Christ calls, Asians respond

Lent series 2023


Bible stories lead Cambodian artist to Catholic faith

By UCA News reporter

March 22, 2023 03:25 AM

After reading the Bible and observing Church activities for more than 20 years, Sarom decided to start his catechumenate

Francios Sarum Koy receives ash on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023

Francios Sarum Koy receives ash on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. (Photo: Vann Sambath, CSC)

Little did Francios Sarum Koy know that becoming an art teacher for children and youths at a Catholic church 20 years ago would lead him to join the body of Christ on Easter Sunday this year.

The 67-year-old Cambodian recalls his inner journey of seeking the light of God through his artwork began in 2002 at the St. Mary of the Smile Church in Chamkar Teang, a village in southern Takeo province, about 80 kilometers from capital Phnom Penh.

Sarum, who specialized in classical art, was invited to teach art at the church on Saturdays and Sundays. This led to him working as a part time staff at the Catholic Art office of Phnom Penh Vicariate in Takeo province.

Although not a Catholic, during these years Sarum authored many Catholic stories into drama and dance performances during feasts and festivals, especially local Christmas celebrations.

“It was difficult when I first started writing Catholic stories, because I come from a Hindu-Buddhist background,” he says.

But Sarum, said, the most important thing during this period was that be began reading the Khmer Catholic Bible to understand the basics of the stories.

“Whenever I had a doubt or got stuck somewhere, I would read the Bible again and again and also discuss with Oum Samean, the director of Catholic Art office, and Kol Cheang, a committee member in the church,” he added.

He realized that not only did he enjoy reading the Bible but what he read deepened his understanding of human existence.

The words he came to remember were this: “Whoever has two coats, let him give to him who has not, and whoever has food should do likewise.” (Luke 3, 11).

“I could see that we are all equal,” he exclaims.

Koy gestures during a training session to teach youths about stage acting. (Photo: Kimheng Song)

After reading the Bible and observing Church activities for more than 20 years, Sarom decided to start his catechumenate.

Sarum told his family and friends about his inclination towards the Church and no one objected, he said.

They would say lightheartedly that I had moved to the Catholic faith while they were still Buddhists, he observed.

When he decided to convert to the Catholic faith, he told his wife and four children.

“Yes, he told me. As far as I know Catholics are good people who help others,” says 15-year-old Thnousarapor Koy, the youngest of his four children.

The family understands his change of religious belief and it doesn’t affect their family relationships.

This Lent, Sarum's daily routine has changed as he’s adapting to his new religion.

“It is time to educate my heart, mind and speech, not to be better than the others but to let people know that I am a true Catholic,” he says.

He intends to continue to use his talent in the arts and his understanding of the Bible to spread the Good News about Jesus in Cambodia.

“I need to study the Bible more and more and I want my wife and children to become Catholic as well,” he says.

Cambodian youths listen to Koy as he gestures during a training session on stage acting. (Photo: Kimheng Song)

Typically, the faith preparation takes a year and intensifies during the Lent season, explains Savong Duong, director of the Phnom Penh Catechist office of Phnom Penh Vicariate.

Duong said candidates like Sarom have the 40 days of Lent to reflect on their lives and their new faith, before being baptized at an Easter Vigil.

The Church runs a retreat that all catechumens must attend at least once in the last three weeks of Lent.

“Our catechumens look forward to living a life in the way of Christ,” Duong adds.

Sarom is among 94 catechumens who began intensive training on Feb. 26, the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, which is expected to culminate with them receiving the Sacrament initiation — Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation — at the Easter Vigil.

The catechumens face no serious problems from the government.

Cambodia's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and belief for all its 16 million people, 95 percent of whom are Buddhists. Those following Islam make up 3 percent and Christians are only 1 percent with barely 20,000 among them Catholics.

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