03/13/2014, 00.00
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Phnom Penh bishop: as Pope Francis says, "the Church in Cambodia is poor for the poor"

For Mgr Schmitthaeusler, the pope's appeal "to charity, fraternity and poverty" is a daily experience. In August, 30 young Cambodians will travel to Korea where they will meet the pope at the Asian Youth Day. The bishop asks for prayers for the 106 catechumens who will be baptised at Easter. He also renews with a three-year programme dedicated to charity.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis has "brought back" to the Church those who had previously "left it". He has been able to give it a "new image," and this has had a "major impact," especially in the West". In Cambodia, we live "daily his appeal to charity, fraternity and poverty," according to the principle of the Church "of the poor, for the poor," said Mgr Olivier Michel Marie Schmitthaeusler, apostolic vicar of Phnom Penh, who spoke with AsiaNews to mark the first anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio's election as 'bishop of Rome'.

For Bishop Schmitthaeusler, who was born in 1970 in Strasbourg, France, this everyday reality is inhabited by people who live "without water, without electricity, without jobs;" members of "a Catholic Church, 80 per cent of whom are first-generation".

Through major events such as the Conclave, and the pope's election, they "experienced more closely the universal dimension of the Church" and began to "feel part of thousands of years of history." Still, it takes time to "join and understand," bishop explained.

"The participation of 30 young Cambodians to Asian Youth Day, with Pope Francis, will be an important experience for their personal growth and that of the entire community, which they will share with other boys and girls once they come home," Mgr Schmitthaeusler said.

This month, the Apostolic Vicariate to Phnom Penh began the Lenten journey. As part of this, a ceremony was held on Sunday, 9 March, for the election of 106 catechumens who are preparing to receive baptism on Easter Day.

"This is an important moment for the whole diocese," he explained, "and it is important that the community support them in this journey, praying for them."

Speaking about the initiatives associated with the Year of the Charity that were announced for 2014 but which will carry over three years until 2016, Mgr Schmitthaeusler noted, "In the letter addressed to the community, I called on people to take time to come together, reflect, and pray for charity".

The prelate also focused on Pope Francis' Lenten message, centred "on material, moral and spiritual poverty," which calls for "acts of sharing, and attention to God's Word."

Like the pope, "I asked people to pray for those who will be baptised at Easter."

Over the next three years, the problems of society will be analysed and priorities and needs will be set. Indeed, the next step, the bishop said, will be about education, with in-depth studies of passages from Gaudium et Spes," Benedict XVI's (first) encyclical Deus Caritas Est (on charity) and "the meaning of charity for us Christians".

Lastly, the third year will be devoted to action. Each community, in line with its own charism and capabilities, will develop concrete initiatives in various fields.

In Cambodia, the Church has been active in the field of education for quite some time. Over the years, it has established 26 kindergartens, and 15 primary schools for poor Vietnamese children living in the capital, as well as the St Francis High School and the Saint Paul Institute, a centre of excellence that already has 400 students.

In a largely Buddhist country (93 per cent), Christians are a small minority (2 per cent); yet Christian charities play their role at a time of intense political and social conflict.

In a couple of weeks, said Mgr Schmitthaeusler, "the government and the opposition are expected to sit down to amend the electoral law." Meanwhile, workers threaten new strikes, with many fearing even more heavy-handed repression in the wake of last January's riots.

Yet, for the prelate, the real problem are "soaring prices", from food to housing; a situation that weighs even more on people surviving at the edge, the "20 per cent living below the poverty line and the 50 per cent that is barely making it, and will likely slip further down in case of illness or accident".

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