Two events in the past weeks gave me pause for reflection. The first was the death of Bishop Yves Ramousse who was bishop in Cambodia when I arrived here. The second was the canceling of all weekend masses — again — in Phnom Penh.
Bishop Ramousse was a member of the Paris Foreign Missions — France’s equivalent to Maryknoll. Made a bishop in 1963, he was one of the youngest prelates at Vatican II and returned from the council full of energy and ideas to build up the church in the former French colony of Cambodia.
But then civil war erupted in the kingdom, and the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Communist, ultra-nationalist group arose. Bishop Ramousse and several priests chose to stay with the people but the situation deteriorated. As the foreigners began to be executed or expelled, he ordained a Cambodian priest — while rockets roared overhead — as bishop to be his replacement and to keep the church alive when he was finally expelled to Thailand.
Before the Khmer Rouge, there were 65,000 Catholics in Cambodia. Most of them were Vietnamese immigrants who fled to their native country at the approach of the Khmer Rouge army. Only 7,000 Catholics were then left in Cambodia and most of them were executed or disappeared in the ensuing genocide.
The church in Cambodia was founded 450 years ago by European missionaries. And the church looked European. The cathedral and other church buildings would not have been out of place in Paris. But all of that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Only two church buildings survived the four years of their rule.
The Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979 but there were no Catholic clergy in the country for the next 10 years. Then in 1989 Maryknoll Father Tom Dunleavy and Bishop Ramousse came back unofficially. Cambodian people were forbidden to speak to foreigners but the bishop would walk the streets. Then a passerby strolling by him would whisper the name of a restaurant and a day and time, and Bishop Ramousse would quietly meet small groups of Christians to begin rebuilding the church.
It was a different church. No longer public Masses on Sundays and holy days. No longer festivals and parish events. Now the survivors were traumatized. All of them had lost everything — their fathers and mothers, their children, their brothers and sisters, their grandparents. They no longer had land or homes. They didn’t even have a functioning country because the Khmer Rouge had outlawed money, destroyed all records, executed the civil servants, moved everyone out of the cities onto the farms.
It was a time to relook at what church meant. Now was not the time for catechism classes and First Communions. The church needed to be with the people to support and encourage the monumental task of recovery. There was need for a “new normal.”
The second event I mentioned, canceling our Masses again for two or three weekends, made me think of another “new normal.” The church here in Cambodia — maybe the church around the world — is not going to be like it was before COVID-19.
As after the Khmer Rouge, we’re not going to have the numbers we had before. The routines and programs and structures we had before the pandemic may not fit anymore, and we may need to discern what is to be the new normal.
I find that exciting, an opportunity to look at what church really means, to discover the difference between attendance and presence. Maybe we can learn — really learn and practice — what it means to be present to God, present to each other and present to the people who need the Good News.
Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and also pastor of the English-speaking parish there.