06/11/2004, 00.00
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Young people, unsatisfied with Buddhism, are converting to Christianity


Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – Father Mario Ghezzi, PIME, a priest and missionary in Cambodia for the last four years is the pastor at Beng Tom Pun, a suburb of the capital. He also serves at the seminary as the spiritual director for the three Cambodian seminarians who are currently in preparation for the priesthood.


What kind of Church did you find in Cambodia?


It is a church which is young in its faith and made up of young people, who constitute the vast majority of Cambodian Catholics. For example, in my parish Sunday Mass, there are 200 people. There are only fifteen adults; all the rest are young people who are less than 25 years old. Of these, 100 are catechumens.


How does the predominance of young people have an impact on the pastoral life?


The Church in Cambodia is open to the future and rich in enthusiasm. The young people live their faith in Jesus with a strong commitment. The decision to ask for baptism and to become Catholics puts them in marked contrast with the Buddhist culture.


For example?


A young man who was baptized recently and is full of enthusiasm told me: "When I speak of my conversion, my fellow students at the university call me a traitor to the nation." In the Cambodian mentality, a Khmer is necessarily a Buddhist. If he converts, he becomes a traitor to the country.


Does the predominance of youth create problems for the Church?


There is a bit of a generation gap and conflict with the older ones. The young people have that fragility and weakness that typifies youth and they do not have as a background the tradition and the adult community and maturity of faith. However, this is stimulating because it forces the young people to take on responsibilities and to form themselves well. The catechumenate lasts for three years. Every Sunday there is the Eucharist and catechesis. Anyone who is not deeply convinced will not be baptized.


How do these young people come to know the faith?


Often it is just by chance: a friendship, an acquaintance, or a meeting. Otherwise, there is school. At Phnom Penh there is a institute which was established by a French couple and welcomes two thousand children saved from working in the city dump. Some of these children hear about Jesus and become interested in the faith and begin to attend church. Others come to know missionaries, for example in the refugee camps. Christian charity is very striking to many Buddhists.


How do young people live with the memory of the genocide of Pol Pot?


They don't talk about it. No one does, not even adults. The wound of the that drama is still open and no one wants to touch the topic.


What is it that encourages a young Buddhist to become interested in Jesus?


Buddhism doesn't have answers to the basic human questions. People usually say, "Whatever happens to you comes from your karma."

All is determined by fate. Young people find this fatalistic vision of life objectionable. Christianity speaks of freedom and responsibility, and this has a liberating power for young people. The young Buddhists who become Christians undergo a true interior revolution. Anyway, I think that every conversion is a mystery. On Easter night I baptized 12 catechumens. I asked myself, "Why these and not others?" To me they are the "fish" of the Holy Spirit. Another mystery is the fact that until 1970 there were no conversions among the Khmers; conversions began with the reconstruction of the church in 1990.


What aspect of the gospel was most striking to the catechumens that you have baptized?              


Christian love and pardon. A young man told me, "when I heard for the first time about how Jesus washed their feet at the last supper, I said to myself: there is love that is pure, unselfish, and total" Another girl told me: "For me, the sign of peace at Mass is a very powerful sign: everyone  there looks on the others as brothers and sisters and forgives one another.



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