11/02/2016, 15.26
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PIME missionary: Pope Francis in Sweden and meeting Protestants

by Luca Bolelli

Fr Luca Bolelli, a PIME missionary in Cambodia for nine years, talks about his experience with American and Korean groups: their "missionary style" and misunderstandings; common prayers and positive experiences. "There is sympathy between our communities." The meeting of the Pope with the Lutherans is "a milestone in the ecumenical journey".

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Speaking about Pope Francis’s visit to Sweden, Fr Luca Bolelli – a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Cambodia for nine years – told AsiaNews about his meeting with the country’s Protestant communities. Amid biases and misunderstandings, one can experience “a healthy inspiration for unity”.

In my own small way, I have been trying to live the ecumenical journey that we hope will take us back to the visible Unity of the Church. One of the milestones of this journey, for me, was the ecumenical celebration of Vespers by Pope Benedict in the Gutenberg church. Now comes Pope Francis’s visit to Sweden.

Here in Cambodia, we Catholics, who before the war represented the majority of Christians, have become less visible in the past few years with the arrival of numerous Protestant communities (first from the United States, and now especially from Korea). Cambodians first come into contact with Christianity through these groups. Generally, we are perceived as a single religion, Mormons (who are growing in Cambodia) included.

Ordinary people do not see much difference, like in Italy where, mutatis mutandis, people often se no difference between various Muslim denominations and certainly not with respect to Buddhism. Although this can favour a certain ecumenism, it leads to lumping everybody together. Even here, "fundamentalists" become the poster boys of Christianity, from whom one has often to differentiate oneself by giving explanations that are not always understood.

When I started my service as parish priest in the community of Kdol Leu, I had a somewhat abrupt impact with the place. At that time, fluorescent yellow signs could be seen everywhere with inscriptions in Cambodian saying ‘Jesus is your saviour’ or ‘Jesus saves you from sin’. They were made of tin, preferably nailed to trees. There was more. Some jeeps went around with megaphones repeating messages of this type, from village to village, showing movies about the life of Jesus.

I remember one morning, when I was in the street, I saw one of those vehicles drive into the compound of the elementary School. The school had been built by our Christian community more than 20 years earlier. Ours is in fact a Catholic village.

When I saw the car, I rushed too to see what they were going to do. I arrived when they were leaving the school holding posters showing the history of salvation and booklets with the same pictures.

I introduced myself and asked what they were doing, and they told me they were helping poor children by distributing notebooks. In fact, they had handed out a notebook to each, but the notebook came with booklets. In the meantime, they showed the posters, saying in a few minutes how we got from Creation to Redemption, and how we were bound for Judgment Day.

This type of evangelisation in public places is strictly banned by the government and every Church must sign a declaration of assent. When I pointed this out, I was told that they were simply proclaiming the Gospel.

The discussion went on like this, until I realised that we were not going to get very far. I tried to end in a fraternal manner the discussion to avoid causing a commotion in front of the (Muslim) headmaster and the (Christian and Buddhist) teachers watching the scene. A well-dressed Korean man was behind the wheel of the car. I later found out that they too ha been involved with putting up the yellow signs, which the kids used for target practice with their slingshots. Some adults removed the signs (as I did myself) because we could not bear seeing the name of Jesus shot at.

It is easy to see why this way of doing things is very irritating to other religious groups, in particular to Buddhists (90 per cent of the population) whose faith is the state religion. They feel attacked by Christians. I had further confirmation of this feeling a few weeks ago when, on a visit to a pagoda, I stopped to talk to a Buddhist monk, who repeated to me, in a very quiet way, that itis not appropriate to propagate one’s religion by forcing others (Christians are often accused of buying conversions, and more than once I was asked: "How much will you give me if I become a Christian?"), and much less to speak ill of other religious proposals (which is one of the charges more or less levelled against us).

Nevertheless, there are also positive experiences. For example, some time ago a meeting was held with the (Cambodian) pastor of the Stung Trong Church (an independent church, supported by Australian friends), located in the town where we have our Student Centre. The meeting had both unpleasant and comic elements.  

I had met with the pastor to arrange a-get-acquainted visit and show fraternity so that we could recognise that, despite history and differences, we had a single faith. On the afternoon of the meeting, I came to his church along with members of my pastoral council, and what did I find on the pastor's table? A set of photocopies titled ‘All the mistakes of Catholics’.

At that moment, the pastor was on the phone, and I took the opportunity to peek at the papers. They had just been printed, with no signs of having been read, and this reduced my anger mixed with bitterness. When the pastor finally came to meet me, I pointed out to him that the papers were not exactly the best way to start an ecumenical meeting. He responded by saying that he had not yet read them and that if I wanted I could take them. I joked that I knew my mistakes all too well!

The next meeting went well: we read, prayed and commented together 'one Lord, one faith', a passage in Ephesians 4. But even then, there was a small unpleasant moment for me, but comical on the whole. When the pastor introduced the passage, his Protestant believers, each with his or her own Bible, quickly found the passage; the members of my Catholic pastoral council, holding the Bible I had handed out just before the meeting (I had put a marker on the right place, naively hoping that that would be enough ...), did not know how to find it. One even asked aloud: "Old or New Testament?". In front of me, she justified herself by saying that "there is the New and the Old Testament". Another one asked me in a very distinct voice: "What page, Father?" Amen!

However, the meeting proved fruitful, because it generated sympathy between our communities, which continues to this day. The pastor once told me that he envied Catholics’ ability to stand together (his community has had two small schisms in recent years), I confessed to him that I envied their missionary zeal. Once he got to me when he told me that he is happy because, thanks to their efforts going from village to village, everyone was able to hear about Jesus in the district. It is must be noted that this pastor is a Buddhist who converted to Christianity who, a few years after his adult baptism, decided to come to Stung Trong knowing that at that time there was not yet a Christian community. In reality, we were already there, but only with a few students living together.

The meeting with Tim and Barbara was instead a success. The US couple arrived in Cambodia about six years ago, in the footsteps of a dynamic Italian-American Baptist missionary who for several years has worked evangelising among the Cham (a large Muslim ethnic group). After trying unsuccessfully in a Cham village, Tim and Barbara settled among ethnic Khmer not far from Stung Trong.

We met them and I invited them to speak to the youth of our Student Centre. They attended one of our regular dinner and evening prayer, and at the end they told us their story and why they came to Cambodia. Our young people were very attentive and asked several questions. The atmosphere was very fraternal, and there were no frictions, on the contrary. They left us with a desire to continue this kind of meetings, maybe just the three of us, reading the Gospel together. I experienced this during my second year of language study, when I lived in Prey Veng with Fr Alberto Caccaro. Every month, we tried to take part in an ecumenical moment organised by an Englishman.

Finally, two days from now I shall take part in a seminar organised by the Bible Society on ‘Translation of the Scriptures and the Khmer language’. In the various contacts I have had with the Bible Society I experienced a healthy inspiration for unity. The Asian administrator, Rev Arun, a Cambodian, was one of the people behind the new ecumenical translation to which Fr Ponchaud, a Catholic missionary with the Missions étrangères de Paris, made a considerable contribution.

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