PIME missionary from Argentina to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to rebuild the Church
by Dario Salvi
Fr. Gustavo Adrian Benitez is the first Argentine priest of PIME. He arrived in Cambodia in 2000, and there decided to become a missionary and dedicate his life to spreading the Gospel in the Asian country. He speaks of a young and active Church, which "is open to all" and invites all to come and experience an “encounter”. And he wins over Buddhists for the "Community dimension".

Rome (AsiaNews) - The outlook for the coming years is of "steady growth" and this is "the beauty for us priests: being part of rebuilding the Church and giving it a fully Cambodian face ". This is what Fr. Gustavo Adrian Benitez, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) tells AsiaNews.  Originally from Argentina, he has been in the Asian country for 13 years first as a layman and then as a priest. Born in 1972 in Resistencia, in the north-east, today he is in charge of the Child Jesus Parish in Phnom Penh. The first Argentinean priest of PIME, he learned the values ​​of faith at home in his family, so much so that even his brother Nestor is a diocesan priest.

Fr. Gustavo has had experience as a missionary in different areas of South America, then Canada, and finally Asia: Hong Kong, Davao in the Philippines and then Cambodia, where he collaborated with New Humanity, an NGO linked to the PIME. In 2002 he decided to dedicate his life to the priesthood and mission. He is overjoyed at Pope Francis' election, who "reminds all of us that it is the task of every Christian to preach the Word of God." Cambodians admire the Catholic Church or its "Community dimension, its openness and invitation to an encounter." To give shape to a community that is increasingly identified "with the Cambodian people and increasingly finds the strength to stand on its own two feet."

Here, below, is the AsiaNews interview with Fr. Gustavo Adrian Benitez

You Argentinian, like Pope Francis. What does his election mean for the mission of the Church?

A Pope who comes from Latin America, a continent that has experienced both evangelization and colonization firsthand, which experienced the arrival of the missionaries, is of great value. He reminds us all that it is the task of every Christian to preach the Word of God, a task that it is not only restricted to priests, but belongs to every baptized person, because the missio ad gentes involves all of us, priests and laity. Latin America and Argentina can give much in terms of mission, because they have received so much in history,  over the past centuries. Today, the South American Church is ready to step outside herself and reach out to others, even if there remains a fundamental attitude of closure. In this sense, we hope that the example of Pope Francis can be valuable and stimulating. Even from the documents of the bishops of South America comes this powerful invitation to mission.

For John Paul II, Asia was the "task" for the third millennium. How important is the work of evangelization?

It is a task and a priority for the Church, especially in Cambodia. In spite of a presence than stretches back a hundred years, it has faced enormous trials such as war, the drama and violence of the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, then a quarter of a century in which the Church was almost absent and empty. In these lands that look to the east, the presence of Catholics and Christian values ​​have a huge significance.

What is the contribution of Catholics to Cambodian society?
One of the things that the Cambodians admires most about us Catholics is the Community dimension. Buddhism is a religion with a strong private sphere, where salvation comes often from themselves. For us, however, communion and togetherness gives meaning to Christ's Resurrection. A young woman from Phnom Penh began the catechumenate precisely after discovering this community dimension of Catholics, with the desire to see it up close. It is a dimension of charity open to all, that moves and invites people to reach out to one another.

How has the Cambodian Church changed from 2000 to today?
The Cambodian Church has changed a lot in the past 13 years. Since 2000, when I arrived as a lay volunteer, to date the number of believers has grown a lot and every year we see at least a hundred new adult baptisms. A fact that testifies to the enormous amount of work that involves us priests, along with the catechists and lay people in general. Moreover, the important fact is that the local church is taking "shape" as a Cambodian Church, not as foreign or as "external" element. More and more the faith is identified with the Cambodian people, as a growing reality, a Church that is going from strength to strength and can stand on its own two feet.

How important is the Church as a bridge between faiths, cultures and ethnic groups?
There is a strong national identity in Cambodia, so much so that as soon as you arrive in the country you notice three distinctive signs: religion, nation, and kingdom. These are elements that are often repeated, even by the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] in official speeches. Here the role of the Church and Catholics as a bridge becomes more and more important, even if difficult. The theme of inculturation is also at stake, with a delicate balance between the Church, local and universal, and Cambodian culture. We are in the period of the resurrection of the Church in Cambodia, although there are few priests and seminarians (five so far in Phnom Penh). However, the outlook for the coming years is growing and this is "the beauty for us priests: being part of rebuilding the Church and giving it a fully Cambodian face.