PIME missionary describes Destombes as a "white martyr" for the Church in Cambodia

For Fr. Mario Ghezzi, "a saint" passed away, someone "that our Church is desperately in need of." The vicar emeritus "gave his life" for the country where he rebuilt the local Catholic community, starting "from the streets". For priests and missionaries, he "was a father", a "simple, yet true shepherd" who harboured a "passion for the mission."

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - "The white martyr of the Church in Cambodia died and was born again as the country and its people did. He died when he was expelled after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975, and was reborn when he celebrated a solemn Mass before thousands of people after his return,” said Fr Mario Ghezzi, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), citing “a young Cambodian" who talked to him about Mgr Emile Destombes, apostolic vicar from 2001 to 2010, who died yesterday at the age of 80.

For Cambodian Catholics (vigil pictured), the death of the priest and bishop responsible for reviving the Christian presence in the country is a source of great sorrow. But for the PIME missionary, there is something more. “Yesterday,” Fr Ghezzi said, “as I reflected upon his life and death I thought that a saint has died, a figure our Church is desperately in need of."

Fr Ghezzi began his mission in Cambodia in 2000, just before Mgr Émile Destombes was appointed apostolic vicar to Phnom Penh. The latter had pioneered the revival of the mission in a country left socially, economically and religiously devastated by the vicious Maoist revolutionaries.

"He gave his life for the evangelisation in Cambodia,” said the PIME missionary. “He was a simple man, humble, a witness to the Gospel who wanted a simple Church for simple people.”

As the first foreign priest to return to the country after the ravages of the Khmer Rouge, he revived the mission by walking the streets of Phnom Penh, hoping to meet some Christians.

"This is how he started again, in the streets,” Fr Ghezzi noted, “bringing together the few Christians he met, to celebrate the first Eucharist together. "

"He was my first bishop,” the Italian missionary explained, “and I remember him as a father. As a priest, he had a real fatherly attitude, a human face, in addition to being deeply good and unassuming. Perhaps because of these qualities, which fit well with the country’s soul, he was very popular among Cambodians. He was also flexible, and could adapt, in spite of his French origin.”

Mgr Destombes was a “true shepherd, a simple man, who did not like red tape, all those meetings. Instead, he preferred to reach out to individuals and single communities, looking everyone in the eye." He "sought to meet others with simplicity," noted the PIME missionary, who often had lunch with him at the vicariate.

 "He loved to talk about his life, his return to Cambodia,” Ghezzi said. “His greatest wish was to see a united Church, a Gospel rooted in people’s hearts, a Church that bore witness. The Catholic community here re-started from scratch and it did so with him.”

"His legacy,” said Fr Ghezzi, “is the ability to adapt to the Cambodian mentality, even though he was still very French. The same goes for his meekness, his reliance on the spirit, on providence. He was not a man who knew or wanted to plan, and this helped him especially in the early years, in the Church’s reconstruction phase.” 

The tragic encounter with the Khmer Rouge was indelibly imprinted in the bishop’s memory, who went into the streets to meet them when they entered Phnom Penh. The Maoist revolutionaries, Fr Ghezzi said, citing Mgr Destombes’ story, "did not even give him the time to get his passport before taking him to the French embassy where, for three weeks, together with 3,000 more people, he waited to see whether he would come through the gates alive or dead."

Last but not least, there is his relationship of friendship and respect with the missionaries, which developed over time. "He was always very friendly towards us,” said one PIME priest. “Between the MEP and PIME there was a relationship ... of cousins! His was a true passion for the mission, which everyone knows. He was a man of great empathy, who welcomed you with open arms."