At least once a year, Cambodian Catholics stop to commemorate those who gave their lives for faith in Christ and are “seeds and fathers” of today’s Cambodian faith community: more than 3,000 Catholics, accompanied by bishops, priests and religious from the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom-Penh, the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang and the Apostolic Prefecture of Kompong-Cham, participated in the celebration in honor of the victims of the civil war who gave testimony to Christ by giving their lives, held in recent days in Taing Kok, in the province of Kampong Thom, in central Cambodia.
“Every year the Church is called to celebrate this anniversary”, said Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Vicar Apostolic of Phnom Penh, during the Eucharistic celebrations which took place in the place where Bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas celebrated the Eucharist until his death, which took place in 1976. In 2015, the Cambodian Church officially opened the diocesan phase of the beatification process for Bishop Salas and 34 companions. The bishop and his companions who died between 1970 and 1977 during the persecution of the Church under the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, are from Cambodia, Vietnam and France and are priests, lay people, catechists and missionaries, including some members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). Father Paul Roeung Chatsirey, postulator of the cause of beatification and current National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Laos and Cambodia, recalled that several collaborators prepare the process, collect testimonies and evidence, and compile the documents to be presented to the Holy See.
Bishop Schmitthaeusler commemorated two sacred objects: the bed and a necklace with the cross, given to Joseph Chhmar Salas at his episcopal ordination on April 14, 1975, three days before the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime, passed on to his successors during the years and which is still worn today. After his death, his mother kept it and gave it to the late Bishop Emile Destombes for him to wear. In his address, the Vicar Apostolic invited the faithful to remember the words of Christ: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me”. (Jn 12:26).
Earthly life, he added, is “a time to give praise to God on earth” and “the testimony of the martyrs guides us along the way”. Speaking on the sidelines of the celebration, which was dedicated to those whom the local church hopes will soon be officially recognized as “Cambodian martyrs,” Huot Heang, a 69-year-old Catholic from Kampong Cham province, stressed that “the celebration of the commemoration day reminded by us of God’s call to be martyrs, certain that God is with us and always blesses us”.
Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler concludes by recalling that at the beginning of his missionary experience, when he began his pastoral ministry in Cambodia as a MEP priest, there was only one Catholic in the vicariate, while all the priests, women religious and missionaries had been killed or had to flee. “Today the situation is very different, the church is new, there are about 23,000 believers and several very young congregations, mostly founded by people who have only recently accepted the Christian faith. The Lord accompanies us and we always look hopeful into the future,” said the Vicar Apostolic on the growth of the Catholic community. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 22/6/2023)