Christmas: God's light makes man breathe
by Luca Bolelli
This Advent story from the mission in Kdol Leu looks at the service provided to young students who have left for the big city as well as at friendship with Buddhists and the discovery of the gift of faith. Fr Luca Bolelli, a PIME missionary, has been in Cambodia for the past six years. He has not brought a "foreign" faith to the Asian nation but a God who gives man immense value.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - The following is a letter Fr Luca Boleli recently sent to his friends around the world.

Stung Trong (Kdol Leu) - December 2013

Dearest friends,

Christmas is fast approaching and with it comes an opportunity to get in touch with one another and exchange our best wishes.

I hope you are all well. Thank you very much for the help and affection you have shown in so many ways to our mission in Kdol Leu, each one of you in a different way. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I am writing from our house in Stung Trong. I do not think I have ever mentioned it in my other letters, but I do now.

Stung Trong is the town on the other side of the river across from our village Kdol Leu. It is where people can take the ferry to cross the Mekong and come to us. Until a few years ago, when people travelled only by water, it was a market town of some importance in this area. Even now, it maintains its dignity. Partly because of the large rubber and fruit plantations that surround it, partly because of the high school that caters to several thousand students, the town remains in fact a point of reference in this part of Cambodia.

Here, wedged between a row of houses on the road that rises from the dock to the market, our mission in Kdol Leu has a small house. Long and narrow, the two-storey building is at a good distance from the school where our youth are studying. I must admit it is not an architectural gem, especially the outside iron staircase, which is sometimes as hot as a barbecue, or slippery wet during the monsoon.

Still, I call it home, but if it heard me it would be offended because it really should be a . . . student centre. I use the conditional tense because we are still far from our goal, but we are moving along and in any case it is already providing a valuable service.

Every day, about 30 students from our village have a foothold, a familiar place where they can study, grow and rest. Some return home after school; others are sleep here. Srey Phoan and Ta Phol work here as educators to accompany them.

Srey Phoan, 26, has recently obtained a degree in economics in Phnom Penh. She comes from a village near Kdol Leu. Three years ago, after a long journey that began when she was still a high school student right here in Stung Trong, she was baptised. Her parents are Buddhist but were not opposed to their daughter's choice. In fact, we are on good terms. Once I even went with her dad to meet the monks of the pagoda near their home.

She is a very sensitive young woman, and immediately got down to business with our students. One day I found out that she got up at four in the morning in order to teach English a group of them. I forbade her from doing so, telling her that "the night is for sleeping!" In my heart though, I really appreciate her dedication.

Ta Phol has instead been a Christian since he was in diapers, more than seventy years ago. Born in a part of Vietnam that used to belong to Cambodia, he married a young woman from our village who bore him four children.

Now a widower, he married off his youngest daughter, and last year he came to see me to offer his services. "I am old," he told me, "but if you need me, here I am." Hurrah for Providence! I was in fact just looking for someone who could live on a permanent basis at our new home in Stung Trong.

As a young man, Ta Phol spent several years in the Benedictine monastery that once existed in Cambodia before the war, but in the end decided not to take his vows. He retained a certain monastic penchant however, including prayer, work and few words. Every so often, I see him on roofs fixing the metal sheets, or down below fixing drainage pipes.

In fact, on Sundays, when Srey Phoan and the kids go to town, Ta Phol remains the only Catholic in all this vast district. His health does not always allow him to cross the river to attend Mass with us, but he comes it anyway, with his Cambodian breviary, his Vietnamese rosary, his French Bible . . . . What is more Catholic than that!

Then there are the students. Each of them is a separate world, and here too "some of those who have bread have no teeth;" students like Srey Phia who last night collected all her books and clothes, and got ready to leave. I managed to talk to her in time and she told me that she no longer had any "water in the heart" (my literal translation) to continue studying.

Her parents do not support her. Her siblings insist that it is better to work. At school, her achievements are not particularly great, and so going to Thailand to make some real money might be better. We talked, and eventually her heart found a bit of water to continue her studies.

She too is not from a Christian family. Her uncle is the chief monk at the nearby pagoda, but since childhood she has had a certain attraction for Jesus. One day she told me that "discovering that there is a Father in Heaven and that I am his daughter gives light to everything." At present, she is still searching, trying to understand. She is on a journey, and that is important.

A few weeks ago in Phnom Penh, I met by chance a young Italian who is touring Southeast Asia. As can happen in such cases, when others find out that you are a missionary, you feel more or less accused of bringing a foreign religion to the place, one that is certainly not better than others, and that you are not showing respect to the local culture. In short, you feel that you are certainly not doing any good to this people.

I understand these objections, and I welcome them as healthy provocations, but I must also admit that the longer I live in Cambodia, the stronger are my convictions that the Lord Jesus and his Gospel are instead a lot of good to those lucky enough to hear them.

The concept people have (or do not have) of God is reflected on their concept of man. The God that Jesus made ​​us know places on man, every man, an immense value. The Gospel makes a great difference in this. It is precisely this difference that is accompanying Ta Phol's life, Srey Phoan's work, Srey Phia's search for and the journey of our little house, which one day will become a centre where we hope many more young people will be able to breathe good air, the same found in the Bethlehem grotto: air full of God and man, embracing each other, like the little Babe.

Merry Christmas to everyone!


Father Luca