Geoffrey Kirk shares the sacrament with fellow Christians of another land
We had supposed that there would be an imposing colonial cathedral, all white painted tropical gothic, in a main square not far from the Royal Place and Perrault’s imposing central market. But not so. It was in fact, in post-Communist Phnom Phen, hard to uncover a Catholic Mass at all. Our guide, a charming student of economics who had learned her English from the BBC World Service, was puzzled. Were there Catholics in Cambodia, she asked. We assured her that there were and that finding a place to attend Sunday Mass was high on the list of our priorities.
Two days later she returned full of smiles. Yes, indeed, there was a Mass every Sunday in a remote part of the city. It was beside a new bridge over the Mekong. Any taxi driver would find it for us.
Not so easy! Everyone knew the bridge; no one knew the church. But perseverance found it: not a church as we had imagined, but a convent and school down a dusty side track of the main road. We arrived early. The place was deserted and the tiny convent chapel unoccupied apart from a lonely nun saying her prayers.
Then they stared to arrive. First a small coach full of overheated, overweight
German tourists. Like us they stood around aimlessly in the compound wondering what to do. Then others began to come: crammed onto the backs of pickup trucks, clinging in precarious Khmer fashion to the sides and backs of motor scooters. We followed them up some unprepossessing concrete stairs into a spacious, low-ceilinged sports hall.
At one end was a low table – the altar – and beside it, on a pedestal, a beautiful model of a traditional Khmer house – the tabernacle. An embroidered hanging with a Bible text in Khmer hung on the ‘east’ wall. The only other religious symbols
were a battered crucifix about eight feet tall and a statue of Our Lady dressed as a Khmer woman.
Chairs were courteously found for the Germans (who would never have got up from the cross-legged position on woven matting, which was the posture of all other worshippers, including ourselves). A small choir of young people assembled by a group of unfamiliar instruments.
At first the hall seemed eerily empty; but by 10 a.m. it was full. About five hundred people, of every age and class, had assembled for the Sunday Mass. The choir and small orchestra began an introit song, and the sacred ministers entered – three French priests, all over 75, preceded by servers (men and women) in traditional Khmer costume, all in white. Like the
congregation the priests sat cross-legged behind the altar; the Mass began.
Perhaps it was the music which was most engaging – the ordinary of the Mass, as I later discovered, set to haunting traditional Khmer melodies by a young professor of music at the local university. But the liturgy too was performed with great reverence. At the offertory a young girl presented a copper bowl full of sand full of joss-sticks and placed it before the altar.
The gifts of bread and wine were accompanied by flowers floating in low brass bowls of water. Holy Communion was administered by the priests and lay ministers at different points in the hall. At the same time a crowd of children gathered before the Madonna to light candles
and incense, shepherded by two old nuns reciting the rosary.
We left the Hall with a sense of real reverence and inner peace. Eventually one of the priests emerged. ‘Do you speak English, Father?’ I asked. ‘Non, et maintenant seulement un peu de Francais. Je parle Khmer.’ He told the truth. In a halting conversation I was able to establish that he had been in Cambodia since 1948, that he had last returned to France in 1952, that he had been hidden by the faithful during the whole of the Pol Pot regime, and was now astonished to find himself the pastor of a lively congregation.
As we parted I thanked God, our guide and the patient taxi driver for an encounter which had deepened my faith.