Living Mission – Cambodian parishes influenced by local culture

Mass in Cambodia (Photos Special to The Record by Father Charles Dittmeier)
Father Charles Dittmeier

It might be assumed that parishes around the world are basically similar — and in the most general sense they are. They have a congregation, a spiritual leader for the community and a place to gather and pray. Beyond those generalities though, there are many differences in culture, architecture, style, music, environment and sense of the sacred. Many of these differences are on display in Cambodian parishes.

The average congregation in a Cambodian parish (called a “pastoral center” here) is 15-50 people. Many of these communities began with a handful of people meeting on Sundays in a large house, perhaps the home of one of the members, or a house the church rented for that purpose.

Gradually, as the community continued and grew, a small church was erected, a permanent sign of the presence of God’s people in the village or commune (a group of villages). Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, Bishop of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has been very energetic in building these small churches around the vicariate (the name of a diocese in a mission country.)

Each of these communities have just one liturgy per weekend, with the local priest traveling to several communities each Saturday and Sunday.

If there is a Saturday evening Mass, usually it is because of scheduling, to allow the priest to reach more pastoral centers on one weekend. If a church has a Saturday Mass, it might not have a Sunday Mass.

Inside these churches there are no pews or chairs, and shoes are not worn. The people sit on mats spread throughout the room. The sanctuary is a low platform about eight inches high with an altar about 18 inches high. The priest sits on the floor behind the altar. For better visibility, the priest may sometimes sit on a small stool behind the altar. This reflects the Buddhist culture and the way the pagodas are arranged.

For Catholic converts coming from Buddhism, this arrangement establishes for them a sense of the holy that they have grown up with.

Because there is no air conditioning and because sitting on the floor in a full set of vestments is quite awkward, often the priest wears only an alb and a stole. There is also very little movement by the priest or the congregation. There may be a procession into the church at the beginning. Though, those can be awkward when the people in procession each pause to kick off their sandals at the door, leaving a pile of footwear right in the middle of the entranceway.

After the procession, the only time anyone moves from the sitting position is for the distribution of Communion. The priest proclaims the Gospel and preaches from his seated position behind the altar.

The Buddhist culture is evident in other ways also. The churches are generally decorated with only a crucifix and a few statues made from Cambodian luxury woods — a resource that is the pride of the country — with the figures carved with Khmer features and in traditional Khmer dress. The music is culturally adapted also. Cambodia has ten or so traditional rhythmic melodies that are used throughout society, at weddings, funerals and other celebrations, even at political rallies. These same melodies are used as the setting for the psalm response to the first reading and other parts of the Mass.

Cambodian parishes are Catholic but they often have a quite different feel about them.

The Record
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