Castel Gandolfo (AsiaNews) – Pope Benedict XVI was generous in expressing his encouragement and affection to the bishops of Laos and Cambodia, whom he received in audience today at the end of their ad limina visit.
“When you return to Laos and Cambodia, convey the greetings of Peter’s successor to the priests, men and women religious, catechists and lay people of your communities,” he said.
So much affection for the Churches of these two countries is due to the fact that they are amongst the smallest in Asia; only those reborn in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union are even smaller.
In Laos the Church has 35,000 members, less than 1 per cent of the population of six million. In Cambodia the Church can claim 21,000 members, mostly of Vietnamese origin, out of a population of 12 million.
The Pope urged bishops and priests to work together to overcome the isolation many believers feel as a result of being a member of a small minority.
“Your closeness to the faithful is . . . an encouragement to persevere without fear in the Christian faith and grow in the discovery of the person of Christ in spite of the difficulties of daily life,” the Pontiff said.
Benedict XVI also mentioned the faith “till the heroic gift of life” of many Christians and martyrs in the two countries.
Both communities are still emerging from the shadow of Communist dictatorship (by the Pathet Lao in Laos and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) which wiped out their institutions and clergy in a not so distant past.
Only in the last few years have there been new vocations and the first new ordinations (four in Laos and four in Cambodia).
Benedict XVI urged the bishops to pay close attention to the educational needs of future priests even if it “requires sacrifice elsewhere.”
Another fundamental commitment involves the family, whose values and unity have been sorely tried by past ideological and physical destruction.
Whilst appreciating and expressing high regard for the cultures and religions of the two countries (both predominantly Buddhist), the Pope stressed the importance of explicit witness.
“In the social and religious context of your region," Benedict XVI noted, "it is vitally important that Catholics express their own identity, while always respecting other religious traditions and cultures.”
“In announcing the [Good News] to all the nations, the Church does not seek to impose itself, but tries instead to bear witness to its high regard for man and the society in which he lives.”
This is particularly relevant with regard to Cambodia where a government directive was adopted against “Christian proselytising" in order to regulate and control the activities of foreign Churches.
The measure was largely taken with Protestant Churches in mind—they have been accused of denigrating Buddhism and paying people to convert.
Conversely, the Catholic Church in Cambodia did express appreciation for the directive.
In Laos the Church is under tight state control and is allowed to operate with some leeway in exchange for providing some social assistance to the poor.
The Pope mentioned that whilst involved in helping others the Church’s commitment cannot be reduced to providing assistance alone.
Finally, the Pontiff thanked the “Churches of older evangelisation (including the Italian Church) for their spiritual and economic help in Laos and Cambodia, and foreign missionaries for their commitment to evangelisation and training of the local clergy.
It must be noted though, that in Laos, the authorities have banned all work by foreign missionaries for the past 30 years.