Some months ago, the Lord, acting through the bishops, bestowed upon me a very great honour: that of being responsible for catechesis in Cambodia. Even before I entered the seminary, I have always wanted to lead a catechism group for children or young people. My mother was herself a catechist for many years. I think this is one of the essential roles of every Christian, and even more so for priests. Passing on the catechism is not just transmitting a set body of doctrines and truths, it is also giving everyone the opportunity to discover and love Christ, and to follow him. All of this together with a Christian community, the liturgy and the sacraments. What a great responsibility but also what a deep joy to awaken people to faith! Pope Benedict XVI used to say that the greatest humanitarian service that one can render to anyone is not just to give them something to eat, but even more to make them know Christ.
The ministry of catechesis
Catechesis has always existed, right from the beginnings of the Church. You can see this just by rereading the Acts of the Apostles where we see catechumens assiduously teaching the Apostles (Acts 2). Even before this, the gospel of St. Matthew was called the gospel of the catechist, and that of St. Mark, the gospel of the catechumen. The Church Fathers, illustrious founders of Christianity, always paid great attention to it, either by teaching themselves or by writing numerous books on the subject. Great names such as Justin, Origen, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saints John Chrysostom, Ambrose or Augustine remain models for us to this day.
Didn’t Saint Cyril of Jerusalem used to say that it was enough for those who could not read the Bible, whether through lack of time or education, to study the Apostles’ Creed in order to know the essence of the Christian faith? In addition, the ministry of catechesis draws ever new energies from the councils, in particular that of Trent (16th century), which ‘constitutes a work of the first order as a summary of Christian doctrine... It gave rise to a remarkable organization of catechesis in the Church. It encouraged the clergy in their duty of providing catechetical instruction. Thanks to the work of holy theologians… it led to the publication of catechisms that were real models for that period’. (Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II on catechesis, Catechesi Tradendae).
Here in Cambodia, I was able to discover pastoral care of the catechumenate for adults, with its different stages and specific rites. It is always moving, thanks be to God, to cultivate the minds and hearts of adult men and women, who are willing to be touched and transformed. I am also aware of the primary importance of the catechist. In many ways, this person takes the place of the priest, who is sometimes away, may not have a good command of the language or does not understand the local culture and religion very well. Our catechists are not professionals; mostly they are Christian volunteers who have sometimes had some training provided by their diocese but who, in many cases, simply share their faith from personal experience. Of course, their teaching may leave something to be desired, or can be tinged with Buddhism, but it is difficult for us to set up schools for professional catechists, the lack of availability of catechists being the main reason.
The work of Father Ponchaud
I have a small team that helps me with this great task that has recently been given to me. In fact, we are not starting from scratch. The service has been around for many years. In this context, we should mention the remarkable work of Father Ponchaud, both as regards the catechumenate for adults and in terms of dialogue with Buddhists. However, it is time to overhaul the entire system, particularly with the emergence of digital media which offer a great opportunity to teach many lessons online. We started by choosing a patron saint: Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who died a martyr in AD177, author of, among other writings, a remarkable treatise, Adversus Haereses, in which he defends Christian doctrine against heretical sects, while also striving to maintain the unity of the Church. Then, thanks in particular to a young MEP volunteer, we created a three-part website: the Bible, the liturgy, and catechesis, in which we promote our products (books, DVDs, CDs, official documents, videos, etc.), and all of course linked to social media (Facebook and YouTube). For example, we are making videos of the lives of the saints as well as Christian testimonies, and we are starting on educational videos for catechists, as well as theological teachings. We then plan to organize sessions for catechists across the country.
The challenge of evangelization
However, we are faced with many questions: how can we truly proclaim the Gospel here in Cambodia, in a country where over 95% of the population are Buddhists? How can we initiate and pursue a dialogue with all our Protestant brothers, who are much more numerous than we are, and are themselves so divided? Also, how can we unify our efforts in our different dioceses? And how can we create a true catechist ministry, well established and recognized by all? All of these questions are in fact real challenges, of course not just for our small team, but for the whole Church present here in Cambodia. May the Lord enlighten us with his Spirit to help us bring his Kingdom here too!
Fr François Hemelsdaël, MEP