After four years, the PIME missionary has returned to the Southeast Asian nation. It is going through a critical moment: in recent years, economic growth has projected it towards modernity. But the Catholics have not changed. "There is a communion of life between priests and laity, who together establish and trace the path to be traveled".
Siem Reap (AsiaNews) - Economic progress in recent years has changed places, roads and landscapes but the small Church of Cambodia is "always very young, dynamic, alive," says Fr. Franco Legnani (photo). The priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) returned to the Southeast Asian country a few months ago. Originating from Saronno, the 61-year-old already spent from 1994 to 2014 on mission there, before being called to become rector of the PIME generalate in Rome. The missionary returned to Cambodia early last January and since March he is in Siem Reap, capital of the homonymous northwestern province.
The young Cambodian society is going through a critical moment: in recent years, economic growth has projected the country, linked to a strong rural tradition, towards modernity. This has brought about strong changes in the daily life of the population, especially the new generations. But the consequences of the strong economic impulse do not seem to have changed the Catholics: "I have found a Church that is still very young, dynamic, alive - emphasizes Fr. Legnani - the Catholic community is joyful, beautiful to look at. The laity are very responsible. There is a communion of life between priests and laity, who together establish and trace the path to be traveled ".
Despite the great participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, there are still many challenges . "Among these is building unity between Cambodian Catholics (Khmer) and those of Vietnamese origin, still viewed with suspicion. It is a very difficult path, because of the 25-28 thousand Christians in the country, two thirds belong to the latter group. In Siem Reap we try to solve the problem by paying equal attention to the two communities, through a charity that is for everyone and that involves everyone. This is able to respond to both material and existential poverty and everyone makes their own contribution ".
Siem Reap, Ta Om, Oddar Meanchey, Prek Toal and Kompong Kleang: these are the communities entrusted to Fr. Legnani's care on his second Cambodian mission. "From September - he points out - I will deal in particular with two areas: Ta Om and Oddar Meanchey, a northern province where there is no Christian presence. Through teamwork, we will try to start from scratch in the capital Samraong . We also follow a community in Prek Toal, on the banks of the Tonlé Sap lake. We have another one of new formation north of the temple area (Angkor Wat), in a remote and rural area: it is called Peak Sneng and welcomes about twenty Catholic families. Here is the "Jesu farm" , the first sign of the Christian experience in the area. Finally, there is Kompong Kleang, there are no faithful in this area but we run a kindergarten for the literacy of the children there".
The arrival of the missionary brought several changes to the local religious life. "Thanks to one more priest, the faithful of Ta Om (70km northwest of Siem Reap) can take part in a Sunday mass. Before, the function was celebrated only on Tuesday, " says Fr. Legnani. Ta Om is a very significant place for the Catholic presence in the country. "It is home to the oldest church in all of Cambodia" - he explains. "The building dates back to the early twentieth century and still bears the marks of war. In 1938 over 700 Christians there lived, but in 1994 there was no one left: some left, others lost their lives during the civil war or the Khmer Rouge regime. Today the community has been reborn through new people and around its ancient church (photo) ".
An interesting aspect is that the community of Ta Om is growing through the conversions of the elderly and not of young people. "The local people live off rice production, because the river is no longer full of fish as it used to be. The rice field is a job that leaves a lot of free time, so adults take advantage of the proximity of the border to go and look for work in Thailand and leave their children to their parents. Thanks to the assistance and meetings organized by the Church, these elders have begun to want to know Jesus: many grandmothers participate with the grandchildren. In Cambodia, people of advanced age play a very important social role. The hope is that they will succeed in transmitting the faith even to future generations. For us, the elderly are so important that we are thinking of setting up a house for them within the parish complex ”.
At the moment, the PIME missionary and Fr. Totet divides the tasks, so that each of the villages is followed properly. The centers are different and each of them requires a particular approach. "Siem Reap is a tourist resort, where an international Catholic community meets. I, Fr. Totet and Fr. Jub (another Thai Jesuit who helps us) we also take care of these foreigners with visits and masses in English. As for the Cambodian population, we run a hostel for young people and students with the sisters. We have also recently started another important program: a family assistance center. A lay couple takes care of it: Mab, a psychology graduate, and his wife Srey Leak. The two organize meetings or seminars on different days, during which they deal with different themes: relationships between man and woman, reconciliation, relationships between parents and children. The couples who take part in it are not all Catholic, so these initiatives can become a form of evangelization. Our desire is to increasingly involve young families in the project, so that the meetings are a time of growth for a greater number of people. Communication and evangelization is entrusted to them. I am convinced that my work and that of Fr. Totet is above all spiritual, in support of faith. But the transmission of the latter belongs to our people ”.
The story of Mab and his wife Leak is an example, he adds. "They could not have children. In Cambodia, having a child is much more important than we Westerners can imagine: the new generations are responsible for the transmission of the name, the continuation of life, support in old age. Because of this, Leak used to tell Mab: 'Find another woman, so you can have children. I'm not able to give them to you. Mab replied: 'No, I promised you fidelity for my whole life: I will stay with you forever'. The young man wrote a four-page letter to the Our Lady. When I brought a heavy statue of the Virgin to Siem Reap, Mab hid his message under the sculpture. Meanwhile, Fr. Totet went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and prayed for this family at the Holy Sepulcher. Shortly thereafter, Leak became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful girl named Mary. This miracle shows how faith takes on a Cambodian face, becoming flesh through these families. They are the evangelizers ". (PF)