Catholic Church in Laos and Cambodia to focus on young people and new technologies

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

A few days before the start of the Continental Assembly of the Synod which took place in Bangkok from February 24 to 26, the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia (CELAC), gathered in Phnom Penh for their annual assembly, reiterating their priority in announcing the Gospel among the most disadvantaged, in order to be able to create “prospects of hope” among those who “our societies leave on the side of the road”.

An expressed will that is still significant. Especially if applied in those two countries where the Catholic community is residual. There are approximately 45,000 members of the Roman Catholic Church in Laos (many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese), concentrated in the main urban centers along the Mekong River, in the center and south of the country. That is, 0.5% of the population. In Cambodia, there are only about 20,000 Catholics; 0.1% of the total population. There are no dioceses; on the other hand, an Apostolic Vicariate and two Apostolic Prefectures remain active. At a time when families are having fewer and fewer children and newly-baptized people are often marrying non-Christians, the churches in Laos and Cambodia are paying special attention to training local clergy.

Laos has only twenty Laotian priests; Cambodia, a few dozen Khmers. “How can we captivate our young people so that, through the priesthood, they can better serve their communities?” a Khmer parish priest asked the Vatican News reporter, recalling his commitment to seminarians, “because only they can ensure the future of the local Churches”.

The pertinent question arose in the context of the priestly ordination of the first young man of the Phnong ethnic group, an event marked by a procession accompanied by traditional music and dances of that Cambodian ethnic group. With the presence of 52 priests from the three dioceses of the country, the Eucharistic celebration was presided over by Archbishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh.

The prelate, a native of Strasbourg, evoked in his homily the characteristics that priestly life must have: “being ‘alter Christus’ (being another Christ on earth), participating in the family of other priests, hearing and proclaiming the Gospel, having a life of prayer, administering the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation and, finally, giving his life, as Jesus Christ did”. The priestly ordination took place in the Church of St. John the Baptist, in the community of Busra, in northeastern Cambodia, an area inhabited mainly by the Phnong ethnic minority.

Key Facts

  • The Catholic community in Laos and Cambodia is very small, with only 0.5% and 0.1% of the population respectively.
  • The churches in these countries are paying special attention to training local clergy, as they believe that only they can ensure the future of the local churches.
  • The Catholic community in Cambodia was decimated during the regime of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, but has since resumed its activities.
  • The bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia are focused on captivating young people, who represent more than 50% of the population in their countries, and accompanying them closely on the path of holiness.

The local Catholic community originates from 15 families of this ethnic group who, during the civil war, fled to Vietnam and there converted from animism to Catholicism. After peace was established, they returned. Today, the parish of Busra has more than 300 Catholics, mostly peasants. Christianity in Cambodia emerged and flourished from 1555 onwards, thanks to the intense activity of several Portuguese missionaries, including the famous Franciscan Gaspar da Cruz. However, the ferocious regime of Pol Pot, from 1975 to 1979, would decimate what was already a considerable and reputable community, both in terms of infrastructure and human resources. All bishops, priests, lay people and a large number of faithful were killed and foreign missionaries expelled from the country.

After the war, the Catholics resumed their activities; but it was only in 2001 that the first four local priests would be ordained. In addition to the lack of local cadre, the Churches in Cambodia and Laos also face language difficulties. In Cambodia, for example, 90% of the personnel doing pastoral work are foreigners and, in general, there is no capacity to translate texts into Khmer or Lao as most lay people do not master any foreign language.

In their annual assembly, the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia, aware of the role of social networks that “shape us with algorithms and guide us unconsciously every day”, called attention to the importance of captivating young people, as they represent more than 50% of the population of their countries. They are young people who grew up in the countryside and very fast arrived in the cities, finding themselves there catapulted into a post-modern and ultra-developed culture, inevitably coming into contact with realities that strongly influenced “their human, cultural and spiritual development”.

It is therefore urgent to accompany these young people closely so that they can “develop their potential on the path of holiness”. They are the ones who are often left aside when they should be protagonists in the life of the Churches. Taking into account the fact that young Asians are at the forefront of the use of new means of social communication, the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Laos and Cambodia decided that “the proclamation of the Gospel in new cultures and in the virtual world” would be one of the topics to be addressed at the Synod’s Continental Assembly in Bangkok.

Another subject they focused on was the relationship between the Catholic Church and Asian spiritual traditions, in particular those of the Buddhist world, largely in the majority in their countries. They remind us that “spiritual teachings and meditative practices can help us to better reorient what is essential: our union with God made man in Jesus Christ”, in order to fully live “a personal relationship with God”, the source of every missionary experience.