By Robin Gomes
"Our heart is turned and entrusted to Our Lady of Smiles, amid the rice fields of Cambodia,” amid the emergency to curb the coronavirus infection, said Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Apostolic Vicar of Phnom Penh, the capital.
As of Tuesday, Cambodia had a total of 122 reported cases of the infection with 110 recoveries and no deaths.
However, the government has taken aggressive action against the spread of the disease, closing down and restricting several sectors in stages since March 7. Religious gatherings and public activities have been banned by the Ministry of Health and schools have been closed until further notice.
"The Catholic Church in this context has tried to organize itself creatively and proactively. All the gatherings in our communities: masses, common prayers, meetings, seminars are suspended and all our schools are closed, but the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh has been very active in trying to continue pastoral service", Bishop Schmitthaeusler told the Vatican’s Fides news agency.
The bishop established a special "Covid-19 task force" on March 19 with representatives from the various sectors of the Apostolic Vicariate.
On Sunday, Catholics began celebrating Mass and daily rosary streamed live on Facebook and YouTube. The vicariate’s social communications service is open 24 hours a day to allow the faithful to come in communion with their community since no more than 4 persons can physically come together for church services.
Shepherds among their sheep
The apostolic vicar has asked every priest to live in a community of the vicariate to celebrate the sacraments, certainly without the faithful, saying this presence is precious and is a sign of concrete closeness to the people of the villages.
Bishop Schmitthaeusler himself does not live in the bishop’s house but has temporarily moved to the parish of Our Lady of Smiles, 90 kilometres from Phnom Penh, where he was parish priest earlier for 10 years.
The parish is home to the largest Cambodian community in the Apostolic Vicariate, as well as a large part of the education and development programmes.
“I celebrated the Paschal Triduum which was broadcast with whatever facilities were available in the middle of the rice fields,” the bishop proudly recounts.
The schools of the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh have also set up online courses for students from primary to high school. St. Paul’s Institute is also planning to start a complete distance education programme for students. Online training has also been set up for kindergarten teachers, the bishop said.
Catholic charity amid Covid-19
The Church’s charity is also very active, says the bishop. Its charity and development "Alliance", made up of Catholic charities, religious congregations, offices and bodies working especially in healthcare, Catholic education and social service sectors, the bishop says, is very active and is preparing for the post-covid 19 era.
“We are distributing food, soap and face masks for the needy,” Bishop Schmitthaeusler says, adding, the Covid-19 will leave lasting effects on the most vulnerable. There will be people without jobs, soaring debts and closed businesses. “In the name of the risen Jesus Christ,” he says, the Church’s social services and charities will be able to serve the needy.
70 catechumens were scheduled to receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil Mass but could not because of the coronavirus emergency. “May they remain strong in faith in this time of trial,” the bishop prayed, hoping they will be able to receive it sacrament in the joy of the Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.
Cambodia has some 20,000 Catholics, forming just 0.13% of its some 16 million population that is about 97% Buddhist. There are no dioceses but three ecclesiastical jurisdictions – the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh and the Apostolic Prefectures of Battambang and Kompong Cham. (Source: Fides)