Fr Bolelli, a missionary in Cambodia: Christmas is a period to experience the fullness of time
A certain anxiety is at home in the human heart “before running at the speed of a smartphone or a scooter.” The clergyman offers his thoughts about Christmas in a mission where “The rice fields follow the slow pace of the seasons, not the frenetic pace of hours.” Experiencing time the right way is “one of the most beautiful gifts for Christmas”.
Kdol Leu (AsiaNews) – Fr Luca Bolelli is a 43-year-old missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). From Modena (Italy), he has been in Cambodia for 11 years, serving as the pastor in Kdol Leu, a village on the Mekong River in Tbong Khmum province. He has written a letter to all his friends for Christmas to describe his mission in the Asian country. An edited version of the letter follows.
As the church bell rang, I woke up startled. Mass! I had to be really tired if I failed to hear the alarm clock. However, I also had a strange feeling, as if the night had been shorter than usual . . . I looked at the clock: 3.21! I looked out the window to see what was going on. I saw Pu (uncle) Liu, our tireless guard-bell ringer-jack of all-trades, quietly ringing the bell. He probably got confused again?
I gave up on the idea of stopping him and ask for explanations, also because the bell tower is too far away and experience has taught me that even if I shouted out loud, my voice would be lost among the howls of our dogs, which become the bell’s choir every time it rings. Two long chimes, one after the other, as usual when there is Mass. I waited patiently for the last, trying to imagine what might be going on at the moment in the heads of the people of the village.
Finally, when Pu Liu came back, I tried to ask him, with all the grace typical of those who feel cheated of precious hours of sleep, what happened. He was a bit surprised. Regretful, he mumbled something: probably one of his kids, playing with the phone, must have changed the time for the umpteenth time. I went back to bed, but was all ears for someone to come alerted by the bells ringing at the wrong time . . . but nothing, total silence.
This was not the first time that Pu Liu, in spite of himself, rang the bell at unusual times. The nicest was certainly last year, a few days before Pchum Ben (Ancestors’ Day), the traditional feast of the Dead. Here in Cambodia, it is takes place in Pagodas over fifteen days with rituals and prayers that must be performed before dawn (when the most tormented souls are believed to roam the earth in search for some peace). We too, as Catholic Church, celebrated All Souls' on Pchum Ben, which comes before 2 November. We gather every morning at 4.30 am when it was still dark, for Mass or for a simpler moment of prayer when I couldn’t attend.
I was later told what happened a day when I couldn’t be present. "Father, we all came to church as usual, we prayed as usual, but when we went out, we were surprised: it was still pitch dark. Then one of us looked at the clock ... it was just 4.00! No one had noticed that Pu Liu had rung bells an hour earlier! We laughed and went home."
It is not surprising that no one looked at the time (... and then taken it out against poor Pu Liu!). This is the country and time follows more the movement of the sun than the 'clock. The rice fields follow the slow pace of the seasons, not the frenetic pace of hours. No one has to run to the office or take the train; at most the ferry, which also has no timetables and leaves, more or less, when it is full (sometimes one has to wait a couple of hours before crossing the river).
In these parts, people at best count the hours; minutes and seconds are just a detail. The cook at the nursery school confirmed one day. When I pointed out, with a touch of irony, that it was not five o'clock, as she had said, but six o'clock, she candidly replied: "Father, you don’t look at the minutes; you look at the hours.”
Sometimes, waiting to cross the Mekong, I watch the ferry, docked for hours, relaxed like a big hippo soaking in the river, and I think of the people I've seen in the Milan metro, people who risk getting cut in half by the doors of the carriage just to avoid waiting for another three and a half minutes before the next train! I wonder if we are not on two different planets: is it possible that time has such a different value depending on whether you are at the Piazza Garibaldi metro station or at the Stung Trong ferry dock?
But let’s be honest, even here, on the banks of the Mekong, it has taken very little to get caught up in the frenzy of time. All it took was paving the road to turn everyone into a would-be Valentino Rossi (with a very sad effect on traffic accidents). All it took was installing 3G (which is now 4G and will soon be 5G) for us feel the thrill of travelling at the speed of light around the virtual world, an intoxication that is hard to give up.
Somewhere in the human heart, at whatever latitude, a certain anxiety is at home. As soon as it has the chance, it won’t think twice before running at the speed of a smartphone or a scooter. Thus, it is a question of the heart. And the heart, everyone knows, needs to be educated, learn how to properly manage time. Helping us live the time well would be one of the most beautiful gifts for Christmas!
Speaking about Christmas, I am moved by the Scripture where it says that Jesus was born in the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4). The times were already full 2018 years ago! Full, not because man filled his days with a thousand commitments, but because they had reached their fullness, as pregnant as the womb of a woman, Mary.
The time has finally come for humanity to welcome the Lord of Time. Thousands of years of history, during which the Lord himself, with a peasant’s patience, tenaciously worked on the heart of man so that he may reach maturity.
It is thus time for such fullness. This year, on the night of Christmas, the tolling of our bell will proclaim it again, even if Pu Liu might mix up the hours again.
Merry Christmas everyone!