We met Bishop Olivier, the Apostolic Vicar for Phnom Penh and one of three bishop Vicars Apostolic for the whole of Cambodia. He rattled off a lot of statistics that emphasized the missionary character of this country. There are just 70 secular priests, of which only five are native Cambodians. There are now five Cambodian seminarians beginning studies this year. There are a further 115 missionary priests (drawn from 13 different nationalities). There are eight missionary institutes, 27 women's religious orders, eight lay missionary societies and just three men's religious congregations; the Jesuits, Maryknoll and the Salesians. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the Cathedral in Phnom Penh in 1975. There are just 20,000 Catholics in the country, 80% of whom are Vietnamese. The country has just celebrated twenty years of a new accord with Rome. The Nuncio is in Bangkok and he is a helpful Korean.
The Bishop is undoubtedly energetic and working hard at Interfaith Relations with the Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems. It was an hour well spent and the Church seems to be doing well in introducing Catholic Social Teaching in ways that are acceptable to non-Christians. The Bishop raced away after an hour to meet one of the two Buddhist Patriarchs and then to have a day with the Maryknoll community.
In the afternoon we met with His Excellency Say Sam Al, the Minister for the Environment, which took place in his ministry. The Minister was a young man and newly elected to parliament. He had been an ecologist and found himself catapulted into office after the election. He was informed and informative. He pulled no punches about the difficulties of looking after the environment when the economy had to grow and there is easy money to be made in concessions for deforestation and mining. He freely admitted the ongoing scandal of corruption and bribery. He seemed to be enjoying the battle with other ministers in claiming the importance of the environment. That hour passed very quickly and was really interesting and full of realistic hope.
The final meeting of the day was with Catholic NGOs working in Cambodia. We went to the offices of Caritas Cambodia and I found myself chairing a meeting with no agenda and tried to engineer a discussion about the networking of work which would avoid duplication, save resources and best serve the priorities.
In the evening, I was host at a reception for CAFOD partners. It was a good opportunity to meet people and the compliments about CAFOD were impressive. I spoke about Pope Francis and his vision of the Church as 'a field hospital after a battle' and the call for us all to be 'Missionary Disciples'. That seemed to go down well and Francis is much appreciated here.
Mr Mam Sambath (from DPA) was there and we spoke about the time of the Khmer Rouge. He was just 12 when the Khmer Rouge began its revolution. His family were separated and he was taken to a young people's camp in the country. He said that he worked between twelve and sixteen hours a day, every day, for the 'agricultural revolution'. The boys slept in the open with no blankets, they never had soap to wash and that led to everyone having lice and various skin infections. They were beaten regularly and lived mainly in enforced silence. Their only food was two cups of rice porridge a day. He, his parents and a sister survived but he lost a brother-in-law whom the Khmer Rouge selected for "military school" which was a euphemism for sending a person to death. Mam began his account quietly but he was clearly emotional by the end and we had to steer him gently back to kinder subjects of conversation (I was reminded of the accounts I had heard from Rwandans of their experiences during the genocide. It is a world that has engulfed many millions, even in our generation, and I have been shielded from it all).
Tomorrow I fly to Siem Reap which is the ancient capital of Cambodia and the Khmer Empire, and the home to the Anghor Wat Temple and the temple area. I hope to at least glimpse the temples in passing as we visit partners with the Jesuit Refugee Service.