Church in Cambodia: Teaching History

Interview With Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh

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ROME, MAY 23, 2011 ( The communist regimes in Cambodia took the lives not only of 2 million people, but also robbed the nation of its culture and history, such that young people today are starting families without a link to their heritage.

That’s one reason that education is the priority for the tiny Catholic Church in Cambodia, says Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh since last October.

The television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with the 40-year-old French bishop about his life in the missionary land of Cambodia.

Q: Your Excellency, you’ve been recently appointed the bishop of the capital Phnom Penh. What was your initial reaction? Was it a shock?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: I was surprised and afraid because I am very young. I was 39 years old — perhaps at that time the youngest bishop in the world. I was like Jeremiah: «Lord, I’m so young. What can I do?» I then remembered Mary who said: «I’m the servant of the Lord,» so I accepted it.

Q: Your Excellency, you have been living 13 years in Cambodia. Did you choose to go to Cambodia or were you invited to go by La Société des Missions Etrangères?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: Indeed, I’m a member of the Paris Foreign Mission and I received my orders when I became a deacon. The superior-general announced to all, after my ordination, «Father Olivier you will go to Cambodia.»

Q: Were you afraid?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: I was surprised and at the same time, I was very happy. I was in Japan for three years as a seminarian. I love Asia and when I received this mission I was happy to go to Cambodia.

Q: You worked for over 10 years in rural parishes. What did you learn from the Cambodian people?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: It was a wonderful experience for me especially in the places where I stayed. It was a very small church. When I arrived there was only one Christian. We started everything from scratch. We built the church and we organized a group of young people. We had the first baptism in 2003 — we now have a total of 98 people who have been baptized and 35 catechumens who will be baptized next year. We also started a small school — a kindergarten and high school. We also have a silk weaving center. The Khmer people are very friendly and they welcomed me with open arms. It was a very good experience for my priestly life. It will be very difficult for me to leave.

Q: The Cambodian people are 96% Buddhist. What was the reaction of the neighboring villages when you started to evangelize? Were they open to the fact that suddenly there was a Christian village starting among them?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: In this village we are very lucky; God is with us. The people have accepted us very well because we have a kindergarten and the parents, all Buddhist, send their children to our school. We also have something like a Boys Scout group and every Sunday morning we have more than 300 children who come for one hour of formation.

Q: And there is no fear from the parents that their children will be converted?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: We’ve been doing this now for more than six years and every year the number increases so I think this is a good sign. We have started a new parish about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away and we initially had problems especially among the young people.

Q: Why?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: For two years, with a microphone and loudspeakers, they announced from the pagodas some misinformation about the Catholic Church, saying that if the children go to the Catholic Church they will not get authorizations for marriage nor will they get assistance from some NGOs. At Christmas 2006, we invited all the grandparents from the village. They were very happy and they all realized that the Catholic Church is very open and receives everyone. We have become good friends. It is also interesting, in this village every Sunday I have about 10 to 20 old people from the Buddhist community who come to the Church to see what we are doing. They attend Mass and listen to the homily. The relationship is very interesting.

Q: The culture is strongly Buddhist. To be a Khmer is to be Buddhist and to embrace another faith is anathema to being a Khmer — a rejection of one’s culture or identity. Is this correct?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: I think in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror under Pol Pot, everything was destroyed — culture and all forms of religion including Buddhism and Catholicism. Then under the 10 years of post-Khmer Rouge Vietnamese Communist occupation, again no form of religion was permitted. Over the last 20 years, the Cambodians have started rebuilding their traditions as well as their religious practices and now, I think, the people are more open than before. This is very beneficial especially for the Catholic Church.

When young people become Christians, for instance during baptism, we invite their parents and grandparents to participate. Two years ago we had a funeral. A funeral is very important for Buddhists and they have this perception that the Catholics are not very interested in the dead and have no respect for the dead, especially the dead parents. They were all waiting to see what I was going to do during the funeral ceremony. They were very impressed afterward. I followed their funeral tradition including the seven days wake in the Buddhist tradition. I tried to impress upon them that we Catholics do not reject the dead, that we have prayers for the dead and that we believe and hope in the Resurrection. It was an opportunity for us to be a witness for Christ and an opportunity for the Buddhists to see what we do.

Q: What would attract a Buddhist to embrace and become a Christian?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: We start with the youth. The youth are very effective missionaries: because my friend goes to church, I too would also like to go to church even if I do not fully understand what the church is all about. That is the first phase. The second phase is that they discover charity. We have charitable outreach in all our churches. It is the charity of Catholics toward everyone, not just toward our fellow Catholics, but toward all without prejudice, especially toward the poor. This is what they witness and to what they are eventually attracted — to open their hearts and love all. The third phase, which is very important, is the meeting with Jesus. This, however, takes time, of course, because it is a new experience but through prayer and the Bible or Scriptural readings, they then meet Jesus. It is a step-by-step process. We often receive many young people and in my church we have about 100 every Sunday with more than 60 Buddhists. Of these 60, about 20 or 30 will continue in the formation.

