By BISHOP GERALD F. KICANAS
In July I had an opportunity to take part in a trip to Southeast Asia including Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
As Chairman of the Catholic Relief Services Board I joined a CRS delegation that included Dr. Carolyn Woo, our new President and CEO, and Greg Auberry, the Regional Director for Southeast Asia.
It was a powerful and moving experience to see firsthand the great work being done by CRS in our name as Catholics in the United States. CRS works in 100 countries and is engaged in projects including peace-building, emergency relief, water, agriculture, education, HIV/AIDS, food, assisting children with disabilities, and other humanitarian efforts.
The highlights of our experiences:
CAMBODIA: PHNOM PENH
Cambodia, like much of Southeast Asia, is primarily Buddhist. Catholics are few in number but strong in faith. While in Phnom Penh we met with Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler who is the Vicar Apostolic in Phnom Penh. He is striving to build a Catholic University that will serve Catholics, Christians, and Buddhists. They now have 400 students and teach four subjects including English, Tourism, IT, and Agriculture. This initiative provides young people especially from rural areas with a future.
The country and its people still hold vivid memories of the Khmer Rouge and the torture and killings that took the lives of many in most Khmer families. Anyone considered intelligent was killed. If a person wore glasses or read books they were considered a threat and killed. Thousands died horrendous deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields are a striking remembrance of the suffering this nation has endured.
We met with Mother Teresa’s community in Phnom Penh who serve children with disabilities, many of whom have been abandoned by their families. One mother met one of the sisters on the street and offered her child to sister for $50. Sister refused and the mother said what about $25. “No money,” sister said, “We will take care of your child.” And what great care they provide.
CRS is funding efforts to make it possible for children with disabilities to attend school. These families live in primitive conditions in rural areas and want a future for their children but until CRS became involved these children with disabilities could not access school. CRS has worked with teachers and students to help them to accept and value children with disabilities.
We met with two families, one whose daughter is blind. She is bright and was third in her class but because of her blindness was not able to get to school regularly so she fell to fifth. CRS helped her to get to school more regularly and she is thriving. Another family has a son who is dwarfed. This condition affects many children in Cambodia because of a lack of nutrition. The boy was made fun of by children for not being able to go to school. CRS got him a bicycle which makes it possible to get to school. Now he has lots of friends. His parents are so pleased.
We visited the Maryknoll sisters who care for children with AIDS. They inherited this debilitating illness from their mothers. The sisters have raised these children from the time they were babies. Now they are teen agers and the sisters continue to care for them. These young people are very talented. They have great hopes for their future. One wants to be an architect, another an engineer, another a teacher. Seedling of Hope the name of the Maryknoll Center makes hope possible for these young people with many talents. While there, the young girls and boys with HIV performed a beautiful native dance with great style and grace.
This country only recently experienced some opening up and granting of freedoms. They have always had freedom of worship but limited freedom to practice their faith. I was impressed by the strength of the faith in Myanmar. The Cathedral Church, a beautiful white and red brick building, recently celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. The faith is deep in the society.
We met with the bishops from across the country and they shared some of their hopes and challenges. The area is prone to natural disasters. Livelihood and education are big issues. There is still fighting along the borders since Myanmar borders two powerful neighbors, China and India.
Vocations to the priesthood are flourishing. We visited the seminary in Yangon where there are 140 seminarians for a country of only 750,000 Catholics. We were welcomed at the seminary by a seminarian band that escorted us into church.
We visited one of the villages which is only accessible by boat. The whole town came out to meet our small boat when it arrived. The children presented us with flowers and welcomed us into their community.
We met with a group of women who are part of a micro financing group that is learning how to save and loan money. They call themselves the Blooming Flowers and have raised about $1,000 which they now loan out to neighbors building their pool of resources.
They have an interfaith group that meets regularly. Most people are Buddhist, the next largest group would be Baptists followed by the Catholics. They share together and attend funerals and marriages of people of other faiths. It was amazing to see how well they work together. We ended the session by each group leading us in a prayer. The Buddhists sang a mantra, the Baptist a guitar hymn and the Catholics recited the Lord’s prayer.
The church runs boarding schools for children whose families cannot afford to care for them. The children board there and are helped in their studies. We had an interesting experience of being detained at the Boarding School because the government did not know we were going to stop there. After an hour waiting for our passports to be reviewed, we were told we could go.
PHILIPPINES: Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao
The Philippines are very Catholic. Fr. Miguel Mariano, pastor of St. Joseph, was in the Philippines visiting family so he joined us for this part of the trip.
Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao was devastated by Typhoon Sendong which killed many people and left countless numbers homeless. CRS is working with the Church and the Government to provide temporary housing for people who were living in tents or homeless. We visited the families who moved into these temporary shelters. They met us singing and waving US and Filipino flags, very proud of their new homes. Their smiles and joy told it all.
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ Archbishop of Cagayan de Oro, has been a major voice for the poor and those who suffered most from the typhoon.
CRS is building shelters on church property, government property, and land given by individuals. It was encouraging to see how the families take ownership for these houses. They plant plants, put up curtains, shelves for their sandals.
Mindanao has great inequities as does all the Philippines. Forty-five percent of the people live on less than $2 a day.
CRS is involved with peacebuilding in an area that is ravished by divisions and violence especially between Moslems and Buddhists.
We visited with Caritas Hong Kong which is the largest Catholic Charities in the world. They are accomplishing much good serving children with disabilities, the elderly, people with HIV. They have programs on the mainland of China assisting people in need.
When we are faced with the power of evil as happened in the slaughter of innocent people in Aurora, Colorado, it is encouraging to remember that much good is also happening in our world for which we can all be very grateful. It moves us to want to do more to be of help to others.