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A Covid-19 chronicle from Cambodia's rice fields

With our lifestyles, wars and destruction of natural resources, are we not living at the expense of the common good?

Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Phnom Penh

Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Phnom Penh

Published: April 19, 2020 03:38 AM GMT

Updated: April 19, 2020 05:02 PM GMT

A Covid-19 chronicle from Cambodia's rice fields

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.

At the beginning of Holy Week, we learned that the New Year celebrations were canceled. On the evening of Holy Thursday, the roads connecting the province were closed to avoid possible community spread when groups of villages travel for the New Year celebrations.

On the morning of April 16, domestic traffic returned to normal. However, the country still recorded 122 positive cases and 98 recoveries, according to government statistics.

On April 17, Cambodia's Senate passed a law on governing the country in a state of emergency. The law will give the government a tool to run the country should the health situation worsen.

The Catholic Church in Cambodia has also tried to organize itself. All three bishops in Cambodia jointly published a letter on March 22. It reminded the people that all church gatherings are suspended, including the Chrism Mass. We also closed our schools as per the government directives.

It also gave some essential recommendations to our Christian communities, starting with the rules of hygiene and social distancing. We also asked them to gatherings and to stay put at home.
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The Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh has also been very proactive. As early as March 12, I instructed that activities of the pastoral center should stop and precautions should be taken in dealing with those coming from virus-hit countries. The country's borders were closed only on March 17.

On March 19, I appointed a Covid-19 task force including representatives of the pastoral sectors and diocesan offices. On March 22, we began celebrating Mass and a daily rosary live on Facebook and YouTube. Our social communications service is always on the warpath to allow those who can take advantage of internet services to remain in communion in our community since only three or four people can physically gather for the Eucharist.

Call for solidarity

When the government announced preparation for the emergency law, I asked every priest to settle down in a community of the vicariate from Palm Sunday to the Cambodian New Year. The celebration certainly would be without the faithful. However, a priest’s presence is precious for the communities, which are often small and new in the villages.

I have settled in the parish of Our Lady of Smiles, 90 kilometers from Phnom Penh. I was a parish priest for 10 years in this parish, which is home to the largest Cambodian community in the vicariate. I celebrate liturgy there every day with a small group of Christians who take turns to attend.

The Paschal Triduum was broadcast with whatever facilities were available from my mobile cathedral in the middle of the rice fields. Nevertheless, they were telecast live in a professional way by our communication service.

Although schools are closed, our Catholic schools have set up online courses for our students from primary to high school. Next week, the St. Paul Institute will also start a complete distance education program for our students. Online training was also set up for kindergarten teachers.

Finally, I have called on the Alliance for Charity and Development, a collective of Catholic non-governmental agencies, religious congregations and the social organizations in the vicariate, to prepare for the post-Covid-19 era.

We have already participated in campaigns creating awareness on hygiene and social distancing. We are now organizing distributions of food, soap and masks for the needy. The after-effects of Covid-19 will undoubtedly be lasting for the most vulnerable, who have lost work.

We hope and pray that through our social services we will be able to better serve our neighbor in the name of the risen Jesus Christ.

‘God is listening, and he will hear us.’

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.

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