Q: Let us come back to the Khmer Rouge period. There was massive destruction of churches as well as a complete ban on religious practices. How do you address this problem today?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: That period from 1975 to 1979 was characterized by massive destruction of church property and the death of priests and religious. We had two bishops die; one was killed and the other died from an illness — the first Khmer bishop in the history of Cambodia — and we don’t forget that 2 million Khmer people also died. The missionaries started coming back again in 1989, the first in more than 30 years. The first celebration was at Easter and there were about 1,500 Khmer people in attendance; some new converts, because the missionaries were very active in the refugee camps on the Thai border, and some who were Catholics before the Pol Pot regime. The new Catholic Church in Cambodia started with 1,500 Khmer people.

Q: You are now starting to rebuild not just the community but also the infrastructure. How is that developing?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: In Phnom Penh we only have one church, which was a minor seminary before P
ol Pot. We bought it 20 years ago and it is going to be the principal church in Phnom Penh. We have one more that we built four years ago, but I’m a bishop without a cathedral because the cathedral in Phnom Penh, within one week of the Khmer Rouge occupation in 1975, was destroyed. So it is still a process. There is also a revitalization of the Christians. Last year we did an analysis of the last 20 years of evangelization from 1989 to 2009 and there is a desire from the people to have a church, a cathedral, and this is a sign of hope. And it is showing us that a physical presence is important.

Q: What scars do you see that still remain among the people post-Pol Pot?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: The scars started before Pol Pot. There was the civil war in the 1970s during the time of Lon Nol and the Vietnamese occupation after Pol Pot. It was a very long period. There was no transmission of the cultural tradition, values, and history during this time, and transmission is very important from one generation to the next. The main concern of that period was simply survival: searching for food and shelter and there was no time to transmit cultural traditions, values and history. For the young that is a challenge when they start building families because they are missing a link and a knowledge of their heritage. In Cambodia 60% of the population is below 20 years old and they have no knowledge of the civil war, the Pol Pot regime and even their own culture. So it is a challenge for the government and the Church also.

Q: What is the priority, particularly in light of this question?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: In Cambodia, education is the priority. The human resource was destroyed and now they have to re-build everything. It is also a priority of the Catholic Church because education is a part of formation and for me in starting a new mission in the Diocese of Phnom Penh, education is a priority because we are now living with the first generation of Christians. They have been baptized 20, 10 and five years ago and education is a way for them to deepen their Christian and cultural roots, to help them become leaders in the Church and in their families and to build a better Christian family. We have two seminarians now, which is a lot because there are only 14,000 Christians, so two seminarians is a good ratio. We need to form good Christian families to encourage vocations. So the first focus is formation and education in general. We started with one kindergarten and now we have about 25 kindergartens in the diocese. We also have a technical school in the tradition of Don Bosco.

Q: What about reconciliation after that terrible period where 2 million people were killed?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: The majority of the people does not think about this, or is not interested in this; reconciliation is a concept only for us. Life is difficult for the majority of the Khmer people, and they focus on earning a living. They focus on the future and not on the past.

Q: So it is not a focus of the Catholic Church to address this issue?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: We try with our social communication services. Last year we had a meeting with one of the international judges and we focused on meeting the Catholics who survived during this period. Last year in our Catholic high school we had one day where we talked about the period of the Khmer Rouge. We invited a survivor to speak. We then went to a memorial place, called killing fields. We had prayers with the monks and priests. We try, little by little to maintain the memory of that dark era because I think that it is important, lest we forget, and this is a challenge for the country because of course we cannot forget.

Q: I understand that the king attended the requiem Mass of Pope John Paul II. How is the relationship with the government today?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: The relationship is good especially between the government and the Catholic Church. There is a ministry of cult and religion as in all the other communist countries. I have now been the vicar-general of the Diocese of Phnom Penh for three years and I have a good relationship with the government and we are always welcome.

Q: It is, however not easy. You cannot visit door to door. How does this impact your work of evangelization if you are restricted from visiting families in the villages?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: It is not like that. We don’t go door to door like the Mormons nor are we allowed to use a public address system to proselytize. I can understand that. Some Protestants have used big banners to quote some biblical passages and this is not allowed. I can visit families in the village without restrictions. We explain what the Catholic faith is with the government and we always use the term Catholic and not Christian.

Q: What is provoking such negative reaction from the government when a particular personality-based Christian or Protestant sect is established?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: There are so many Christian sects in Cambodia and the government finds it difficult to understand who is who. They are happy with us because we have a clear structure: the Pope, bishops and then the priests.

Q: Is this negative reaction also due to aggressive proselytism by some sects?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: Yes this is also one reason. I will give you a very concrete example: Last year I requested citizenship. I went to the Ministry of the Interior for an interview. I explained that I was a priest in the Catholic Church. The interviewer was angry with the Christians. He did not understand the difference between Catholics and the others. He said: «Your group wrote on the wall that you have to hate Buddha to be with Jesus.» Statements like this are very destructive, especially in the minds of the non-Christians and we have many instances like these. I do not mean all are aggressive and are critical of anything Cambodian and the Khmer but it sometimes makes it difficult to mention that we — Catholics — are Christians.

Q: What are the needs for your country and the Catholic Church now?

Bishop Schmitthaeusler: The need for formation and to help our people to meet with God; this is very important. To have time to pray in silence, to have a relationship with Jesus and with God — this is a big challenge in a Buddhist country.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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