Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, during the Easter Vigil liturgy in a parish some 90 kilometers away from the Cambodian capital. (Photo supplied)
As Cambodia celebrated the New Year of the Rat on April 13-15, it was also the Easter season for Christians. The 2,564th year of the Buddhist era began on the day after Easter Sunday.Easter brings a joyous occasion for Christians after 40 days of Lent and the long Passion of our Lord. It is also an occasion of celebration as family members meet again after several months of separation to celebrate the New Year.Nevertheless, this year on the Easter Vigil service, when I sang "Light of Christ" in the dark night on the empty church square, the only response was the sounds of toads and frogs in the rice fields, freshly flooded by the first rains of the season.I wished a Happy New Year, alone in front of a camera.Since March 17, religious gatherings and public activities are banned as part of efforts to check the spread of coronavirus. Authorities have closed schools and sealed land borders. Tens of thousands of Cambodian workers had rushed back from Thailand just before the government closed the border.
On Good Friday, I asked this question: "Is Jesus not still a victim of violence and hatred in our world today, because “whatever you have done to the least of my people, you have done to me'? "(Mt 25). With our lifestyles, wars, destruction of natural resources and development strategies, are we not living at the expense of the common social good and the development of the human person.God is being replaced with money, churches are being emptied, giant shopping malls are being filled, and cultures are becoming more uniform from Tokyo to Paris and from Phnom Penh to Sydney. The wealthiest have unlimited resources, while they are limited for the little ones.The children overconnected with internet facilities no longer know the joy of playing with their friends under trees. Their brothers, whom they do not know because they are not connected, are so weak that the slightest illness can take their lives. But then, there are also women and men, like Simon of Cyrene, who try to heal the wounds of Jesus. They contemplate the love of Christ. They pray, serve the poor, take care of the sick, the hungry and the strangers.I want to entrust to your prayers our 70 catechumens, who should have received the Baptism on Easter night. I pray that on the Sunday of Pentecost, May 31, we may gather again and baptize them in the joy of the Spirit.I also entrust to you our 40 or so priests from the Vicariate of Phnom Penh. So many priests, here in Cambodia but also throughout the world, celebrate liturgy alone. But in the end, didn't Jesus die almost alone, and above all rise again completely alone? The Masses offered every day bear much fruit. Pray also for our seminarians, our religious communities, our lay missionary institutes and our consecrated virgins.I also entrust to you our baptized, our Catholic families, and all those who seek God. Each one tries to pray and join in our prayers as best they can. I have seen some very touching pictures of their children adoring a small cross, others showing families in front of their iPads, and still others of single people, with the book we have prepared, trying to pray with all their heart. Other photos also show the faithful coming to walk around the church, so much they miss the everyday celebrations.Anniversary celebrations On April 16, we celebrated the 21st anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Virgin of Lourdes in the Mekong River. It has become a place of national and international pilgrimage. Father David Journault, a Fidei Donum priest from the Diocese of Laval, was there to celebrate the liturgy. Generally, some 3,000 pilgrims gather to pray and sing the wonders of God with the Virgin Mary.
On March 25, I invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary for our country, for our Church and for our families in these difficult times.This year, we are celebrating the 45th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of the first Cambodian native bishop — Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas, who died of exhaustion in a forced work camp of the Khmer Rouge. He was ordained on the sly by Bishop Yves Ramousse on April 14, 1975, under rocket fire in the Church of Notre-Dame in Phnom Penh. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and evacuated the city. Bishop Chhmar Salas was taken to the northeast of the country where he died in 1977. He is the proto-martyr on our list of 14 martyrs, whose cause for beatification has been in progress since May 15, 2015.This year we also celebrate the 30th anniversary of the "Resurrection of the Church in Cambodia" on April 14, 1990, the day when Paris Mission Father Émile Destombes celebrated Easter in a cinema hall in Phnom Penh. The power failure only allowed the flame of the Easter candle to glow in the darkened room.In 1989, Father Destombes became the first missionary to return to Cambodia, and his 1990 Easter Mass is regarded as the re-establishment of the Church in the country. In 2001, he became the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh.Jesus is Alive! This is what we celebrated 30 years later, in our world, invaded by the darkness of death, fear, and loneliness. Jesus is Alive! Bishop Salas' last words to Bishop Ramousse on April 17, 1975, before leaving on the dusty roads of Cambodia were this: "Tell the world about us."This Covid-19 chronicle, 45 years later, echoes it.
Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler is the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Mission Society.