Now these men are journeying with Fr. Andrzej. He's like their spiritual director, and you can just see the ecumenism, the brotherhood, a real openness to support each other in the faith in a country that is suspicious of religion."
Regarding relations with the Orthodox Church, around 9% of the population of Turkmenistan, Fr. Lougen said, "So often the Orthodox don't like the Roman Catholics, but again Fr. Andrzej is their spiritual director, they come over, we do things together. So as I said, signs and wonders all over the place. It's like there's a fire there; it's like the Acts of the Apostles."
To read more about the OMI mission to Turkmenistan, click here.