By the time the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979 and drove the Khmer Rouge remnants into the jungles, the Catholic Church as an organization had basically ceased to exist in the kingdom. The church buildings had been destroyed, public ceremonies were no more, and many of the former church members had melted into the general population, anxious to leave behind any associations with religion that would mark them for execution by the Khmer Rouge.
But there were still some small groups of Catholic faithful and they met to pray in secret during those terrible years of genocide. One group had the bishop’s cross of Bishop Salas — the first Cambodian bishop — who had died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. They kept the cross under a chicken coop and brought it out when they would gather to pray.
After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia went ten years without any Catholic clergy until Maryknoll Father Tom Dunleavy in 1989 became the first priest to re-enter the kingdom. Other mission groups were subsequently also able to return but rebuilding the church was a slow and painstaking process. There were few priests and they were ministering to “communities” of two or three people whom they would visit every few months.
Those early communities have now grown to 35-50 people, the average size of a parish in contemporary Cambodia.
Most of the church members today are very young. As little children in small and remote Buddhist villages, they were attracted to—and took part in—the processions and celebrations of their Catholic neighbors, and some of those Buddhist boys and girls went on to study the faith and be baptized.
The many young people give an excitement and vibrancy to the local churches today but it is hard to retain the youth once they get married.
It is the custom in Cambodia that the husband goes to live with the wife’s family. There are few Catholics in Cambodia and so usually a Catholic marries a Buddhist. If a Catholic husband goes to his Buddhist wife’s home, he may be far away from the church or house where the Catholics gather. Also, the bride’s family will expect him to go with them to the pagoda to celebrate the Buddhist festivals and holy days, and so gradually a Catholic husband ends up practicing Buddhism again.
Rebuilding the church is a slow process but it is an exciting challenge. With the destruction of the previous European-style church, the church today has a chance to recreate itself in a more appropriate model. The church is different also because it is so intentional. Almost no one is born into a Catholic family so the Cambodian People of God today are adults who have made a conscious decision to become part of the Catholic family. That is good but it also presents problems because they have so little experience and understanding of church life and history and tradition when they are considering joining the church. For that reason the Rite of Christian initiation for Adults (RCIA) in Cambodia is a full three-year program.
The modern Catholic Church in Cambodia is small in numbers and the parishes or pastoral centers are weak and inexperienced, but the seeds have been planted for regrowing the church into a healthy community of followers of Jesus.