“Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est”. What a surprise to hear this song from Taizé here in Kampong Ko, a tiny village close by a river near the town of Kampong Thom in the centre of Cambodia. We have been welcomed by a priest friend there who invited us to come with him for Sunday Eucharist. It took us 45 minutes by car to get here, passing through the village where Pol Pot - the leader of the Red Khmer who brought so much suffering to the country – was born. Later the road became very narrow, we passed rice fields, saw the cows enjoying taking baths in the ponds and finally arrived at the church. Before the difficult time of the Khmer Rouge, there was a church built of stone in this village; even a hospital and a school. Then everything changed. The church was destroyed, Christians were faced with violence and threaten with death, and many suffered martyrdom. Now there is no electricity in the village, the river water is used for everything: to wash clothes, to take a bath, even as a source of drinking water. Illnesses related to this are not unusual, explains the priest. Many people have not learned to read and write. So the parish took the initiative to build a school on the parish ground. Hope for a better future.
Life is not easy here and yet we found so much joy. A young man of the parish, who leads the choir, was waiting for us. Some of the young people know Taizé because there were regular prayers with the songs in their student hostels in Phnom Penh. We were delighted to join in their prayers, to sing “Ubi caritas” with them during the intercession, and bring before God our hope for peace and justice in the world. After the Eucharist, two girls from the parish took us on a boat across the river to visit some of the families. What a warm welcome everywhere! We could not speak a lot, only few of them knew a little English, but there was always a smile, always a sign of joy. Among these poor people - who have to struggle each day for the basic necessities, through their fishing and their work in the rice fields -, we discovered something of what is written in the Letter from Chile: “Sometimes those who suffer poverty and deprivation are capable of a spontaneous joy in living, a joy that resists discouragement.” We certainly found new joy through our visit to this community.
A few days earlier, south of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, we had met around 50 young people who had came together for leadership training in Kampong Som. At the present time, the church in Cambodia, after experiencing so much suffering and persecution, is on its way to being reborn. And it is evident that these young people are the future. Each parish of the vicariate (diocese) had sent young people for this formation program. Some of them came from families who have been Christian for generations; others are just in the process of discovering faith. We had been invited to share a morning with them. Starting with a moment of prayer, with the Taizé songs sung in Khmer; then we continued with a bible reflection, a time of personal silence and then sharing in small groups. Each of the groups could choose one of the three themes of the Letter from Chile: “Joy, Compassion, and Forgiveness”. Before the noon prayer, some of the young people shared with all the others what they had discovered. We were happy to see how the desire for joy, the compassionate commitment for others and the longing to receive and to extend forgiveness is common to all of us.
A few days later some of the young people joined us for a prayer in the BTP parish in Phnom Penh. The parish youth and the choir were not at all sure how many people would come since this was the time when people in Cambodia celebrate the Khmer New Year. “Maybe only a few people will come, brother”, they warned us, so that we would not be disappointed. Nonetheless, they decide to prepare the church well, with icons, orange drapes, and a lot of candles. To everyone’s surprise many people came and in fact the church was full. The veneration of the cross continued for a long time and many were surprised by the great diversity of people taking part. Besides the young people and the young priests of the parish, there were also elderly members of the parish and sisters of religious congregations, as well as young people who have been preparing for three years for Baptism and will be baptised at Easter. There was also a small group with the pastor from the evangelical church, were regular prayers with songs from Taizé take place, a group of sick people from the nearby catholic home of St. Elisabeth, and the Bishop came as well.
Here in the noisy, busy capital, as in the village close to the river, we discovered afresh the truth of the words that people sing and pray all around the world: “Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.....” “Wherever there is Love and Charity, God is there.
A light of hope
2007: During the month of November, Brother Alois, accompanied by another brother, travelled in Asia, to visit the brothers living in Korea and to lead young adult meetings in several countries. As part of this journey, Brother Alois was determined to stop off in the country of Cambodia, where the Christians were heavily repressed during a dark period of recent history. The brothers were able to visit the country’s three dioceses, going first to Kompong Tom and from there to Kompong Cham, with the prayer at Phnom Penh as the last stage of the journey.
On November 29th, more than 600 young people were present at a prayer in the parish of Saint Joseph in Phnom Penh, during which the Prior of Taizé expressed his ‘great joy’ at coming to pray in the capital of Cambodia. Meditating on Christ’s words: “You are the light of the world” (John 8:12), Brother Alois was able to emphasize the hope produced by the rebirth of the Church in Cambodia: “Even though your Church is very small, its light shines as far as Taizé, our home in France.”
Calling to mind the darkness that was not able to overcome the light, Brother Alois thought of the discussions that he had had, of the stories of the past, of the visit to Tuol Sleng, the old Khmer Rouge prison. He also had in mind his visit to Tan Kok, which has become a place of pilgrimage. It was there that the body of Mgr Salas, the young Apostolic Vicar, was found close to a pagoda, dead from exhaustion. Throughout this visit, it was clear that the light had not been extinguished by all the suffering experienced.
Today, the two dimensions of prayer and solidarity are intimately linked in the life of the local Christian communities. In addition to the work of non-governmental organisations, there are a multitude of unobtrusive small initiatives that respond to immediate needs. At Kompong Tom, in premises attached to the parish, a young lay person co-ordinates aid for the disabled, many of whom are victims of land mines. This is very practical help which aims to give back independence to people with disabilities, by providing them with a wheelchair, or with the minimum needed to start a small shop.
At Ko Rokha, women with great family problems have been given a plot of land to cultivate, providing them with a small income and allowing them to rediscover the joy of working together – whilst they still retain such negative memories of collective work in the time of Pol Pot.
In Phnom Penh, the parish of Boeung Tampun has also decided to create a place of welcome which cares for sick people who have come from the provinces and are often very poor. Brother Alois stressed this link between prayer and solidarity in the life of Christians: “It is good to see how your parishes and communities are places of hope, places for prayer together and where solidarity with the poorest people is expressed.”
“Brother Alois’ visit has an important meaning for the Christians of Cambodia; it’s like a sign that they belong to the universal Church” said Sok - a young Cambodian from the team preparing the visit – in an interview with UCAN press. “In living through the heavy trials experienced by their country, the Christians of Cambodia have found, in prayer, the courage to persevere. This is a hope that shines far beyond the country’s frontiers, and comes to us from the trust that God is always present in our lives, as in the history of our country.”