10/20/2004, 00.00
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Between salvation and gratitude, Christ in Cambodia

by Lorenzo Fazzini

A missioner describes how he announces the Eucharist in a Buddhist world.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The Eucharist is a distinctive sign that sets Catholics apart. It is the source of life for the Church, a concrete experience of God freely giving himself to us. This is how a Cambodia-based missioner described the Eucharist to AsiaNews as Cambodian Catholics experience it in a predominantly Buddhist context.

Fr Gerald Vogin, from the Missions étrangères de Paris (MEP), has been a missioner in Cambodia since 1992. In 1995, he became parish priest in Kompong Cham (a city with 150,000 people in the eastern part of the country). In Cambodia, there are 4,000 Catholics out of 4 million people; one in one thousand.

A native of Bordeaux (France), Father Vogin lives out his mission in a country with a Buddhist majority, a country marked by a past of anti-Christian persecution by the Khmer Rouges.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he told us about the life of his Cambodian church, the central place the Eucharist has in the lives of Catholics, the attraction of Christianity and the meaning of mission in a Buddhist country.

The Pope proclaimed the Year of the Eucharist. How does the Eucharist touch the lives of Buddhist converts to Christianity?

One thing that distinguishes Christianity from Buddhism is without a doubt the notion of thanksgiving. In Buddhism, ach person is alone and no one can help others to save themselves. A convert to Christianity discovers that although he or she may have done nothing deserving and may have in fact many sins to account for they still receive boundless love and find that their lives are considered precious. Former Buddhists are truly moved by this because in Buddhist culture, life is about suffering and sadness. By contrast, Christians proclaim that life is a gift from God and this comes as a shock.

Buddhism clearly differentiates suffering from reason. If you suffer you have done something wrong. When Christians receive the body and blood of Christ they feel intimately touched by God's love, something they may feel they do not deserve. If Buddhism tells you, you get what you deserve, Christianity says that you freely receive salvation and thank God for it. Christians are happier for salvation and give thanks in the Eucharistic celebration.

What does it mean for you to be a missioner?

It means connecting with those who seek hope and meaning in life. At times, I feel like Peter in the Temple when confronted by the crippled begging him for help. When Cambodians ask me for meaning I tell them: "I give you Christ. You can be certain you can live with Him". And every day people come to ask me about Christianity and Christ. As a missioner, this is rewarding.

How important is the Eucharist in your life as a missioner?

The Eucharist is something concrete that Christians experience every day and every week. It is their way to regularly meet Christ and in doing so they form the community of His disciples.

For missioners like me, it truly signifies the Church.

Right away, we try to teach our catechumens that Christians meet to read the Word of God and, on every Sunday, celebrate the Eucharist. We teach them that this is done not because there is a priest but because Christ beckons them every Sunday.

As a missioner I experience the Eucharist in a special way because I am twice a foreigner; foreigner by nationality and foreigner by cultural and religious identity.

Sometimes, missionary life entails that after the initial enthusiastic response crisis sets in. This happened to me and for this reason I pushed myself to live the true Eucharist which is trail in which we go from death to life. This is not mere theory; it is concrete experience.

Finally, celebrating the Eucharist empowers you because it links us to every reality: to God, man, the world, every religion, history and creation. I remember a sentence from St Theresa of the Child Jesus who said that "in the Eucharist, I have everything: butterfly and mountain. [in the Eucharist], I am missioner and martyr".

What is the most effective aspect of Christianity in your mission in Cambodia?

People see how Christians live and are surprised by the ways they help each other. Today's Cambodia is deeply scarred by the violence of the past. The current hopelessness and poverty are rooted in it. Circumstances are such that they encourage people to only look out for themselves. Consequently, non Christians marvel at how we help one another.

A Buddhist man told me: "In the church I see people talking to each other and helping one another". In one village, two women told me that they "wanted to stay with the Christians not to become Christian but because you people live better and are happier. We can read a great joy on your faces". Now they regularly attend church.

Many converts told me that "I was too poor to be Buddhist". In fact, to be a good Buddhist, people must give a lot of money to the Buddhist monks in the pagodas to enhance your karma. This obligation is driving many people away from their old religion. They come to church where they discover a community that offers them free help, a place where they can meet people for whom money and honours are not values by which man is judged.

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