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French bishop led reincarnation of Cambodian Church after genocide

Exiled by the Khmer Rouge regime, Bishop Ramousse returned to Cambodia to rebuild the Church from its ashes

French bishop led reincarnation of Cambodian Church after genocide

Khmer Rouge soldiers atop their US-made armored vehicles enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the day Cambodia fell under the control of communist Khmer Rouge forces. (Photo: AFP)

The people and the Catholic Church in Cambodia were always close to the heart of Bishop Yves Georges Rene Ramousse throughout good and bad times, from serene peace to civil war and genocide.

The French bishop from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) pioneered the growth of the Cambodian Church, witnessed its collapse during the Khmer Rouge regime and rebuilt it literally from ruins.

The former apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh (1962-76; 1992-2001) died on Feb. 26 due to Covid-19 in Montbeten, France, only three days after his 93rd birthday and two days after the 58th anniversary of his episcopal ordination.

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The death of Bishop Ramousse marked the end of an era. He was not only a towering figure in the Cambodian Church but also one of a small group of bishops alive who participated in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the most significant event of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

Bishop Ramousse participated in the council’s second, third and fourth sessions. On Oct. 22, 2012, he was among 12 conciliar bishops (council fathers) who joined the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council at the Vatican on the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI during the Synod of Bishops on New Evangelization.

Tributes poured in for Bishop Ramousse for his great contributions to the Church.

“His patience, vision, insight, courage, resilience and sacrifices enabled the Church of Cambodia to rise from its ashes in the 1990s. The young generation of the baptized does not know Bishop Yves, but if they do are here today happy to follow Christ, it is largely thanks to Bishop Ramousse,” reads a message on MEP site Eglises d’Asie (Churches in Asia).

Yves Ramousse was born on Feb. 23, 1928, in Sembadel town of France. He was the youngest of three children of Jacques Ramousse, a railway employee, and Julie Carlet.

He joined the MEP’s major seminary in 1947 and was ordained a priest on April 4, 1953. He went to Rome for higher studies and in 1957 successfully defended a thesis on The Great Catechesis of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

He arrived in Cambodia in 1957, studied the Khmer and Vietnamese languages and served in a parish in Phnom Penh. He was assigned a professor in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) of Vietnam in 1960 but returned to Phnom Penh a year later to join its minor seminary. In 1962, he had a short stint at the MEP-run mission seminary in Paris.

On Nov. 12, 1962, at the age of 35, he was appointed the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, making him the youngest Catholic bishop of that time.

On his return from the Second Vatican Council, the young bishop dedicated himself to uplifting the profile of the tiny Cambodian Church. He invited Canon Boulard, a prominent French sociologist, to figure out the Church’s pastoral challenges as Cambodia headed for rapid urbanization in line with a nationalist policy where the people in rural areas including minorities remained overlooked.

In the spirit of Vatican II’s liturgical constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, Bishop Ramousse emphasized inculturation of the liturgy and ordered priests to celebrate liturgy in the local language. He replaced the study of Vietnamese with Khmer for new missionaries in 1966. Christian religious texts including the Ordinary of the Mass were composed in Khmer and the Bible was translated into Khmer. 

Bishop Ramousse founded the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia (CELAC) in 1968 with two Lao bishops — Monsignor Arnaud of MEP and Monsignor Loosdregt, an Oblate — whom he met during Vatican II.

One of the major projects of CELAC bishops was to exchange the Church’s ideas and knowledge with Buddhism, enabling priests, religious and laypeople to find a new meaning for the Church’s mission in a non-Christian environment.

Bishop Ramousse also made great efforts to localize the Church. Following the ordination of several Khmer priests, he worked with the Vatican to create the apostolic prefectures of Battambang and Kampong Cham in 1968. He played an instrumental role in establishing a major seminary in Chrouy Changvar, a district northeast of Phnom Penh. He appointed professors in the seminary who were fluent in the Khmer language.

Bishop Yves Ramousse. (Photo: Paris Foreign Missions Society)

War and exile

The budding Cambodian Church faced an existential crisis as political upheaval led to the Khmer Rouge takeover. During its genocidal regime of 1975-79, about two million Cambodians were killed by political executions, disease, hunger and forced labor.

While carrying out a reign of terror, the murderous communist regime of Pol Pot banned all religious activities including Buddhism and Christianity. Foreigners including Vietnamese and Europeans were either expelled or forced to flee.

Amid the oppression, the Christian community withered away, falling from an estimated 65,000 to only about 7,000. As foreigners started departing, Bishop Ramousse made a last-ditch attempt to stay put with the remaining missionaries.

Finally, he was forced into exile in April 1975. Shortly before he left, he secretly ordained Father Joseph Chhmar Salas as coadjutor bishop of Phnom Penh so that local faithful were not without a bishop. Bishop Salas died of exhaustion in a Khmer Rouge forced labor camp in 1977.

Bishop Ramousse was heartbroken to leave his people and soon moved to Indonesia to be close to Cambodia and to look after Cambodian refugees.

The exile hurt Bishop Ramousse and he once told his colleagues: “Exile is the denial of being sent on a mission. We are rejected as something unnecessary. So, we are faced with a void. Many missionaries have fallen into depression because they have never been able to fill that void.”

Return and rebuilding the Church

In 1989, Bishop Ramousse visited Cambodia as a team member of the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development. He was saddened to find the Church in a shambles and the cathedral destroyed.

He walked into the streets to seek out Christians. A Christian woman recognized him and asked him secretly to meet in a restaurant. Bishop Ramousse was delighted to meet a handful of Christians there and formed a committee, marking a new beginning for the community.

The Paris Agreement of 1991 marked the end of civil war and Cambodia’s new constitution of 1993 restored the monarchy of King Norodom Sihanouk. Bishop Ramousse was reinstated as the apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh in 1992.

The prelate visited the king in 1993 and sought support to rebuild the Church. The leaders enjoyed a warm relationship that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the Vatican in 1994.

Thanks to his efforts, the Cambodian government accepted the legal status of the Catholic Church as a religious entity, not regarding it as an NGO.

Bishop Ramousse helped thousands of refugees from Vietnam who formed the basis of the reincarnated Church. He appointed locals to important posts and allowed to them to lead the rebuilding of the Church. He also focused on the formation of diocesan clergy to help the Church grow.  

He retired in 2001 and another MEP priest, Emile Destombes, succeeded him. He remained in Cambodia until 2013 and led a simple life as a loving pastor in a parish of Sihanoukville. He helped in the parish, guided priests and laity, and looked after the retreat center.

In 2015, he retired to Montbeten, France, where he continued to pray for the people of Cambodia before breathing his last.

About 20,000 Catholics in Cambodia today bear testimony to the missionary legacy of Bishop Ramousse.

This article uses material from Eglises D’Asie (Churches in Asia), a website of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society).

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