Rome (AsiaNews) – John Paul II was a “symbol and image of a free man”. Because he was free, “on several occasions he brushed aside official protocol”. He met many leaders, like Fidel Castro and General Jaruzelski, and bore witness to his faith, said Mgr Olivier Michel Marie Schmitthaeusler, apostolic vicar in Phnom Penh, as he spoke about the late pope.
Currently in Rome for the beatification ceremony of Polish-born pontiff, the French prelate, born in Strasbourg in 1970, said that the Cambodian Church is very much alive. In fact, this was an “exceptional” year, with 300 new baptisms, not to mention the quest for spirituality and religious meaning by many young people in the countryside.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the 41-year-old prelate shared some personal memories about John Paul II. He also talked about the Catholic Church in Cambodia, a nation that is “changing rapidly”, following the years of Khmer Rouge bloodshed and decades of socio-economic stagnation.
“The pope accompanied my life,” he noted, “from childhood to the priesthood. I saw in him to role model, the symbol of a free man.” The liveliest memory he has of the man is that of “shaking his hand” in Rome in 1987 “when I reached over the barrier to greet him”.
He saw him again at a youth meeting in Strasbourg’s Meinau Stadium. On that occasion, “he told us, ‘You are free’, ‘the love you receive is a gift’.” The, “a round of applause broke out, with people shouted his name repeatedly”.
For the Cambodian Church, the Polish-born pope is simply “John Paul”. Many Catholics “who never saw him in person, still mention his name with affection”.
Leaders of other religions liked him and still do, people like Phnom Penh’s Buddhist patriarch. “He has a negative view of Christianity,” the apostolic vicar said, “because of his contacts with Protestants. However, the meeting with John Paul II gave him a positive image of Catholics and the Church of Rome”.
We have prepared “images, posters and banners” to celebrate the beatification, the prelate said. There will also be “a power point presentation of his life in the local language”.
“We have translated the first part of the movie ‘Karol’, and are waiting for the second part,” he added. What is more, “all of our parishes and churches will hold moments of prayer for John Paul over the weekend. Vocations Day will be celebrated under his patronage.”
Speaking about the Church in Cambodia, Mgr Schmitthaeusler said that it might be small, but that this has been “an exceptional year, with 300 new baptisms, 137 just Phnom Penh”.
Most conversions were in the countryside where “young people are touched by the Word of God,” but for vocations, “more time is needed.”
As for proclaiming the Word, the “work of missionaries” is fundamental. They help local clergy, which is being re-established “after the massacres carried out by Pol Pot” in the 1970s.
Cambodian society still bears the scars left by the Khmer Rouge revolution, which sought to create a “new” man but ended up slaughtering a fourth of the population between 1975 and 1979.
An historical appraisal of those events is still hard to do because “Asian nations do not have a sense of history.” Even in Cambodia, “there is no culture of analysing the past” and provide a critical assessment that would help improve the present.
After many years of stagnation, the nation opened up to change in 2000. New technologies arrived, innovation took place and the economy began to grow.
“In Cambodia, we went from 0 to 10,” Mgr Schmitthaeusler said, “without any intermediate phases. For instance, if before we had no phones, now we have mobile phones, without building a land-based network.”
Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, which experienced “a more progressive development,” Cambodia saw “the destruction of spiritual life under Pol Pot”, followed “by rapid societal change” that must still be assimilated.
For this reason, the Catholic Church has “three main tasks,” the apostolic vicar said. First, it must proclaim Christ and his words. Second, it must be a force for liberation, stressing that life is priceless. And third, it must contribute to society’s development, focusing on education.
In fact, Mgr Schmitthaeusler has a long experience in the field of education, and played an important role in setting a new educational facility for rural or poor students (see “PIME missionary: Saint Paul Institute a centre of excellence for education in Cambodia,” in AsiaNews, 17 March 2010).
“For the country, intellectual and school training are of the essence, small steps that show hope,” the prelate said.