“How do you celebrate Christmas in your village?” I asked Salustino, as we battled December’s icy wind while walking back together to the Columban International Seminary on the south side of Chicago. “After nightfall on Christmas Eve the catechist leads our small community in prayer ….and there are also readings from the Bible and carol singing,” he replied. “So you don’t have Mass?” I inquired with an element of surprise in my voice. “No, a priest comes to our village once a year … or maybe just once every two years,” he added thoughtfully.
A year earlier Salustino Villalobos Mondragon, a Columban seminarian, had come from Peru to Chicago to study English. One of a family of twelve, he had grown up in the village of Agua del Leon in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. At the age of twenty, he traveled a twenty-four hour bus journey from there to Lima, the capital city, in order to pursue his dream of becoming a Columban missionary priest.
Within a short time of meeting this young man one senses quickly that he is passionate about soccer, his studies and his faith. But where did he get such faith as to want to spend his entire life in service of the Gospel? How was this faith nurtured, enabling it to blossom so that he wished to radiate it across the world? Before coming to Chicago, Salustino had already studied at the Columban seminary in Chile, while his dream was to become a missionary priest in China.
Like the shepherds on that fi rst Christmas night, Salustino had heard the catechist proclaim the message of the angels: “I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by all the people: today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you, He is Christ the Lord.” (Lk. 2:10-11) Since his childhood, together with his family, he had listened to that Good News during the Christmas prayer service in his village, where there was no priest and no chapel. Year after year he had joined his community in responding to this astonishing message with praise and thanks, with music and dance.
The story of the celebration of Christmas in Salustino’s village is a reminder that, like that fi rst Christmas night, Christ continues to come to people living on the fringes of our “advanced” society and at the margins of our organized religion, blessing them with the gifts of faith and joy. And Salustino’s decision to spend his life as a Columban priest ministering among people in a faroff country is evidence that God intends that these gifts of faith and joy “be shared by all the people” in our world today, just as the angels promised on that fi rst Christmas night.