Adult Conversions in Cambodia

2024: Holy Year of Prayer

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

To better fulfill the plans of this Holy Year, the year of the Lord’s mercy, we must reserve a good amount of time for prayer. Prayer is the basis of all things, the basis of conversion, the basis of our call through listening to the Word of God, the basis of all activities of the Christian community.

Responsible for an ecclesiastical reality made up of several small communities, Dom Olivier Schmitthaeusler (MEP), Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, remembers that silence is the first basic principle of prayer and took the opportunity to invite each of his parishioners to meet monthly, for “a special prayer for vocations, with all the faithful”, and, weekly, to do a Lectio Divina, an exercise in personal listening to the Word of God based on four steps: Reading, Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation, to enrich the spiritual life. As Cardinal José Tolentino Mendonça writes in his Eulogy of Thirst: “It is not easy to recognize that one is thirsty. Because thirst is a pain that is discovered little by little within us… The worst thing for a believer is to be satiated with God.”

Prayer begins in the family and – taking up the words of Dom Olivier Schmitthaeusler – “the whole family should set aside time to pray at home at least once a week, spending 10 to 15 minutes together in silence”. He also advises every Christian, on an individual level, to attend Mass at least once a week, and always on Sundays, in order to “go directly to the source of God’s grace”.

May 2024 be the year to pray to God the Father, just as Jesus praised Him at all times. May 2024 be the year to look to the Virgin Mary and connect with her broad heart. “The year 2024 must be a moment for us of conversion and belief in the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed more than 2,000 years ago,” emphasizes the chief prelate of Cambodia.

His message was particularly well received by young people from the nine pastoral districts of the Vicariate of Phnom Penh, who were invited to spend time with Jesus in order to “discern and understand” God’s call on their lives. “To discover the presence of Jesus in daily life and remain connected to Him,” explained the bishop in a meeting with more than 100 young people from the region, “it is necessary to believe that He lives in our hearts; look around with the eyes of faith; look at your own life with gratitude; communicate with the Lord throughout the day through short prayers; set aside time in the morning and evening for meditation and contemplation; broaden the vision of the world’s needs; so that we know by faith that Jesus is our daily companion.”

The Holy Year of Prayer will therefore also be a “year of vocation”, in the hope that young Cambodians will hear God’s call with regard to the priesthood or consecrated life. There are – until we see – good reasons to believe that this will be the case. In 2023, three young Cambodians were ordained diocesan priests in the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh, one of them being the first indigenous Jesuit priest. Currently, the Catholic Church of Cambodia has a total of 14 local priests, in addition to around 100 foreign missionaries, who work throughout the country divided into three ecclesiastical districts (one vicariate and two apostolic prefectures) and which, among its 17 million inhabitants, hosts a total of around 20,000 Catholics.

Adult baptism (increasingly common) represents a huge sign of hope. At the most recent Easter Vigil, 185 catechumens of the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh received baptism, along with the other sacraments of “Christian initiation” (confirmation and Eucharist). According to Dom Olivier Schmitthaeusler, the catechumens come from a dozen districts in the territory of Phnom Penh and have completed “an itinerary of knowledge, deepening and discernment about the Christian faith”. The fact that they are young adults is an added value for the community, in the opinion of Bishop Schmitthaeusler who, in the preparation meetings held during the Lenten season, highlighted three essential aspects of being a Christian in daily life: “pray, love and serve” .

Bishop Schmitthaeusler invited young people to “pray like Jesus, both in difficulties and in joy” and to “pray like Mary”. It is important – he continued – to always keep our relationship with God and the community alive, also placing ourselves at the service of pastoral needs, with the spirit of being “loving servants” of the community. The image that the bishop proposed to the young catechumens was taken from Saint Paul’s letters, describing them as “living stones” of the Church “by living in our community with a spirit of compassion, in prayer and service”.

During the “electoral” rite, the Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh called each of the candidates by name before the altar, inviting them to register their names in the diocesan register, imposing his hand on them. During the rite, all candidates also received a purple scarf, as a sign of preparation for baptism, which they must wear whenever they go to church.

In 2023, the Cambodian Church baptized a total of 397 young people during the Easter Vigil (167 in Battambang Apostolic Prefecture, 126 in Kampong Cham Prefecture, 104 adults in Phnom Penh). The constant presence of young and adult catechumens, concluded the Vicar, is a sign that “God’s work bears fruit in the Cambodian Church, which is alive and continually growing”.